Having been invited to Rwanda for my friend Chance’s wedding to lovely, local girl Fausta I could only have been kept away at gunpoint. Although there were three days of festivities in all, two of them broadly followed the outline of the wedding I attended during the visit two years ago, see https://insideotherplaces.com/2008/03/18/rwanda-2008-not-just-gorillas-and-killers/ . Hence what follows concerns only the traditional wedding ceremony day.
Unlike the previous wedding where we were guests I was honored (not a term I would use lightly) to be included as part of the official retinue, where, with three others I undertook a position of a second to the best man. Naturally this required being decked out in all the traditional clothing, which lent, in western eyes an air of a gay African toga party with decorative walking sticks. One assumed it presented a more regal and respectful countenance to Rwandan eyes. The sight of a muzungu such as I, so attired, was evidently one previously unseen in Kigali judging by the slack jawed incredulity on the faces of an entire bus load of passengers who passed whilst we were waiting outside the home for our lift to arrive.
Welcoming our procession into the compound of the bride’s family home was a troupe of Burundian drummers (both families being Burundian in origin). If your notion of African drumming is more akin to some dreadlocked types clattering away on a street downtown then think again. Their drums are fashioned from hollowed out tree trunks stretched with hides which, when pummeled with beaters more like clubs than drumsticks, create a mighty resounding beat which you feel through your feet and in your chest as much as hear. Rhythms are accented by striking the sides of the trunk to create a “clack” to counterpoint the boom of the drum itself.
When the guests, nearly 300 of them were seated and after some formalities, the ceremony started with what can best be described as a formalised, good natured slanging match between an elder representative of each family. Insults are slung back and forth with the guests laughing, cheering and clapping as imaginary points are scored. Enough was translated for me to give you a flavour of the banter: when the hosts implied that we were only here to celebrate Fausta gaining her diploma, “what!” our man responds, “she can barely read and write”; on receiving a bottle of whiskey as a gift the bride’s representative looks sceptically at it, asking “whats this, ointment for my cattle?”; later, when presented with a glass of liquid to drink he looks offended – “I can’t drink this I am a decent religious man”, “how can you say that, you haven’t even tasted it”, came the reply. He took a sip, only to be berated, “what do you think you are doing ? Decent religious men don’t drink alcohol”. A rather more involved speech even accused a doctor relation of Chance of being responsible for the death of one of their family in hospital. Quite how this fitted into the amiable nature of the event without casting a cloud of gloom over everything I don’t know but they were satisfied with the response.
Fausta’s representative had a lovely, natural, humorous character which meant that a number of his points required no translation. As our side were talking he looked at his watch with a weary expression, clearly expressing, “God! How long is this going to go on for, I hope you are going soon”. Upon the mention of Chance’s name, meaning luck in French, he said, “luck! He’s going to need it.”
With Chance and my best man entourage we took our special seats under a central covered area and Fausta’s men did likewise opposite us before the arrival of four, for the want of a better word, bridesmaids , clad in glowing orange, bearing gifts. I need only say that one was last years Miss Rwanda and who cares which one it was, to describe the vision before us. Enter the best girl and bride, a Nefertiti in a dress of technicolour luminosity, an African rainbow to the overcast drizzle of English virginal white. In fact, simply the vivid variety of dresses of the female guests put our efforts to drab shame.
The drummers returned for more muscular pounding of their instruments with some athletic leaping and amusing gestures directed at the couple, all whilst maintaining their rhythmic onslaught.
Seniors of both families exited to inspect the dowry of cattle. Of such centrality to Tutsi culture were cattle that even in these more urban times anything ceremonial revolves around them. The quality of the cattle are then exalted by a form of cattle herder/praise singer from each family and this was the point where we wiped the floor with the opposition – with much mooing, whistling, stick waving and singing our guy received a well deserved ovation. His opposite number’s efforts were blatantly far shoddier, even to myself whose lexicon of the Kinyrwanda language extends to about 20 words and expressions.
More insults were traded and even my presence was used as an example of the family’s multi-cultural lineage in contrast to their peasant background. When we were formally introduced to the family their representative asked dubiously (in french thankfully) if I was a Kanyoni (Chance’s family name), “obviously”, I smiled, which left them somewhat bemused.
If at some point there was a “I now pronounce you man and wife moment” it certainly passed me by, but there clearly was no obvious climax to the proceedings.
Our “praise singer” returns for a poetic address to Chance and Fausta, much of which eluded me because of the language, however, what was obvious was his mocking of Chance’s chat up skills (probably unjustified as I have seen him in action and he is Mr Smooth) and, adopting a girly voice, pretending to be Fausta imploring Chance, he whines “Oh Chance do you really love me”. His performance was a big hit with the crowd and came as a surprise to Chance, having been out of the country for many years he wasn’t totally au fait with all the goings on and had to wing it on some occasions.
Along with the bride’s retinue we trooped into a room where the bride and groom ceremonially fed each other milk, the cattle herding heritage playing its role again. We all get a glass of the same amata meza as its known, actually more of a yoghurt drink than a milk. I was obliged to mention to Chance that it’s not up to the standard of his mum’s amata meza, but do so in English in case anyone gets inadvertently offended. And with that we marched off into the warm evening air to the family home for some more informal socialising.
Throughout my time in Kigali I have never been made to feel left out of anything and always made most welcome, to the extent that I feel I have gained a second family. Much of what went on would have been interesting enough as an observer but to a part of it all has been deeply touching at times.
Of the numerous ceremonies most have emphasised the joining of two families more than just two people. This and much more on the trip has been a powerful reminder of the importance of family and community here. If I can say so, without sounding like an aging Tory MP, the withering of these values has clearly been to our detriment in our consumerist, individual focused society. You will never read in a local newspaper that an old lady was found dead in her home only because the neighbours noticed a bad smell; the concept of an old people’s home is an alien one and the monthly umuganda morning where everyone comes out of their houses to clean up the neighbourhood is a duty not a chore. Given the levels of poverty and traumatic recent history, crime does not create the degree of problems you would imagine when compared to many poor estates in England, where life is still far easier than that of many Africans in the region. That’s the obligatory lecture bit over but should any of you be willing to share your musings on the subject I would be delighted to hear them.
Given that after the wedding Chance obviously had better things to do for a while, I and his sister Umu hit the dusty pot holed road to Uganda.