A Rough Guide to the Various Forms of Rwandan Handshakes

Rwandan body language is fascinating. As someone born in England,where office handshakes are either hard, soft or damp squib, Rwandans, who love to shake hands, offer a new level of workplace sophistication when it comes to the handshake.

The first thing to note is the frequency. Hands are shaken ad libitum and can be shaken with the same person three or four times in one day. The rule is quite simple: if you’re ever in doubt, and there is someone before you, just offer your hand. It will be shaken.

It’s more complex than that though as there are many forms of Rwandan handshake, largely based on seniority and, as a rough guide, these go as follows:

A normal, western one-handed handshake is reserved for peers.

Of a slightly higher magnitude of reverence, reserved for seniors, is the two-handed handshake. The more senior in this connection only needs to offer one hand.

Of even higher esteem is the one-handed handshake that has the spare hand resting on the wrist.

The highest, most reverent of all handshakes, reserved for big cheeses, heads of state, spiritual leaders and MTV rap artists, is the one-handed with the trailing hand on the inside elbow. 

Then, to complicate it further, there are the high-fives and the Rastafarian’s fist touch which may also be used but, these are imported and  sit outside the recognised hierarchy of observed Rwandan handshakes.

But there’s one more thing the Rwandans do which is so poignant to observe; most intimate of all is the touching of foreheads.

It’s not even a bump, it’s the slightest touch, ever so gentle, a tiny caress. It’s so rare, I’ve only seen it a few times. This is reserved for very close people. The greeters touch the sides of of their foreheads with each other and this is repeated on the other side of the forehead. It’s done slowly, intimately with genuine emotion, smiles, sometimes a hint of tears and affection.

I never knew greetings could be so sophisticated. 


This post is part of a series called Letters from the Heart of Africa and background and a table of contents can be found here


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