Last weekend, I had the unique pleasure of attending two Rwandan weddings, one on Saturday as a guest and another on Sunday as a bridesmaid. (Coincidentally, both brides were named Janet.)
Weddings are extremely frequent here, especially during the two wedding seasons of November-December and June. I’ve been trying to figure out why weddings happen so often and my unfounded speculation is that there may be a demographic bulge of 20-30 year olds. Because of societal norms and pressures, women tend to get married fairly young here, generally between the ages of 22 and 26. Men, on the other hand, have a longer single shelf life and may frequently be 5-10 years older than their wives.
Rwandan weddings have three parts: a traditional introduction ceremony, a religious ceremony, and a civil ceremony. The wedding that I attended on Saturday was the religious ceremony, a full day affair that started at a church and ended in a reception hall. After a fairly typical Catholic service (illuminated by a near-constant stream of photographs), everyone drove to take more pictures at a nearby garden. Next, everyone returned to the church grounds and the couple entered the reception hall by passing through an arch and cutting a ribbon at the entrance. Unlike the freeform receptions at American weddings, this reception consisted of the guests sitting in audience rows watching members from the wedding party on stage give effusive speeches in Kinyarwanda. The whole reception was a type of dialogue between the two families, in which relatives discussed why the union between the couple was a good idea and why they supported it. At one point two bridesmaids approached the front of the stage where a tower of cakes was waiting and lit sparklers to put in each cake. Everyone was served some cake and Fanta and the sugar highs they provided were instrumental in keeping me awake during the rest of the two hour affair.
The wedding on Sunday was the traditional introduction ceremony, a very dynamic and symbolic event in which the husband is introduced to the wife’s family and vice versa amidst lavish African decorations and often hundreds of guests. It was the wedding of my next door neighbor Janet and the festivities for me started when her sister whisked me off to the salon up the street to have my hair done in a popular style known as a “coq.” It was quite an experience and the end product recalled my late grandmother Marilyn’s hairstyle. See below:
Once the hairstylist was finished (read: once he gave up trying to squeeze my stubborn lion’s mane into the smooth puffed wave that the other bridesmaids had), I was led to Janet’s aunt’s house (where the ceremony was held) and taken into a bedroom where the other three bridesmaids were getting ready and flitting about in a typical pre-big event whirlwind. With impressive skill, they quickly helped me into the traditional garb we would all be wearing, called a mushanana: a dress/toga made of silk-like material and draped over one shoulder. Here’s the end product:
As we were getting ready and waiting with Janet, sounds from the ceremony outside wafted through the windows that I kept trying to peek out of. The introduction ceremony is very complex and consists of numerous speeches from both sides of the family in which they discuss why the couple should marry, the giving of the dowry (in the past it was a cow but these days it’s usually just money), traditional dancing and singing, storytelling, and the official introduction of the couple to the public.
About an hour into the ceremony, it was time for the bride to make her debut, flanked by the four of us bridesmaids bearing gifts for her to give to her fiance’s family.
Along with the other bridesmaids and groomsmen (who were also dressed as hunters) I spent the rest of the ceremony sitting under the wedding canopy on a straw mat, trying to keep my mushanana from getting too dirty or crinkled. It was a delightful surprise when everyone at the wedding was served a full meal of meat, pasta, fries, and Fanta. The ceremony continued with family members from opposite sides exchanging gifts and bestowing praise and wishes of success on the couple.
It was a true honor to be so intimately included in Janet’s special day. I’m looking forward to her religious ceremony (and three more weddings) next month, where I’ll be wearing the mushanana again – maybe by then I’ll be able to put it on by myself!