So a few weeks ago, right after Peace Corps decided to relocate me and had contacted my current landlord for an extension on my house until they found me a new site, I got a text from my landlord asking how I was, and saying that on December 17 he would be in town for weeding and hoped to be with me then. I thought it nice that he was inquiring about my well-being after hearing about my change in circumstances, but a little odd that he was planning to come to weed so far in advance, not to mention the fact that I haven’t seen anyone ever weeding around here, especially not a school owner.
A few days later, someone hand-delivered an formal bilingual invitation card from my landlord to a ubukwe (marriage) on December 17th. I must admit that it took me a couple more days to realize that the earlier text was actually an invitation to a wedding and not an appointment for a rendez-vous in the garden to weed. Since I had been busy trying to understand the kinyarwanda side of the bilingual invitation, I had not read the English side of the invitation. When I did, I discovered that it, too, was an invitation to a weeding! Funny how one letter can be the difference between seeing myself on my hands and knees in the dirt or sitting in a church watching a marriage ceremony. Once again, I was reminded of the power of amagambo (words).
Today was the big day and, although the festivities are still in full swing for most of the attendees, I am now safely tucked away at home. My first observation about the day is that a Rwandan weeding is not for the faint of heart. According to the invitation, it was to start at 9 a.m. with the offering of the dowry, to be followed by the actual ceremony at 1, and a reception at 3. It looked innocuous enough on paper, although I wasn’t too sure how I was going to fare at an all day event. But I also knew that time has a different meaning in Rwandan than in the U.S. So 9 a.m. probably really meant something like 10 or 11 a.m. with everything following that much later. I also knew that not an insignificant amount of time would involve nothing more than waiting for the next event to occur, including rounding everyone up to get them there. In some respects, getting a large group of Rwandans together at the same time and in the same place is somewhat like herding cats although, eventually, most everyone does end up where they are supposed to be, even if it is several hours later than anticipated. What I didn’t know at the time was that there was to be yet another ceremony after everything mentioned on the invitation, this one for the bride and groom’s families only. This meant that the actual day, for them at least, would be more than 12 hours, excluding whatever amount of time it took to adorn the bride in the morning. Hence, getting married in Rwanda takes a certain amount of stamina, and a whole lot of patience.
The events were to take place in two locations: The dowry-giving followed by a luncheon in one location, and paid for by the bride’s family, and the religious ceremony and the reception at another location, paid for by the groom’s family. The second group of events was, luckily enough, going to be held across the street from my house, so getting to the first one was my only challenge, after having navigated the process of renting a traditional Rwandan dress for myself the day before. The women’s traditional dress in Rwanda at first glance looks somewhat like an Indian sari but, unlike the sari, it is not one piece, rather it is two. One a skirt, and the other an rectangular piece of either matching, or color-coordinated, cloth that is draped diagonally across the torso, with two diagonal corners tied at one shoulder, to form one large loop from the one shoulder to the opposite hip, leaving the second shoulder bare. Also unlike the sari, the top worn is a full shirt, blouse, T-shirt, tank top, whatever one wants to wear, as opposed to the fitted color-coded half top worn with an Indian sari.
I was told that I would be picked up and driven to the site of the first event, and assumed that this meant I would be picked up sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. However, the night before, much to my surprise, someone came to my house to tell me that my “ride” would be coming at 7 a.m. Now, since I knew that 9 a.m. meant something like 10 or 11, this announcement begged the question of what was I going to be doing for the 3 hours between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. I didn’t miss a beat, culturally insensitive or not, I was going for broke, and I simply said that I couldn’t possibly make 7 a.m. At which point a compromise was reached and arrangements made for a driver to be sent for me at 9. I didn’t know if I had insulted anyone, I just knew that I couldn’t possibly last the day if it were to begin with 3 hours of waiting.
I was ready at 9 a.m. By 9:25, someone had called to ask if I was “dressed” and said that a car would be sent by 9:40. Obviously, nothing of significance had yet happened. By 9:30, I noticed a car at the school, with several women in traditional dress unloading various things for the ceremony into the building where the afternoon festivities were to occur. I went up to ask if this was my ride, and they said that I go could with them, and then disappeared into the building with their mysterious looking packages. I continued to wait with the driver for them to appear. Nothing. The women didn’t come out. Another phone call came at 9:45 to say that my ride was coming. Followed by my response, since there was another car here already, so I could take that. More waiting. Sometime after 10 a.m., there was another phone call and I was told we would go now and that the driver would come back later for the other women. I did wonder how things were done before everyone had cell phones…
So off we went — in the opposite direction of where I knew the venue for the first event was located. We wound around small roads in town until we finally arrived at a new location, where there were two very smartly dressed boys waiting to be picked up, my landlord’s sons. AND, the landlord himself, who was helping to arranged all the events on the groom’s side since the groom had no family. The groom himself is my landlord’s nephew, and also works at the school owned by my landlord. Clearly, if the “big cheese” for the event still was at home getting his sons ready to go, I hadn’t missed anything yet. I privately congratulated myself for not giving in to the original plan, especially since it was obvious that it was culturally appropriate to be wandering around more than an hour after the appointed time. I speculated on what I might have been doing at the venue, had I been there since 7 a.m., although that probably would have really meant 8 a.m. I was very happy that I had been able to enjoy an extra hour and a half of sleep. I was clearly going to need my strength to get through the entire day.
We headed out again in the right direction, but as we entered the main road, we slowed to a crawl. We were apparently looking for someone on the side of the road. Several phone calls later, we pulled to the side and, from out of nowhere, a young Japanese man appeared, my Japanese equivalent as it turned out, another volunteer. However, he had been sent to Rwanda from Japan to coach the local volleyball team!! That was all he does, teach volleyball to primary school kids, and work with the local volleyball team which is, by all accounts, very good, at least this is what I learned today. I imagined what life would be like if the only thing I had to worry about was playing ball with children. I was also somewhat bemused at the thought of what Peace Corps would do with a request to provide a volleyball teacher. Presumably, this was why they had decided to focus on two particular sectors in Rwanda — health and education.
Off we went again, and now with a full car. As we round the corner and headed to the first venue, I could see dozens of people standing around, all dressed up, all waiting to enter. Presumably, I could have been standing there since 7 a.m. Wow…… I certainly would have had a good sunburn if I had been. By now we were coming up on 10:30 a.m., and nothing had started yet. We all stood and talked to one another. I was the only white face in a sea of black and brown, and my Japanese colleague was the only Asian. Lucky for me, a Rwandan woman came running up to me to ask if I remembered her. I did, but I couldn’t remember from where. It turned out that she had done my cross-cultural training session with Peace Corps during my training after I first arrived in Kigali. She works in the Peace Corps Rwanda training office, coordinating the language teachers during training. When I explained about my refusal to arrive at 7 a.m., she laughed and congratulated me because I had obviously learned what she had taught me about Rwandan time very well. It was, apparently, in her mind, the absolutely right thing to have done, given how much later everything usually is in Rwanda. I was happy to know I hadn’t done anything culturally inappropriate. We remained together for the rest of the day, and she explained everything that was happening so I actually knew what was going on for the entire day. It was decidedly a blessing for me. Not only did I have someone to talk to, but I had someone to explain what was happening. And we shared a common context, that of Peace Corps. Given my relative isolation at my site, it was like a breath of fresh air.
Finally, people began entering the venue where the first main event was to occur. There were two big tents facing one another, with a wide aisle down the middle. One tent was for the groom’s family members, the other for the brides. People in each tent were seating in rows facing the opposite tent. I learned that the more guests you have, the better the wedding is considered to be. Which might have explained why people like myself and the Japanese volunteer, who knew none of the participants, were invited, quite apart from the fact that it was a nice gesture to include us. Certainly, the groom’s tent had more people than the bride’s, although her tent was fairly full. Ours had chairs and people hanging out on one end, several huddled under umbrellas to protect them from the noonday sun.
At the far end of the aisle between the two big tents was another smaller tent, with a platform and 4 chairs lined up across the back of it, facing the aisle and the two tents. Off each side of this tent, and along the far ends of the two tents, long white curtains stretched, concealing whatever was going on behind from the attendees.
The color scheme was white with pastel apricot and teal accents. The tents were trimmed in apricot and teal, with white and pink roses. Men in the groom’s party wore dark blue suits with either apricot or teal boutenires and ties. There were several sets of color-coded bridesmaids all in traditional dress: one group in teal lace skirts with apricot shoulder drapes, another in apricot lace skirts with teal shoulder drapes, another had multi-colored skirts, with apricot drapes. Each had their appointed tasks, some helped guests find their seats, others were responsible for serving the bride, I never quite knew what the third group did. All looked exceedingly elegant. I felt rather frumpy by comparison, but I think that my wearing of the traditional dress, no matter how inelegant I was, was appreciated.
The stage was now set for what was to be a 2+ hour ritualistic conversation between the two families. Spokesmen had been chosen for each side, sometimes an elder in the family, with experience in the ritual, or sometimes someone is hired. The success of the entire affair depended upon everyone’s ability to effectively verbally engage in the conversation that was to follow. Apparently, the conversation involved a kind of verbal “sparring”, the more polite people were, the more creative in their challenges and responses, the better they were considered to be at the conversational art of bride negotiations. So much importance is attached to a family’s ability to excel at this conversation that sometimes people are actually hired to act on one or the other’s family’s behalf. First there were greetings, with a symbolic beverage shared by the two family’s representative. Then there were reports about family accomplishments for the previous year. Eventually, they got down to business.
The first goal was for the groom’s family to get permission from the bride’s family, to ask for the bride’s hand in marriage. I learned that, two weeks prior to the day, they had conveyed their intention to do this which served to “reserve” the bride, i.e. make her unavailable to anyone else, during the weeks of preparation for the actually ceremony that I was witnessing. Traditionally, this entire event, the haggling over whether the bride’s family was going to give up their daughter took place some weeks prior to the wedding. But, with the increasing expenses for getting people places, not to mention all the arrangements, more and more families were opting for the day long weeding marathon.
Once the groom’s family got permission to ask the question, it was asked. Then began a long exchange where the bride’s family came up with different reasons why the bride was not available. Nothing was off limits, lies could be told about the groom or his family, or about the bride, and each time the groom’s speaker had to come up with a good response, delivered with the utmost respect. First, the bride was too young (which she wasn’t). Then she was away at school (which she wasn’t). Then there were problems with the groom’s family that made them undesirable, all of which were lies. This went on for some time, with different men (always men) in the bride’s family’s tent standing up to offer their reason for refusing the request. The lies grew in intensity with each creation. There was much laughter each time one of the verbal sparring partners came up with a particularly good challenge or response. Eventually, permission was granted to have the bride. And somewhere in all of this, another symbolic (non-alcoholic) beverage had been shared. I was happy to learn from my private culture teacher that many Christian sects in Rwanda forbid alcohol; this meant that there would be no displays of drunkenness as the day progressed. Definitely my kind of wedding.
Following the conversation to get permission to have the bride, came another conversation about how to actually get her. Traditionally, the bride price in Rwanda involves cows. Now, with a shortage of land, many people can no longer keep cows, so money is given instead, but prices for the dowry are still calculated in cows. The final price was 8 cows, about 800,000 Rwandan francs, or $950 USD. A computer-generated cow mooing wafted through the air, much to everyone’s delight, and someone who traditionally brings the cows and introduces them, began naming the imaginary cows and otherwise entertaining the crowd with, to me, unintelligible banter.
At some point, the groom and his party emerged from the back of the groom’s tent to be welcomed by the bride’s family. Finally, following her not-insignificant-number of bridesmaids, the bride appears. There is singing, she is welcomed by her family, by the groom’s family, receives a ring that is placed on her middle finger, to be later moved to her fourth finger during the religious ceremony, and both bride and groom proceed to the platform under the smaller tent to sit for all to behold. A few gifts were brought, and another ceremonial beverage shared somewhere along the line.
The white curtains at either side of their tent were finally pulled back to reveal two buffet serving lines and then members of the wedding party began to get their food, while everyone else continued to watch and wait. People left with food stacked high on their plates, and I wondered if there would be enough for everyone. In fact, there was not. By the time we ate, most of the platters were nearly empty; I have no idea what the people in the row behind mine did. I did not take much but, clearly, someone was going to go hungry. I learned that this was not uncommon and that, in these circumstances, guests would go to a restaurant to eat during the next event, and return for the final event, no one the wiser for their absence if they managed to get back early enough to appear to have been standing outside the whole time. Food served was winter squash, cassava, potatoes, rice, meat, and beans, with a red sauce on the side.
By the time we rolled into the next venue, it was well past 1 p.m. My new friend and I headed to my house, for a break and there we stayed and talked. We did not go to the religious ceremony which, as I discovered later, was a good thing, because the entire event, another 2 hours in duration, took place in a big hall with a tin roof and everything was blasting on loudspeakers at such a high volume thatI would have had to leave anyway. But my friend had her spy at the ceremony for us and, via cell phone, we were able to keep track of what was happening, when the ring was changed, when the ceremony was concluding, so we could wander up and be waiting outside with other outdoor onlookers before everyone spilled out of the hall that served as the church to head to the hall next door where the reception was to be held. Again, there was waiting, and talking. Finally, people entered the reception hall and I could see that our numbers had at least doubled. Loudspeakers blasted music from that hall as well and so we remained outside, on chairs. It hurt my ears to just enter the door to see what things looked like; I thanked my lucky stars that the first event had been outside. I learned that during the reception, gifts were presented to the bridge and groom, and a cake was cut and shared. There was a main platform sitting in front of a decorative arrangement of floors on one wall of the length of the building where the bride and groom to site while they received their gifts, two sets of chairs facing one another across a main aisle, and a table with the cake at the end of the aisle opposite to the flowered platform and a live band behind that. Gifts were offered, music played. Dusk was settling over us as people began to emerge to consume the last meal of the day. I don’t know when the cake was cut and eaten.
I ate and then returned home before dark, a mere nine hours since I began my first “wait” of the day at 9 a.m. and probably at least 4 hours short of the total day for the bride and groom and their respective families. I learned that the groom was expected to find a house, and furnish it with everything, except kitchen utensils and food, and that this was where the wedding party would conclude the evening, with the bride’s family checking to make sure that the groom had done his appointed task correctly, and that they had done theirs, which was to deliver a complete set of kitchen utensils, and enough food for the first month, before they left their beloved daughter in her new home, to trundle home, presumably, leading their eight newly acquired (symbolic) cows. As for me, I had been to my first, and, I anticipated, last, Rwandan weeding, no worse for wear, but certainly grateful that, at this late stage in my life, I am probably not even worth one cow.
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