Tips for New Arrivals

Tips for New Arrivals, Kigali

Cities are like people – you need to know how to tickle them the right way in order to get the most out of them. If you are visiting Kigali for the first time there is no point wasting time figuring out the nooks and crannies of the city on our own: educate yourself with this short list of the essential tips and you should be good to go!

Hello Muzungu!

First of all, you need to know what the meaning of ‘muzungu’ is, as you are guaranteed to hear this from the moment you step off the plane (or bus). The true origin is actually from Kiswahili, where ‘zungu’ is the word for spinning around on the same spot (yes, they have a word for that). ‘Muzungu’ thus refers to a person turning around in circles, and the indigenous people of East Africa gave this name to the first white people stepping foot on the continent, aimlessly looking around at a loss of where to go. (Fun fact: ‘muzunguzungu’ is kiswahili for a dizzy person.)

Well, enough of that. The point is, people will say ‘muzungu’ after you to point out – in case you were unsure – that you in fact are white, and that your hair is straight and light. I guess a reminder once in a while isn’t too bad, and most of the time people mean no harm when calling you this, especially young children who amazingly enough still manage to be ecstatic every time a white person walks by.


No expat Rwanda is unfamiliar with the genocide, and many already know that April 7 is the national genocide memorial day. What you might not know, however, is that for the entire first week of April, the country shuts down. Restaurants, bars and radio stations are not allowed to play music (apart format he traditional Rwandan mourning songs), and there is a general somber atmosphere throughout the country. There will be commemoration walks through Kigali, as well as several assemblies with speakers from the government. April is an interesting, but bitterly sad time to visit Rwanda, and though people living here for a longer period of time should part-take in at least one genocide memorial week, this really is not a time for party-crazed tourists to visit.


On the last Saturday of each month every Rwandan citizen is obliged to participate in a communal clean-up! They pick up trash alongside the roads, they cut the grass of public parks, and they paint the lines on the road. If you want to participate, feel free to, if not, non.citizens aren’t really expected to. Though you might not want to take part, however, you do need to be aware that the roads close down until around midday on the umuganda Saturdays. No coffee shops or grocery stores are open (though come reopen at 11…) and to be honest the only thing you can do is sleep in. Fridays before umuganda are obviously extra crazy!

Don’t Walk on the Grass

Though you will see beautiful, lush, green grass all over Kigali, you aren’t welcome to sit or walk on it. If you do, you will be reprimanded by police, guards, army guys, or even just random people who happen to witness this obviously heinous act.

No Addresses

There aren’t really any house addresses and no postal service will deliver to your home. If you want to send mail, you’ll have to head to the main Post Office in … If you want to receive main you’ll need to spring for a P.O. Box.

If you want to get or give directions, addresses and street names are not the way to go. You need to find the closest landmark, and then describe the way from there. For instance, when explaining how to get to the Egyptian Embassy from town, you would say: ‘To Kacyiru, past Novotel towards the US Embassy, on the right.’ Not terribly complicated, but indeed frustrating at times.

Bus Etiquette

If you’re travelling to Kampala or further on one of the big buses run by companies like Kampala Coach or Jaguar, you’ll be assigned a seat and may board the bus in a relaxed and respectful manor. If, however, you’re travelling within Rwanda or to Bujumbura, you’ll be on a smaller bus with no assigned seats. Rwanda already way ahead of many other African countries as far as bus travel goes because they (usually) only sell one ticket for each seat, but the seats aren’t assigned, so it’s a free-for-all. If you’re got a long journey ahead of you, get there early (20 minutes at a minimum) to claim your seat. It’s perfectly acceptable here to reserve your seat by sticking a bag on it and plenty of other people will do this.People will actually fling their bags in through the windows if they can’t be bothered barging in through the door.


…is not really required in Rwanda, but has become more and more normal as expats keep visiting restaurants. Especially at places where the muzungu-factor is high, you should leave a little tip – from a couple of 100 francs to maximum Rwf 1,000. You don’t tip taxi- or moto drivers, as these don’t have set prices to start with, and whatever you haggle the price down to is what you end up paying. For the nice hotels, you could leave some tip in an envelope for the cleaning staff.

Be Careful What Your Talk About

They have secret spies stationed all over the country. The moment you mention Kagame’s name, you will get kidnapped and taken to an unknown place where you will be tortured to insanity. Just kidding. But really though, be a little bit careful who you criticize. Not that anyone would ever criticize the government, because they are absolutely amazing…

Also, Kigali is small, people, so don’t be talking about what happened in the weekend before checking who’s around you. Actually, you should avoid gossiping all together, because everybody knows everybody here… Our solution is to come up with code names.

The World takes Visa…

…but Rwanda mostly does not. The nice hotels will obviously accept credit cards, but in general no shops, restaurants, taxis or supermarkets will take anything but cash. Nakumatt does have one stand where you can pay with Visa, but the one time I tried it didn’t work… The best thing to do is to keep cash at you at all times. See Using Your International Card in Kigali for more information.


Whenever you run into a Norwegian it is customary to bow and kiss their feet. On occasion, people have forgot to do this, and… well, we wont get into what happened to them. Also – and seriously – greet everyone you meet, from your moto driver to random people you pass on the street. Give them a smile and a quick ‘miriwe’, and it lightens everyone’s mood!

Free Ass Grabs at Amahoro Stadium

If you go to an event at Amahoro Stadium, you will be molested. The security staff there do the most thorough bag search and pat down of all time. So if you’re feeling lonely and want a bit of same-sex security guard loving, you know where to go.

Food at Local Bars Will Take Forever

If you head out to a local bar (usually identified by being painted bright blue, red and yellow like a Primus bottle label) for food, be prepared to wait. Most local bars serve brochettes and potatoes in some form which you’d think would be an easy and speedy meal to make but, alas, this is not the case. Any food you order at a local place will take a minimum of an hour and possibly as much as two so if you have anywhere to be or are hungry, keep this in mind.

Wash Your Rice

Unless you like crunchy rice, wash it well before you cook it. There are little rocks lurking in there and I’m guessing you probably don’t want to lose a tooth.

Rubber Chickens

I don’t know what they do to their chickens in this country but they are often amazingly chewy. Most of the restaurants targeting the expat crowd seem to have chickens of normal chewiness but at the local places you could be chewing for hours on their rubber chicken, so make plans accordingly.

Novotel vs Laico vs Umubano

Okay, so this one’s really strange, but still worth noting: Novotel is the old name of the Laico Hotel which is the old name of the current name Umubano. I have no idea if that last sentence makes any sense. Regardless, if you need to go to the Umubano Hotel in Kacyiru, asking for Novotel is the best way to get there if you’re on a moto or in a taxi.

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18 thoughts on “Tips for New Arrivals”

  1. thanks for the advice. We have found out a lot of these things through experience. Some friends were shocked and really annoyed that their food took 45 mins to get to them recently. everything here is laid back. Go with the flow I say.

  2. Love the site and everything nerdy nomad in general but um, what if I’m not white? Does the article just assume that all the folks visiting kigali are white? Are, in fact, all the people who visit Kigali white? Or do all the black, brown and asian folks also get lumped into the “white/western culture” pile by the residents? That wouldn’t be such a stretch, as I and other folks of color I know, have traveled to other countries and been called white, even though I’m a pretty deep chocolate. Just curious.

  3. Yep boothism, for all intents and purposes, you’re white! Nah, that’s not true… but even if you’re a nice shade of chocolate, if you’re a foreigner you’ll still be called a muzungu. The kiddies might not get as excited when you walk by, though! 🙂

  4. Great advice. However, I would like to nuance the bit about ‘local’ bars. I am still not quite sure how it all works, but indeed the ‘snacks’ in the strongly colored bars take forever. I guess its because the primary reason to be there is to drink beers. However, if you go to one of the many small restaurants that serve buffet lunches (for as little as 1000 Rwf), the service is quick and attentive and very flexible. I know its a buffet, but they are generally helpful at serving drinks, removing plates, cleaning tables and taking orders if its not the buffet. Far better than at fancy places like Umubano, Shokola or Bourbourn.

    1. Thanks Simon! You’re right… the Rwandans know how to do buffets! They’re really popular here and a great choice for a quick and filling bite. I’ll write something up about buffets soon. The problem is that they’re usually only around lunch time and I’ve never seen brochettes at one. So if you’re wanting a meal at a local place at night and want brochettes, I’m not sure there’s any choice than to wait.

    1. I just wash them with tap water and eat them and haven’t had any dubious stomach issues as a result. I boil the water I drink so if you want to be extra safe you could do the same and use this water to wash veggies. But I think just using the tap water is fine.

  5. ha ha ha!! wash your rice in Kenya too… maybe a little less! i love the info on this site! i shall bow and kiss a Norwegians feet… Question: do they kiss MY feet too? #awkward 😀

  6. We all know Kigali is expensive and i found it hard to find a cheap hotel. The minimum i used to pay was $100 then i found this place in Kibagabaga called DV Appart Hotel.
    They are not ripping everyone off like the others i payed $50 and was defo value for money. Check there site:
    and i booked through there email and payed for the room once i was there. There email is: [email protected].

    I just wanted to share my find but if you have found something better let me know

  7. Emmanuel NZABITONDERA

    This is a really wonderful article, your info. are very clear to guide any new comer to Rwanda. and i am sure there are so many people who can benefit from your advice.
    keep it up as an expat!!!

  8. Good work! Updating such occasionally is required. Nakumat accepts Visa and Mastercard, Visa is I thought widely accepted in Hotels, and Mastercard at some places.

    must share with you: Services of Nakument on some of their unlimited offer of inferior china made products is poor, pls do not ask in the shop for product advice and do never try to get after sales service it will make you really unhappy.

  9. My husband and I will be there about three months, for a job he’ll be accepting.
    I’m a little terrified, but mostly excited!!

  10. It is now 2016, and I think one of the above comments can be updated. Credit cards are now very widely accepted. I do always carry cash. There are obviously mom and pop corner shops and people selling things in markets and on the street who only take cash. Cabs and motos take cash. But even moderate sized stores and restaurants now have the little hand-held devices for processing credit cards. Nakumatt and Simba certainly take credit cards with no problem.

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