Customs & Cuisine of Rwanda

Customs and Cuisine of Rwanda

By Vinola V. Munyon


Republic of Rwanda


Location: The Republic of Rwanda is a landlocked country in Central Africa. Rwanda is located just a little south of the equator and bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Name Origins: In the native Kinyarwanda language, Rwanda means “domain.” Rwanda is known as the “land of a thousand hills” because of its mountainous terrain and the many rugged hills that dot the landscape.

Population: The population estimate as of July 2021 is 12.94 million.

Religion: Christianity is the dominant faith practiced, with 49.5 percent identifying as Protestant and 43.7 percent identifying as Roman Catholic. About 2 percent of the population identify as Muslim.

Language: Kinyarwanda is the official language and the most commonly spoken as the vernacular, with close to 93.5 percent of the population using the language. French and English are also official languages but are spoken by less than 0.1 percent of the population.


The story Rwanda and her people are inextricably tied to, is the story of ethnic strife and a genocide that claimed the lives of over 800,000 Tutsis (and some moderate Hutus). While the Hutus were the majority (85 percent) it was the minority Tutsis who held the position of power in Rwanda. In 1959, the Hutus rose up against the Tutsi monarchy overthrowing them. Fearing persecution, tens of thousands of Tutsis fled Rwanda seeking refuge in neighboring countries. Some of these displaced Tutsis who had regrouped in neighboring Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF was a rebel group that invaded Rwanda in 1990 and this would lead to fighting that would continue until 1993. Despite a peace deal being agreed to in 1993 and brief cessation of fighting, on April 6, 1994, an airplane with then President of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana and then President of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, on board was shot down over Kigali. Everyone on board the plane including the two Presidents, both coincidentally Hutus, were killed. The extremist faction of the Hutus blamed the RPF and launched an offensive despite the RPF claiming innocence and blaming the Hutus for orchestrating it as an excuse to retaliate.

This would ignite the methodical and merciless killing of Rwandans of Tutsi authenticity. Using ID cards that then had ethnicity listed, lists compiled of those who opposed Hutus-led government, hate propaganda through newspapers, radio and television, the Hutu militia would systematically kill Tutsis. “Weed out the cockroaches” became the rallying cry wherein the Tutsis were equated to cockroaches. In what came to be known as a 100-day killing spree, over 800,000 Tutsis (including some moderate Hutus) were killed.

The RPF, with support from the Ugandan army, fought back, and on July 4, 1994, marched into Kigali and took over control of Rwanda. Close to 2 million Hutus, fearing retaliation, fled to neighboring Tanzania, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While the RPF deny any revenge-killing of Hutus, records suggest that thousands of Hutus were in fact killed when the RPF took over.

In the Rwanda of today, the genocide while not forgotten or completely forgiven, remains a topic that is best not brought up. It is illegal to talk about or ask after one’s ethnicity, a move the government contends prevents further conflicts from arising, but some maintain that it also prevents a fair reckoning and healing.



The Rwandans are broadly grouped as belonging to one of three ethnic groups, the Hutu (85 percent), the Tutsi (14 percent) and the Twa (1 percent). There are some disagreements as to whether the three groups arose from differences in caste or class with some arguing that caste and class are not wholly distinct categories. Traditionally, the Hutus were occupied with cultivation, the Tutsis raised livestock, while the Twa were involved in hunting and with certain crafts such as the making of ceramics. There wasn’t a distinct demarcation in these occupations, as some Hutus owned livestock while some Tutsis cultivated crops. The class distinction, on the other hand, was clear. The Hutus and Tutsis have, through the history of Rwanda fought to be at the top of the social hierarchy, while the Twa had been relegated to the bottom rung. The Hutu and the Tutsi share a common language and culture and in the past, predating the conflicts between the two which led to genocide, intermarriage between the two was actually not uncommon. While in the past the ownership of livestock was a marker of social status, in more recent times, knowing and being able to talk in English or French are considered markers of social status.

Rwanda is one of Africa’s most densely populated countries. Kigali, the capital, is also the largest city in Rwanda and the most densely populated region in the country with 1.17 million inhabitants (July 2021 estimates).

The population of Rwanda trends young with almost 40 percent of the population falling under the age of 14 and 33 percent in the age group of 25 – 54 years old. The fact that a majority of Rwanda’s population is under the age of 14 is expected to cause some strain on its development in the coming years.

Marriage is valued as a natural and necessary milestone in adulthood and adults are expected to marry and bear offspring. Once common, polygamy is now rarely practiced. The family is the basic social unit (household = inzu) and the family homestead (rugo) is a collection of several houses within a fenced compound. Members of the same family from the male side reside in individual houses within the compound or fairly close by. The houses are built of woven branches or grass and plastered with clay. The floors are dirt, the roofs are made of tin, and doors are windows are typically openings with fabric coverings.

Traditionally, inheritance was patrilineal, and the oldest male child was expected to care for the elderly surviving parent and unmarried siblings. Revisions in laws of inheritance now do not prohibit female children to inherit but it still not an easy process.

Children are valued but childcare, the informal education of children, and parenting is entirely left to the domain of the female family members. The mother is the primary caregiver with support from female relatives and older female children. The maternal uncle is sometimes involved. School aged children help out with chores such as collecting firewood and water after a day at school.



The cuisine of Rwanda is largely influenced by African cuisine. Dishes are simple, with few ingredients and aromatics, and they rely on locally grown vegetables and readily available proteins, making the food truly farm-to-table and local. It is fairly uncommon for Rwandans to eat breakfast. While coffee is cultivated in Rwanda, it is a cash crop and has been traditionally saved for exports. Young expats who are recent transplants to Rwanda have spearheaded setting up cafés that have made coffee consumption accessible to Rwandans. “African coffee,” an espresso and chocolate concoction with ginger and milk, is popular among the young set.

Icayi is a black tea that is served hot and had in the mornings as well as with midday snacks or lunch. Usually served black, the tea is sometimes had with milk and sugar as well.

Dishes such as Ugali and Matoke that are considered staples in other African countries are a big part of the Rwandan diet as well. Ugali is a porridge like dish made by boiling maize flour with water (or milk). Bland and flavorless on its own, like rice or pasta, Ugali takes on the flavor of whatever side dish or sauce it is mixed with.

Matoke are short, starchy plantains that are cooked when they are still green and unripe. They are boiled, fried, mashed, braised in stews, wrapped in its leaves and steamed (a process known as Umunyinjye) and pretty much prepared in any way possible.

Some popular Rwandan dishes are brochettes, sambaza, isombe, and igisafuria. Brochettes are meat skewers cooked over a charcoal grill. The meat used may be beef, goat, pork, or even fish, and may be skewered along with onions and other vegetables and seasoned with pili.

Sambaza are little sardine-like fish that are fished out of Lake Kiva located on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lightly battered and deep fried, the sambaza are served as appetizers with mayo and pilli for dipping.

Isombe is prepared by pounding cassava leaves to a paste-like consistency and then boiling them until tender. It is then cooked with onions, vegetables such as leeks, eggplants, tomatoes, and bell peppers in stock. Pounded groundnut (essentially peanut butter) is mixed in. The resulting hearty stew is served with rice or ugali.

Igisafuria translates to “pot” and refers to the one-pot stew-like dish containing chicken, onions, tomatoes, and celery. The dish can be hot or slightly sweet. For heat, spicy peppers are added, while bananas are mixed in for a slightly sweeter taste. A very popular dish, igisafuria has many regional variations in the ingredients used.

Akabanga is a quintessentially Rwandan hot chili oil. Extremely hot, this concoction is a staple in every home and restaurant. It often comes packaged in a small bottle with a dropper since a few drops is all it takes to up the heat in a dish.

Among beverages, urwaga, or banana beer is a traditional East African drink that is popular in Rwanda. Made from mashed bananas that are then buried underground in pots with sorghum to ferment, brewing urwaga is a skill that is often passed down from the male head of the family to the male heirs. Ikivugato is fermented milk that is consumed with snacks. Much like a yogurt smoothie, ikivugato is a tangy yogurt drink.

Popular snacks are mizuzu (deep fried plantains chips glazed with honey), French fries with mayo, and hard-boiled eggs with akabanga.



While Rwanda is often associated with the tragic events in its history and the genocide resulted in not just loss of precious lives but also long-lasting economic losses, a lot has changed and is continuing to change in Rwanda. Visitors to the nation write of an air of optimism that pervades the country and among its people. In 2000, the Rwandan government implemented policies that encouraged private sector investment which has spurred economic growth. In 2008, Rwanda became the first African nation to ban plastic bags, an action that has contributed to the overall cleanliness in its cities. “Umuganda,meaning “contribution,” refers to the mandatory day of service every month required of every resident of the city of Kigali. On the last Saturday of every month, residents (visitors are welcome to join) gather and engage in assisting with public projects such as school renovations, cleaning public spaces, constructing public housing, etc.

The quality of life in Rwanda is very dependent on location – where one lives and one’s location on the social hierarchy. City-dwelling, high income Rwandans have access to brick apartments or houses with plumbing, electricity, transportation, and even phone lines. Those who live in the rural regions and subsist on a lower income only have access to mud-walled dwellings with no running water or electricity.

Rwandans believe in the afterlife, that the spirit lives on after the body perishes, and that it gets to meet the living and the dead and those spirit yet to enter the physical world. This belief guides their daily interactions with anyone they meet.


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