Food, Gender and Religion in Ancient Rwandan Culture

Dec 12th 2011, 4:10 pm
Posted by nyiramahoro

An Overview of traditional Rwandan culture:

Food, Gender and Religion


Rwandan culture is not confined within the geographical or political limits of the current Rwanda. In fact it includes not only Rwandan citizens, but only all those who share the Rwandan native language, Kinyarwanda, and its derivatives, mainly close neighbors from Uganda and D. R. Congo. Though cultural background are not guaranteed to remain the same for the entire span occupied by Kinyarwanda speakers, very related patterns stand out for matters related to food, gender and religion.

In Rwanda, as elsewhere in Africa, family status and role differences have always been based on age and gender. Agriculture occupying the greatest part in rural African economies, gender has been used to distribute field work and family responsibilities between men and women. For farmers, men were supposed to clear the land and plow while women would sow, plant, weed and harvest. Most of the tasks requiring greater energy were assigned to men and their sons whereas household ones were totally reserved for women and their daughters. Ladies were never expected in activities such as construction and cattle keeping, as males never considered cooking. Such an array of social constructs projected a great impact on gender roles balance and local development later when the old way of thinking resulted in males being privileged over their sisters or wives. For instance, females were not until late considered as eligible for education and public affairs. While most of the time they were underprivileged by the society, they sometimes played a role is their misfortune by holding on the old customs of their cultures.

Early Rwandans consumed locally-grown foods. Most of them had a good custom of gathering and sharing the first fruit of their fields at the beginning of the harvest time and especially presenting the first fruits of their harvests to parents and close relatives. It was acceptable to offer food to those in need because of natural disasters, long journeys or poverty, but always discouraged to beg for food. However, this must not be mistaken with asking food when one is feeling hungry while at home, such as a child to his/her mother. An influence of that custom can still be easily remarked in nowadays Rwandans who usually avoid asking for food even if they are starving. You can see this if you happen to bring a Rwandan at your home and sometimes ask them if they are hungry: they most probably will reply “no!” even if they have not eaten anything.


Traditionally, Rwandans eat only at home. Food and drinks in public were only for ceremonial purposes or otherwise considered taboo. However, with exterior influences and more commonly in urban areas, that custom has progressively vanished. More frequently present now in towns and village centers, restaurants and canteens are serving foods and beverages. In addition to that, it has become common these days to see passengers take their food while in public transportation vehicles while traditional Rwandans despise such a custom and think it is a lack of self-respect.

It was (and still is for some) customary to offer food to visitors regardless of their origin. That was the first and mostly considered sign of hospitality. Particular kinds of foods had many traditions and rites related to them, and some groups of people were not expected to take some specific kinds of foods because doing so would be a taboo in their clan. When offered a drink or food, it was not a good sign to refuse it, a gesture considered as a lack of trust and most of the time a serious insult for the subject’s family. It had become very common to taste the food or drink first upon handing or presenting it to the visitor, a custom that might have arisen from wanting to show that the item was safe for consumption.

When it comes to religion and beliefs, the Rwandan culture seems very accepting for most cases. While Rwandans had always had a religion, the religion of their ancestors, Christianity and Islam brought almost nothing new besides the faith in Jesus Christ or Muhammad. All of them seem tolerating the existence of life after death, and males carry out most of the ritual services. A slightly different custom is in that early Rwandans used to offer part of the first fruits of their harvest to their ancestors and had many rites related to bringing fortune at the beginning of farming seasons or in time of wars and calamities. Now that modern religions are already deep-rooted in Africa, traditional practices sound too rudimentary for civilized people to follow unless secretly in case magic seems the only solution for particular matters.

As stated earlier, the range of customs is rather noncontiguous than uniform and most of the approaches dealt with above tend towards being historical because of the speed of transformation. In addition, most of the modern cultures tend to be the same worldwide so it made sense to describe more the traditional ones here and in following articles where particular issues will be addressed individually.

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