Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast.
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The continent of Africa is our destination today. We’re going to be talking about living and working in Rwanda with Italian expat, Giulia, who decided to take a leap away from her life in Europe to follow a job opportunity.
Giulia talks about her first impressions of the city of Kigali, and why it’s known as the ‘Switzerland’ of Africa. We also talk safety, work opportunities and local workplace culture, Giulia’s experience with the health care system, choosing to ‘not’ learn the local language, ordering warm beer, and the personal growth that happens when you leave your comfort zone.
Guilia, I’m speaking to you after you’ve just been for a run and I’ve just decided to skip my gym session to cook myself a meal. So I’m in full food coma mode. It’s basically like the balance of opposites right now.
Giulia: Yeah, which is quite funny because I’m a very lazy person myself. So I really tried very hard to motivate myself for the run, and this is why I kept postponing. Yeah, let’s talk at 9:30.
Carlie: 30 more minutes.
Carlie: Yeah, no, well I think that’s very disciplined of you and I need to do a bit of that myself. But thank you very much for coming on the Expat Focus podcast. It’s great to have you here.
Giulia: You’re welcome. It’s the first time I’m ever doing a podcast, so I’m really curious and I hope I will be up to the expectation.
Carlie: Well, I’m sure it’s gonna be a fascinating chat because I am speaking to you while you are currently living and working in Rwanda.
Giulia: Yes, I am.
Carlie: I have to say I don’t have a lot of reference points for Rwanda other than growing up in Australia, watching those ads on tv, showing the emaciated children and the please for donations to help feed starving children in Rwanda. Is that the same kind of picture of Rwanda that you had growing up in Italy?
Giulia: To be honest with you, I think growing up in Italy, I had very little exposure to Rwandan history, Rwanda as a country, and I would say also in general to Africa as a continent. So personally growing up, yeah, I would say I didn’t even see this picture and think. I’ve always thought of Africa as a continent, as something far out of my world. Not specifically Rwanda. But this is personal experience and I know it’s really out of a lot of ignorance and the Eurocentric culture, I guess.
Carlie: And the same with Australian culture and myself. Completely. And I’m curious, when did Rwanda come onto your radar?
Giulia: So as many things in my life, to be honest, Rwanda came to my radar at the moment where there came a job opportunity. So I never really thought of myself living in Rwanda. I never really imagined, even thought about Rwanda specifically.
The long story short is, at some point I just wanted to move to Africa. And I was just randomly browsing for jobs in Africa. And this opportunity came. So for me it was just, Rwanda, is it in Africa? Yes. Then let’s just go. I think a few people I know here, many people I know here, they knew about it and a lot of them, they also had it on their radar. For me, it was just what happened.
So I met someone in Strassburg that moved to Kenya, and the first time I went to visit her in Kenya was four years ago. When I visited Kenya, it’s kind of like a little bug that gets in your mind and starts eating a little more every day. So I kind of started raising this thought of how my life could be such a different environment, such a different world. And then I just took a leap, I guess.
Carlie: And what was the appeal of Africa? Or, what is the appeal of Africa?
Giulia: I’ve always been traveling and I’ve always been interested in the discovery of new cultures, new countries. So it was just an opportunity for me to visit a new country. When I went to Kenya, actually there were many things that really impressed me and I discovered many things were very different from, let’s say, the stereotype or the idea we have of what I would call maybe Subsaharan Africa.
So probably the first thing is around security. In general, before leaving Europe, I had this feeling like, oh my god, I’m going to war. So there is a lot of psychological stress around, oh, you’re going to Africa, you cannot drink water, you have to be careful about the mosquitoes, the malaria, the insecurity and so on. Whereas when I went there, I had the great opportunity of also meeting a lot of people, some experts and also some locals, that were of course living there. And at the end of the day, they were living a normal life. So, there’s not too much, let’s say insecurity. There are some risks and there are some different rules, let’s say. But it’s not something as dramatic as I was expecting, or at least as it was shown when I was in Europe.
And in general, I think, I don’t know, just the warmth. I would say, in general, that also the warmth of people, the weather, it’s amazing. The people I met there are so different from us. Not us, so different from me in so many ways. So let’s say, one of the differences from my l European life is, I met many experts also when I was in Strassburg, when I was living in Strassburg, also when I was living in Italy, I’ve always been, let’s say, hanging out with expats or foreigners and so on. But maybe the difference is like, the people I met in Nairobi, are people that have a very diverse background and very diverse experience. Most of the people that are there, especially most of the westerns or the expats that are in Africa, they are there because they want to be. So it has a different vibe. I don’t know if I can explain it.
Carlie: So tell me about some of those initial experiences when you got to where you’re living in Kigali, in Rwanda. You mentioned that some things are much more normal than you expected them to be and others are quite different. So can you take me through a few of those and what you remember your first impressions to be?
Giulia: Yes. When I first arrived in Kigali, I already had a little bit of knowledge of Nairobi because, as I told you, I was there at the beginning. I was there for travel. And then I was also there briefly for work.
Carlie: So you had a little bit of familiarity.
Giulia: Yes, I had a little bit of exposure to Nairobi and Kenya. The only thing I knew about Rwanda was through my Kenyan friends and they all told me Rwanda is like the Switzerland of Africa. It’s very easy, it’s clean, it’s safe. So I already had this kind of positive bias for the country. And especially as a first job in the continent, I was thinking, okay, it could be a good first job, or a good beginning. And I think especially I was thinking about my family. And my mom, telling her I was moving so far.
Carlie: It’s a soft landing for your parents.
Giulia: Yeah. So I was like, don’t worry, Rwanda is very safe.
Carlie: I’m going to the Switzerland of Africa.
Giulia: Yes,exactly. But yeah, so the reality is that it is a very safe country. It is very clean. And it is quite efficient in many ways. I think, maybe the first week I was in Kigali, I went to buy a sim card and all the people were queuing outside of the shop, and of course it was still last year, so maintaining the distance and queuing in the shop. And me as an Italian, I was there like, what are these people doing? Nobody’s cutting the line, nobody’s jumping on each other. So it was kind of like a cultural shock. Of course I’m joking, but I want to say it is a very easy place. So, my expectation was to start a more disruptive experience. And actually, already since the first month, I understood that it was not going to be that disruptive. So many things there are actually working, I think, even better than in Europe, sometimes.
Carlie: Interesting. I do remember when you first moved there, you were sharing videos of your new accommodation on social media. What can you tell me about how people live in Kigali and how that might differ from living in Italy or France?
Giulia: What I see in Kigali is, in general, there are not a lot of tall buildings, apartments and so on. Like, in general, they have houses or small houses. And most of the city have these kind of houses in a compound with the garden and so on. So actually we have a lot of space. I think we are privileged enough.
Right now I’m sharing a house with two other people. We have four rooms, so we even have one guest room. Everyone has their own bathroom. Big living room, kitchen, and we have a garden. And most of the people I know are living in the same conditions. Of course,most of the people I know are in the expat bubble. But if you go around the city –
Carlie: I was going to ask, is this kind of the way foreigners in Kigali live or is this also the way that locals live?
Giulia: I think in Kigali a lot of locals live like that. So even my friends, I have friends, Rwandans and also Kenyans, Ugandans, most of them, they live in a house, maybe a shared house. But even if you go around the city, the city mainly consists of these houses with gardens and compounds and so on.
Then you have the town, what we call the town area, where you have some tall buildings and also some more populated neighborhoods. In general there is a lot of nature everywhere, but also there are some areas that are actually parks. Today I told you I was going for a run, so in this neighborhood we have a big roundabout, but within the roundabout there is a park. So people, they just go around.
Carlie: Oh, cool. It must be a very big roundabout.
Giulia: Yeah, it’s quite big. At least I like to tell myself that since I’m using it as exercise. It is big enough for me to not feel guilty about the exercise. So yeah.
Carlie: So you mentioned that Rwanda is kind of the Switzerland of Africa and it’s quite safe in that sense. And, you know, you said you just went for a run. So you can be out on the streets, for example, by yourself as a white woman in Africa and not feel unsafe?
Giulia: Yes, definitely. I feel safer here than in Europe, 100%. I’ve been working in the street at every time of the day and night. I’ve been working alone with friends. My personal experience there is, and also from the people I know, it is very safe. And it is not just our neighborhood. I’m living in a neighborhood where a lot of expats live because there are few bars, a few cafes, so it’s kind of a more expat area compared to other neighborhoods. But in general, we can work safely, no problem. Like, during the night also, but in general there are a lot of police around, some traffic police and are some just security. So, I think it’s quite interesting because here you feel safe and sometimes when I see the police in Europe, I don’t feel that safe. So I don’t know, maybe it’s just a personal feeling. But the security is very important and it’s very, very high here.
Carlie: And what do you do for fun in Kigali? Do you have nightclubs and bars and places to go out with your work colleagues and friends?
Giulia: Yes. I understand where your question is coming from, and I think also this is why I wanted to –
Carlie: What do people do for fun in Kigali?
Giulia: I mean it’s a normal city. It’s not like the craziest city in Africa. Actually, a couple of weeks ago I spent a weekend in Kampala in Uganda, and I can tell you it is 100% more crazy. It’s more party, there’s more vibes. But yeah, there are clubs here and bars, and I know there are salsa events. There are the movies. Saturday, I went to this KinyaRwanda rap concert. KinyaRwanda is the language they speak here, the local language. So a rap concert was very interesting. Actually, the business is quite good. Yeah.
Carlie: And how’s your local language?
Giulia: The choice I made when I arrived here was not to learn the language.
Guilia: It’s not a good choice, I know. Well I mean, when I say it, it sounds worse –
Carlie: It’s not a good expat choice to make?
Giulia: Yeah, definitely. But okay, to save myself, I am actually learning. I’m actually learning Swahili. And Swahili is one of the most spoken languages in East Africa. And even here in Rwanda, KinyaRwanda is the local language, but a lot of people in the shops or taxi drivers, they also speak Swahili because it’s the language also spoken in RDC and also in some parts of Burundi, and also of course in Tanzania and Kenya. Tanzania is next to here and Kenya is still very close.
Carlie: So you’re being more strategic in the language you’re choosing to learn.
Giulia: Exactly. Of course I know some words in KinyaRwanda. “Amakuru” is, how are you? “Meza” means well. And then I know how to ask for cold water, “amazi konja”. “Konja”,because here you always have to specify when you want something cold. So if you want beer, they will ask you, warm or cold? You want water warm or cold? So I always specify cold.
Carlie: Beer? Warm beer?
Giulia: Yeah. Actually some of my friends, they drink warm beer because they’re like, ah, today’s a little chilly, let me just drink the warm beer. I’m like, okay. You do you.
Carlie: I’m going to have to try that next winter and see how it goes down.
Giulia: Yeah. Because when it’s chilly in Kigali, it means that it’s like 18 degrees, so…
Carlie: Oh my gosh. Not the weather for warm beer in my opinion. And is it common for people to then speak English? How are you getting by day to day?
Giulia: Historically, Rwanda used to be a Belgian colony. So the, let’s say, official language was French. Of course, other than KinyaRwanda. What I heard? I’m not 100%, so maybe you can go Google it, which I didn’t. But what I heard is that the president, in the beginning of 2003, decided to make the country more international, and to open up also. I think they also joined the commonwealth to try to boost the relationship, like make the relationship more international. So he decided to have English as one of the official languages.
Most of the young people, they speak English. I mean, as an Italian, I don’t feel like I should judge their English because Italians also don’t speak very good English. Let’s say that there is a struggle with English. But most of the people speak pretty good English, good enough to understand. And my experience is that the older people speak French. So for me, I speak French. For example, my landlord, he prefers to speak French. Or some people in my office, the administratiion and so on, I see that when I speak French to them, it’s kind of easier to understand each other. Or in general, they prefer to speak French because originally that’s what they studied.
Carlie: So all your languages are really coming in handy. Except the Italian.
Giulia: Except the Italian, yeah. The Italian would actually come in very handy in Kenya, where I discovered there are a lot of Italians on the coast. And a lot of Kenyans speak Italian.
Carlie: Oh wow. I did not know this.
Carlie: Oh, fascinating. If you’re learning Swahili, it sounds like you are feeling pretty comfortable there and you’re going to stay for a while. Perhaps?
Giulia: I don’t know about that. I mean, yes, I’m feeling comfortable. So initially, my staying here was supposed to be for two years. So until December 2022. I decided to stay another year and I found an opportunity and if everything goes right I will be moving to Nairobi, to Kenya. So this is the plan for next year. So from December this year onwards, I will be in Kenya for another year. So, yes. I don’t know. I think I am deciding step by step, time by time.
Carlie: Not thinking too far into the future.
Giulia: Yes. So it is interesting, because I’ve always been very attracted by this indefinite work contract. And especially when I was living in Italy, when I was working in Italy with this kind of contract, and before moving to France, I wanted to make sure that I had an indefinite contract.
Carlie: Because it’s job and life security, right? Like, that’s the motivation behind it. Yeah.
Giulia: Yes, exactly. And now, I am feeling the opposite. I’m feeling good about having a deadline. So I’m feeling good about knowing, okay, I have my contract until the end of this year and then we’ll see. And now I have my contract until the end of 2023, and then I will see.
Carlie: And did that take a bit of a mindset shift, when you’ve come from always seeing indefinite work contracts for example, as secure and the stable path to take, and now you are on what sounds like rolling fixed term contracts?
Giulia: Yeah, it is a mindset shift. But in my case I think it had to be like that. Because what happened was, I spent quite a lot of time, not a few years but months, very unhappy with my previous job. And I made the decision to take first a sabbatical, and then to do this kind of life change. And when I made that decision, I felt okay. I felt freed. I felt freed, and also from this kind of secure life. Because sometimes the fact of having a secure situation, it’s good, but it is also blocking you from actually doing something that you want to do. Or even blocking you from escaping something that is making you feel miserable. You need to force yourself to go out of your comfort zone. I’m a big believer that when you are out of your comfort zone, that’s where the growing space is. And you can be comfortable for many years, or unhappy or not growing at the speed you would like to.
Carlie: What elements of living in Africa make you aware that you are outside of your comfort zone?
Giulia: Work related example. In the last eight years of my life, I’ve been working for an American multinational companies. And the culture in these companies, sometimes it gets to you. So one thing that you have to do at your job, or learn to do at your job, is how to shine. So for example, if there is a situation where someone has to make a presentation, let’s say if you’re working in these multinational companies, normally it’s well seen if you are taking the steps and doing the presentations, because the people will see you and it is an opportunity you to shine
Carlie: And to be seen by the right people. Yeah.
Giulia: Exactly. And so we were having this workshop a couple of months ago in Ghana. It was a pan-African workshop, so we had our team from Rwanda that was coordinating the workshop, and then we had participants from different countries. So some were from Ghana, some from Nigeria, from Kenya and so on. And we did this work group and at the end of the work group, of course someone had to do the presentation. Nobody was standing up to do the presentation. And my colleague kind of pushed quite hard for someone else to do the presentation.
So after I was talking to him and I was telling him, but that could have been a good opportunity for you to shine and to show yourself, because there were also some directors, that would have been a good opportunity for you to show the directors that you can do this presentation and so on. And he answer me, yes, don’t worry, there’s going to be an opportunity for me. But for me, in this moment, it was more important to have the participants feel the belonging and to do that. So this is why I pushed someone else.
So this is a kind of different perspective you, but when you say that, it actually makes a lot of sense. Because a lot of the time you are doing a work group, you are staying kind of passive and you don’t feel the belonging, you don’t feel like you are part of it. For me, this was just an example of a different perspective from the way I was taught to work. It’s more, I want to say, maybe more individualistic. And in this case it was more around sharing, but really sharing.
Carlie: More collective. Yeah, more about the group.
Giulia: More collective. Yes, more about the group, also more about seeing the people in the group and also helping someone to shine.
Carlie: I’m sure our listeners will be curious to know what you’re doing for work over in Africa and what opportunities you see for other foreigners who might be interested in following your footsteps.
Giulia: I think maybe this is kind of the misconception, when a European goes to Africa, I think most of the time you think that we are going as volunteers, maybe in some remote villages to help build houses.
Carlie: Maybe to help save those children. Yeah.
Giulia: Yes. So, I mean, I think in that case, there is a whole chapter on that.
Carlie: That work completely exists and it’s completely valid, but it’s not what you are doing.
Giulia: Yes. Exactly. It’s not what I’m doing. What I’m personally doing is working as digital advisor. So I am working for the International Cooperation Agency of Germany. And the work I’m doing is supporting a local company in knowledge sharing, best practices. The objective of the role is called capacity building. So the idea of this role is, I come to Kigali, I work with the partner organization for a couple of years, my contract was two years but I can be here for up to six years, and we work together, I support the organization and I make sure that the work I’m doing is sustainable.
I don’t want to say the word teaching. I don’t want to say the word teaching because there is no teaching, it is the sharing of knowledge of best practices. And also I am getting a lot. And the idea of this role is temporary because the idea is for me to come back to Europe with the experience that I gained here. So it is more like supporting and working together, collaborating on different projects. My case is that I’m working in digital, and I am supporting projects in the e-commerce area and e-payment area. So yeah, this is what I’m doing.
Carlie: And do you see a lot of opportunities for other expats, other foreigners in Africa? And I guess by opportunities I mean a career opportunity. I mean, it sounds amazingly personally fulfilling, but there are people who are just driven by great career opportunities abroad. Is Kigali one of those destinations too?
Giulia: You have all different kind of opportunities here, in Kigali specifically. Actually, Rwanda is putting a lot of effort in boosting investments, helping startups. There are many startups in Kigali, also digital startups. So there are a lot of good opportunities for someone that wants to either start a business, or have a career. There are also some companies that are based here. It all depends what your background, it depends what your interests are.
You also have NGO. You can decide to have a career in the NGO, you can decide to have a career in the UN or you can decide to have a career in different private companies. For example, my housemate is working at a solar panel company, so it’s a company that is building solar panels and selling them here in, he works in Kigali, so here in Rwanda. But they also have offices and business in other countries. A friend of mine, he actually works for this company, it’s a Rwandan company, and they are building electrical motorcycles. So he is an electrical engineer and yeah, he’s having a career in the private sector here in Rwanda.
Carlie: It sounds a lot more dynamic than I think I had a picture of Rwanda being in my head, and I’m sure a lot of other people would have as well.
Giulia: It is and it is a very interesting place to be. There are work opportunities. So yeah, it’s a safe country. It is growing, the economy is growing, the opportunities are growing. There is a lot of effort and a lot of investment ongoing in the country. At least this is what I see.
Carlie: Julia, you said at the start of our conversation that you really didn’t know much about Rwanda before you came to Rwanda for work. What advice would you give others who might be looking at opportunities in Rwanda?
Giulia: So I think the advice that I would give to anyone that is looking for opportunities out of their world or their comfort zone, is really to come with an open mind. If you want to move to Rwanda, you are welcome, but come here with an open mind, come here trying to understand, trying to listen, leave your bias in Europe. We have plenty of them, and even in Europe we should just remove them, of course. But if you’re coming here, just leave them there. And as I told you at the beginning, for me, some things are working better here compared to where I come from.
Of course, there are some frustrations. Sometimes you’re not able to communicate properly or sometimes… Like, one thing that kind of frustrates me is that, in general, people don’t like to say no. So like, when you are in a conflict or when you ask for something, sometimes they say yes, and then they do whatever they want to do. So this is an example of something that can be frustrating for someone who is actually used to having a direct conversation. So there are some things that are of course different, and that we need to accept and try to understand.
Carlie: You have had a lot of experiences in your time in Rwanda and one of them has been with the medical system. So tell me what happened.
Giulia: Yes. Actually what happened was, in Zanzibar in Tanzania, I had a small accident. I was on a boat and my hand was leaning outside of the boat and the boat hit a pole and my finger was in the pit (inaudible). So I had an open wound, broken bone and everything. The moment I saw it, I was rushed to the hospital. It was my first time ever having an accident. And it was my first time ever going to surgery, going to a hospital. And of course the first thing you think in your mind is, why is it happening here?
Carlie: Of all places in the world. Will I be ok? I think that’s what I would be thinking.
Giulia: Yes. Yeah, I mean, I was scared in general, but yeah, also the fact of being so far from home and you don’t know. You don’t know, right? So long story short, I was actually lucky enough to have a very good tour guide that, while we were driving to the hospital, he was already calling the doctor and making sure that the doctors were there and so on.
He brought me to the private hospital instead of the public one, so I had the opportunity to a have kind better surgery. And actually the surgery was very good. And I was then repatriated to Italy and I checked with the Italian doctors and they told me that they did a great job. And long story short, I have my finger. It’s here. There is the nail.
Carlie: Oh, thank goodness.
Giulia: You can see it’s a little weird, but it’s perfect. It’s beautiful. And now I have a story to tell, of how I went in for surgery in Zanzibar.
Carlie: Wow. I’m so glad that your finger is still attached.
Giulia: Yes, I’m glad too. So overall it was a good experience. Actually, the Italian doctor told me that he saw someone in Italy getting worse surgery than mine. So I was thinking, okay, if it had happened in Bologna, could it have been worse?
Carlie: And did you have to pay for it?
Giulia: Yeah, I mean, every time you are outside of Europe and go to emergency, you pay first and then they do something. So I had to pay, I think the surgery was around 500 euros, and then I did everything. I asked for the reimbursement to the insurance and the insurance paid me back. So yeah.
Carlie: I have one last question. What is your favorite food discovery? Food or drink discovery in Rwanda, and what are you missing the most about Italian food or drink?
Giulia: This is a sad question.
Carlie: Oh, I’m sorry.
Giulia: No, no worries. The food here is not great. It’s good. In Kigali we have plenty of restaurants, local, international, so basically it’s difficult to miss something. As an Italian, I think maybe I’m too spoiled, so I always have high standards. In general, I’m not really happy with the food here.
Carlie: You’re just a food snob.
Giulia: I am. I definitely am. I go with the stereotype, yes. Actually one of my favorite foods here that I eat quite often is actually Kenyan. It’s called Nyama Choma, and it’s grilled goat’s meat. So that’s something I really enjoy. Other than that, I mean, here local food, there is a lot of beans, rice, potatoes, cabbage, so it’s kind of like the North European style of food. What I’m missing the most is definitely seafood. Because if you look where Rwanda is on the map –
Carlie: You’re a bit landlocked.
Giulia: Yeah. They have a fish from the lakes, but I come from the sea. I’ve always loved seafood. For me, fish from the lake, I eat it but, it’s not the same.
Carlie: Not the same.
Carlie: I have to ask, how do you go about getting a good espresso?
Giulia: I’m sorry, I am not one of those Italians. I guess this stereotype doesn’t work for me.
Carlie: You don’t drink coffee?
Giulia: I don’t. Okay, two things. First, I don’t drink espresso. I drink coffee sometimes. I’m not a coffee lover, really. And second fun fact, Rwanda actually has very, very good coffee.
Carlie: I was thinking that they actually produce pretty good coffee, don’t they?
Carlie: But you can’t tell me how great it is.
Giulia: I cannot. But I have a friend, he works with a coffee producer, he’s Italian, and a few weeks ago he was doing this espresso tasting here in Kigal. And I was kind of joking and he was like, no actually, this is really next level coffee. Like, okay, if you say so, I trust you. He was one of those Italians that drinks coffee. But okay, full disclosure, I buy my Nutella in Italy. So, I come with a Nutella in my luggage. You know? The chocolate spread.
Carlie: Nutella. You brought Nutella? You can’t get Nutella in Kigali?
Giulia: No, you can get it, but it’s more expensive and it’s not the Italian produced one. Only in Italy do we have the Italian produced Nutella, which is the best.
Carlie: Fair. Well, Julia, it has been fascinating to speak to you about living and working in Rwanda. Thanks so much for sharing on the Expat Focus podcast.
Giulia: Yes. Thank you for inviting me and thank you for giving me this opportunity.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you want to hear more from expats in Africa, search our podcast archive for my interview with Rachel Jones, who talks about raising third culture kids in Djibouti. If you have an expat story to tell or a city or country that you’d love to hear more about, drop us a message on social media. We are ‘Expat Focus.’ I’ll catch you next time!