On Expats and the Culture of Complaint

Banana Trees, Kigali, Rwanda

A few weeks ago, I was Skyping with a friend of mine back in the United States. We were catching up about her life, my life, our respective jobs, families, and that new show on Netflix we’re both hopelessly addicted to (have you watched Designated Survivor yet? It’s amazing). At the end of the call, as per usual, she asked when I was coming home.

It has been about three years since I’ve lived away from the U.S., and, without fail, I get asked when I am returning at least once a week. I used to blame them and ‘the whole western world’ for perpetuating this myth that I couldn’t truly find a comfortable, happy, and healthy home outside of my passport country. I considered some of these questions to be nothing more than a perpetuation of a stereotypical understanding of Africa, one that sees the entire continent as a scary, underdeveloped, and inconsequential ‘country.’ I referred family and friends to the very relevant ‘Africa is a Country‘ website and the article ‘How to Write About Africa‘ by Binyavanga Wainaina.

However, regarding questions about my return date, I never really called out friends and family until this one Skype call. I don’t know what it was that day, and I don’t know why I decided to make an argument out of it. But I did. And the result surprised me. My friend, instead of becoming defensive, very slowly and carefully said, ‘Leah. I love you, and I know you love Rwanda, but I only asked you that because you spent the last fifteen minutes complaining about your inconsistent electricity, the motorcycle accident your friend just got into, and your inability to find sweetcorn in the country. You usually tell me a lot of things you love about living there, but not today. This one isn’t on me.’

Oops. That one was definitely on me.

Every few months, without fail, I wax poetic on Rwanda. Truly. There is even evidence of it here, where I expound on the very things I am addicted to in Kigali. I don’t know if this is a cyclical issue or just me being odd, but every four or five months I feel the need to tell the world (and you all) why I love it here so very much. However, while I know I love it here and I know this place has become a home like no other home I’ve ever had before, I complain. I complain all the time.

Like all the time. To the point where I didn’t realize I was complaining, until my friend had to very specifically call my attention to it on Skype. I complain about butter shortages, the never-ending rainy season, about the fact that MTN is probably a sham company (Just kidding MTN – but seriously, where have you been the last few months!), and about slow restaurant service.

Expat life in Rwanda, while diverse, beautiful, and unique, also upholds a fairly consistent culture of complaint. I clearly am party to this, and undoubtedly do my fare share. While we may all love this place in a big way, we also complain in a big way. Perhaps it’s the giant extremes that cause this – you can go from having an incredible day in perfect weather with the most wonderful of interactions to the worst day in about fifteen minutes flat. But, to be honest, complaining is basically an induction into expat life here. How many different dinner parties or happy hours have you attended where at least one person brings up a slew of events that happened that week that were horrible/awful/or insert expletive here?

Rwanda is undoubtedly a country of extremes, but it’s a place we all have chosen. Though a little late for new years resolutions, I think one of my goals for the coming year is to remember that I chose to be here. I am actively choosing to be here for so many reasons – the vibrant sunsets, kind neighbors, and exciting city changes number just a few. And, at the end of the day, my complaints are sometimes so minuscule, it’s likely not worth mentioning them at all.

I don’t want to disenfranchise you and all your complaints though – some of them (many of them) are real! So very real! Car accidents are scary, waiting for food for hours and hours is beyond irritating, and bureaucracy is slow. We are away from our passport countries, our families, and our childhood friends. Getting sick here isn’t always just a flu or a cold, but often malaria, giardia, typhoid, or really terrible food poisoning. When it’s lonely here, it’s really lonely. When it’s tough here, it’s really tough. When you have a bad day, it’s the worst day. Complaining to your roommates, friends, and community here is one of the ways we (or at least I) have figured out how to cope. And often, that’s really ok.

But sometimes, and at least moving forward, I’m going to try and limit these complaints. Complaining about my interaction with a moto driver that tried to stiff me 100 francs? Not necessary, and actually just kind of a jerk move. Bbrood doesn’t have my favorite bread? Ah well, I think I’ll survive.


Last month, a friend came to visit from South Africa, and we spent a few days in Kibuye. At dinner one night, it took almost two hours for our food to arrive. We were famished and vaguely drunk from a few too many gin and tonics on an empty stomach. We went to bed that night complaining about how late the food was and how hungry we had been, before remembering that just hours prior we had spent the afternoon and evening boating around Kibuye’s many islands, soaking in those sunset rays. We woke up that morning to the most stunning of views, and my friend exclaimed ‘Where even are we right now? Heaven?’ It was, undoubtedly, heavenly.

How do you feel about this, Kigali-ites? Are you a complainer, too?

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1 thought on “On Expats and the Culture of Complaint”

  1. Annemarie van der Merwe

    Hi Leah
    I always enjoy your writing. Don’t we complain a lot! I know feel your pain! We used to bring suitcases full of canned sweetcorn with us from SA. We grew our own sweetcorn in Rwanda. Brought the seed from SA. We’ve been back for nearly 2 years and so spoilt. You reminded me not to complain.

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