When I first moved to Rwanda, one of the things I had to adjust to was kissing on the cheek as a way of greeting. I am definitely a hugger, but the double kiss (or is it triple?), was something new to me. I am big believer of adapting to the culture you live in as much as possible, so when in Rwanda, you do like the Rwandans do. It was months later that I realized that the normalcy of kissing as a greeting does not translate to public displays of affection (“PDA”). Earlier this year, an ad featuring two beauty queens simultaneously kissing a popular singer on his cheeks was banned in Rwanda, because it was too risqué.
When I discussed the ban with Rwandan friend s and students, they were split on the issue. Some said banning the ad made no sense as many more indecent activities are allowed in local music videos, and are exemplified by the way young women dress. They thought it was silly to take the ad down, when the beauty queens in the ad won their crowns partially by parading in bikinis during their competitions. Many of the men argued that this ad was demeaning to women, and a few insinuated that the ad made the women look like prostitutes. Most rightfully blamed the company behind the ad for not doing better research before starting the campaign, as what is appropriate in other countries is not necessarily appropriate here. The issue of the meaning of a kiss in Rwanda resurfaced as I was discussing the book Akata Witch in my book club last week. There is a scene in the book where two Nigerian teens catch two of their peers kissing. As we were discussing that scene in the book, the following conversation ensued (after the students were done giggling of course): Me: What’s happening between Chichi and Sasha? Student 1: They’re in love! Me: They’re in love? So because you’re kissing someone you’re in love? Student 2: In Africa, yes. Rwandans don’t kiss unless they have declared themselves. They only do it once a month. It’s like a monthly salary. Student 3: Yes, it’s like a monthly salary! [Student 2 went on to explain that “declaring yourself” means formally establishing that you’re in an exclusive relationship] Me: What about Kenya? Student 2: Kenya is kisses. You kiss them before you even declare yourself. Even if you don’t love someone, if there’s an opportunity to kiss them, you just kiss them. Me: LOL!
Years ago, I came across a video short entitled How Do Africans Kiss? I thought it was a strange question to ask. Doesn’t everyone kiss, even if only to produce children? And why ask about “Africans” as if there aren’t 54 different countries that could produce entirely different responses to this question? Would anyone ever ask, “How Do Europeans Kiss?” The answers in the video suggest that kissing your partner, especially in public, was not considered to be a very African practice, and younger Africans who do so now, have been influenced by Western ideals. At the end of the video, one respondent says, “Love is not just tongue in the mouth. It’s deeper than that to me.” As I reflected on the book club conversation, and the video, I wondered if we couldn’t learn something from the non-kissers. Many times the things that Western countries have, that developing countries don’t, are viewed as hallmarks of progression. The West is capitalist, so we should be too. The West is focused on ICT development, so our focus on agriculture is wrong. PDA is normal in the West, so those who do not engage in PDA must be emotionally stunted. But what we could learn from those who know are in love, but have never seen kiss? What about the elders in our family who it seems rarely did anything more than holding hands, and surely reproduced through immaculate conception, but managed to make it through decades of marriage, seemingly content?
Our generation seems to have mastered the art of kissing, and the science of sex, but the general consensus seems to be that we can’t figure out love and commitment. I’ve heard the answers to How Do Africans Kiss? but now I’m interested in hearing how these non-kissers show compassion. In a world where we are bombarded and assaulted with physical expressions of lust, and where relationships end quicker than your unrefrigerated box of milk will spoil, perhaps there is some value to learning more about additional ways to express romantic interest. Romance takes different shapes and forms. For some it’s a spouse who will rub their feet after a hard days work. For others it’s a partner who will run the errands that would otherwise go undone. Love can take the form of a husband who supports his wife’s professional endeavours, or a wife who stops to pray with her husband before they leave for work. Many of us women are tired of men who approach us as if they are entitled to our bodies. So yes, kissing is awesome, and normal, and great for your health. But when that’s all said and done how else can you show your love?
I'm a Jamaican woman living in Rwanda. I believe we should all get free or die trying. I find freedom in words.