Noheli Nziza

We hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas/Solstice/Hanukah/holiday season! Christmas in Kigali definitely looks a lot different but we tried our best to make it special regardless of the changes. I do miss the excitement of the first snow but don’t miss the freezing weather one bit. The rainy season has ended in Rwanda so it’s heating up and getting dusty again. There’s also none of the present-buying rush that’s pervasive in the American holiday season; in fact, presents aren’t a part of Christmas at all (much to my relief, since my host family is like 100 people!). There aren’t tons of decorations either except for the plastic white Santa figurines guarding supermarket entrances and the fake, decorated Christmas trees at the big banks. I was surprised one evening to discover, however, that Kigali does do Christmas lights! On the evenings leading up to Christmas, Kigali decorated its roundabouts with lights and Christmas trees, so Colin and I got a little taste of home, flying by the light displays on our moto ride home.

On Christmas Eve, we celebrated Ariane’s birthday by going over to her place for a small family party. I think I haven’t posted about it yet… but Ariane had a lovely little girl named Alva a few weeks ago! Due to complications, Alva was born about 1 month early but both mom and baby are recovering well. Ariane was dead set on naming her Maria—she’s apparently always wanted to be called Mama Maria—but literally everyone in the family begged her not to. So now her name is Alva.

Colin and I went early to the party so I could get some baby time:

The birthday was family-only so we mostly just hung out and talked with everyone. There’s a hospitality “rule” in Rwanda that your guest’s drink should never be empty, so if you’re drinking too slowly, you’ll start to get a pile of beers lining up behind your current drink from your host continuing to bring them to you. Poor Colin, as a man, is expected to drink a lot, but due to our minimal drinking habits, we need to come up with clever ways to decline the infinite drinks!

The best part of the evening was when the Pentatonix cover of the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen came on and all the church-going women started harmonizing together—a little Rwandan Christmas caroling. And then, because Ariane wasn’t feeling well, the whole party traipsed up to her room and quietly sang Happy Birthday while she lay in bed. They even made her sit up to cut the cake and then everyone made their way quietly back downstairs. The meal was served at 10:30pm (we planned for this and ate something at 6pm since you never know when you’ll eat!) but we made it back home pretty late.

For Christmas morning, Colin and I painted a Christmas tree on paper bags from the supermarket and hung it in our living room. Then we had kitenge cloth stockings made by a local seamstress at the market and opened some small presents from each other as our version of “American Christmas”.

For the afternoon, we were invited to several Christmas parties, from strangers, friends, and family alike. We decided to skip the expat party where we didn’t know anybody in order to treat ourselves to peppermint mochas (not exactly like Starbucks but pretty darn good and particularly necessary for the caffeine) and then headed to the opposite side of the city to attend a Frisbee friend’s party. The party was located in a part of town called Kimisagara, where I did my research 4 years ago and a far cry from the wealthy suburbs and expat parties. The dusty, brown houses of Kimisagara are jumbled together in a valley and crawling up the sides of the hills, with the center marked by a dirt soccer field and community center where I did my research. Our Frisbee friend, a short, crazy guy who says ridiculous things in both Kinyarwanda and English and is a total goofball, owns a small bar that overlooks the main road running through Kimisagara. Because the bar is right on the road, its customers can lean over the balcony and greet their friends passing by or (more commonly) yell at them to join them.

When we arrived, the party was already hopping and the beer was flowing. Turned out, it was also a birthday party; our friend’s “wife” (he jokingly calls his girlfriend of two months his “wife” since they live together but aren’t married) as well as someone’s baby had birthdays on Christmas so we celebrated with singing and cake and putting frosting on their faces.

The baby was so confused about the frosting on its face and teetered between bewildered excitement and bursting into tears. (How many American babies have their first birthday in a bar?! There were several children running about the bar also, pointing to a more relaxed attitude about alcohol and kids.) Then the hosts passed out bowls filled with delicious local food—peas, potatoes, onions, and grilled goat brochettes (kabobs)—and we all ate and drank and danced to popular African songs.

After a while, we decided to head to my host family’s Christmas party. My cousin Mimmy and Tante (Aunt) Rose were hosting at their place in Gisozi, a neighborhood on a hill overlooking downtown. We went up and up on our motos, the paved roads turning to dirt and the houses getting better and better views from being so high up. We arrived around 8pm, two hours after the scheduled start time, but were still some of the first guests to show up. (We really struggle with this timeliness thing; it drives me crazy to be late but it’s also uncomfortable to get there early so we never know when to show up.) Slowly family members began arriving and we eventually ate another delicious meal, with avocado, cucumber salad, potatoes, and meat. We’ve found that there’s definitely a “pecking order” to eating, and even with seating. The guests (the neighbors from down the street), the men (oldest adult sons, etc.), and the elders in the family (Maman Jimmy and her sisters, minus the host) ate first and sat on the couches in the salon. Colin and I are also included in this first round, although we generally choose to sit with the unmarried young folks if given a choice. Then the daughters, sons, cousins, young folks, etc. served themselves and, because the house was small, sat outside on the stoop.

After eating, the stoop crew began playing cards and listening to music while my niece Gianna decided to become my hairdresser for the rest of the evening. (Sorry, I don’t have hairdo pictures.) Eventually, Colin and I couldn’t stay awake any longer and several of the cousins walked us all the way down the hill to find motos home.

Overall, it was a lovely way to spend Christmas, and although we missed being with our American families, we spent the day happily surrounded by Rwandan families.

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Holly Hendrickson
Holly Hendrickson
3 years ago

Sounds lovely! Your first Christmas as a married couple!! Wonder what New Year’s will be like…. Lots of love to you both.

3 years ago

Thank you, Leslie and Colin, for this priceless glimpse into your Rwandan Christmas. It reminded me of our family Christmas on a beach in Mozambique, sleeping over a noisy bar, punching “ornaments” onto the spines of a palmetto. But that’s another story. You have made a wonderful new life in Rwanda with each new blog truly a gift to those of us back at home.