One night, in the second week of my time here, I told my host parents that some other trainees were having challenges in adjusting to life here and had cried over the weekend. But, I reassured them, I was happy and had not cried. “That is because you are not a baby. You are a grown-up.” This attitude is perfectly typical of Rwandans.
Rwandans are very stoic and rarely express pain, frustration or sadness. If someone does, the response of other Rwandans is invariably “komera” — “be strong.” So, when I told my host family about the pain of the other trainees the response was not sympathy, pity or compassion rather, “be strong.” Rwandas are very good at keeping a stiff upper lip.
It is well-known, of course, that Rwanda is a post-conflict country and it is very much conceivable that an adaptation to the kind of trauma that occurred here would be a refusal to dwell on problems or pain and, also, a lack of sympathy for the problems of others. As Wesley told Princess Buttercup in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” The life experience of many Rwandans would support this statement, so how much pity can they muster up for problems like homesickness, diarrhea and tiredness.
Even understanding that, though, I still find this cultural difference to be an obstacle to close relationships with Rwandans. One thing I look for in friendships is a listening ear, someone who can empathize and comfort and give advice. When I think of bringing a problem to a Rwandan and realize that the extent of their response will be “komera,” it stops the conversation before it even starts.
In true Rwandan style, I will try not to become overly frustrated by this cultural difference and I will komera.