I suspected that the greatest curiosity would be the gorillas I had come to see in the volcanoes national park. I soon discovered, however, that the greetings people offered when meeting me were quite unexpected – a limp arm nudged in my direction rather than an outstretched hand to shake.
This happened again and again – I suspected at first it might be the best that someone who had an injury or even had a stroke could offer, but it soon became clear that something quite different to the usual handshake greeting was the norm with each new person I met. Upon asking around, I discovered that the ‘hanging arm’ was a sign of deference and respect when meeting someone – almost as if to say “You can shake my entire arm and I won’t put up any resistance – this is a sign of the respect I have for you”.
As greeting rituals in general are so important in African cultures*, I soon became accustomed to this in Rwanda (and also across the border in southern Uganda) and learned to shake the other person’s arm gently and slowly, as the best way I could think of signaling my respect to them. I will never again visit Africa and expect a firm, decisive handshake – and would be somewhat caught-off-guard if I did!
* I should add that it’s so critical to always expect at least a few sentences about ‘how are you?’, ‘how is your family?’ etc., at the start of any African meeting… Whether business or social. What in North America would be considered ‘small-talk’ is absolutely critical in African cultures, and without it you’ve lost the trust/respect/confidence of the other person.