Our night guard, Justin, promised to invite us to his house some months ago. He wanted it to be during the dry season which is unsurprisingly also a good time for weddings so we got to kill two birds with one stone when he handed us a delightful little invitation to the wedding of his cousin in Kirehe district south of Ngoma on the way to Tanzania.
Theo, our friend and Kinyarwanda teacher, was also invited and we set off by minibus in the morning. It's always nice to have Theo along, not just because he's a lovely guy, but because it takes the stress out of travel when you have a 'tour' guide who knows the ropes. We were to stop at the 114 kilometre stone from Kigali where Justin duly met us and took us to his house beside the busy road. Although it was before 11 o'clock his wife, Emmeline, regaled us with a big, tasty feed. Everyone got a coca cola too. Stella and I got to cuddle their new baby Philippe. Apparently the child doesn't like being handled by others but the muzungu magic seemed to work wonders and he slept, wheezed or smiled in our arms.
We all then walked along the road and up a slight incline to the bride's family home where the first part of the day's festivities was to take place. An awning had been put up over the front yard as shelter from the sun and a huge crowd of people was gathered on either side. With Justin leading, we squeezed our way through. There was a buzz as the guests all gazed expectantly in our direction. I said 'amakuru?' (how are you?) and in unison everyone chanted back 'ni meza' (well/fine) the force of which gave me a backbone tingle. We were led to comfy seats of honour facing the house which we automatically tried to refuse out of embarrassment, but only half-heartedly. This was clearly where we were meant to be and it was almost as if everyone had been waiting for us to arrive before the show could begin.
Once seated, we waved to the crowd and I shook the hands of those close by. An old guy to my left was clearly enjoying himself supping from a straw out of a gourd - sorghum beer said Theo, the moot point being whether it was alcoholic which the church would frown upon being drunk in public. He proceeded to fill the gourds of his companions with the murky liquid out of a jerrycan which had seen better days. It was great to have so many old people present as you don't see too many out and about. We were each given another coke something we seldom drink (unless it has a splash of rum!). I was thinking of the 16 spoons of sugar in my system from the two bottles but it would have been rude to refuse. I'll have to dry out when I get back to Australia! I don't think diabetes is a problem in rural Rwanda because they don't eat enough junk food, and sugary drinks tend to be for special occasions only as they are too expensive for day-to-day consumption.
Suddenly there was a commotion at the front door and the bride and groom appeared together. Although this was prior to the official church ceremony it was important for the bride's family, friends and neighbours to see them both in marriage gear as many wouldn't be able to go to the church service and the following visit to the groom's village where they would make their home. The couple met through singing in the church choir but they live about half an hour apart by road, a not inconsiderable distance in a society where the vast majority of people have no private means of transport. They moved around the limited space being presented to family members, the bride looking as miserable as possible at the knowledge of leaving her home.
Eventually they departed, off to the church well ahead of the 2 o'clock service. This was the signal for their household goods to be carried out of the house and piled up in the yard in readiness for transportation to the couple's new home. Rwanda is a brideprice society, although most refer to it as a dowry, where the groom with the help of his family contribute a minimum $250 cow or its equivalent value to the marriage union. However, Theo was impressed at the value of the goods being brought out by the bride's family. Apart from furniture, a paraffin lamp, storage containers and a mattress, there was a bicycle and churns for the yoghurt. 'You know an able woman when she is churning' says a Rwandan cow-related proverb just as 'you know an able man when he is milking'.
All the goods were brought down to the roadside and we hung about waiting for our minibus to the church. We got there with the service in full flow and I was immediately called into action as the official photographer hadn't turned up. A few others were snapping still using old instamatic film cameras. In many ways it was a typical Christian marriage ceremony except for the registry signing being done in full view (and no dad giving away the bride). There was no vestry in the rudimentary church building in any case. The choir was a funky African one of course and the instrumental support came from an electronic piano powered from a car battery.
After the service we waited for our Chelsea supporting minibus driver with his dangerous, broken passenger door (it kept swinging open) to take us to the concluding part of the ceremony in the groom's village. There a house had been specially built for the young couple at the top of the escarpment overlooking the rice paddies in the valley below. It was quite a drive off the main road. When the imodoka (motor car!) minibus could go no further we started walking with half the gathering crowd paying attention to the young couple and the other half (especially the children of course) to us. There were welcoming committees along the way as villagers came out to sing and applaud the bridal couple. Periodically, they would stop to allow their person-in-waiting to dab at face sweat droplets which might spoil the perfection of their appearance and thus the day.
We went on ahead and took our seats next to a new expectant crowd. They were also mostly locals. With only two minibus loads having made the journey here we were indeed privileged. As the couple and their entourage continued to wait in the shade of a tree we asked what the hold up was. Apparently it was bad form for the couple to arrive before their household goods. It must have been stifling in the wedding gear as the day was hotter than usual. Eventually the stuff arrived and was brought directly into the house. I was free to go in and roam around. 'That's not where I wanted the chest of drawers put!' I could imagine the discussions afterwards. 'Thank goodness that day is over. Now to put our feet up and have a nice cup of tea!'
But there was more! The couple had to go and sit down under the hot awning for an interminable period while the two families formally exchanged airmail envelopes, apparently containing best wishes and (maybe) money. No brown envelopes please! Then the speeches began. There's not much banter among guests at Rwandan gatherings but they are given to much solemn speechifying. I had been half expecting to speak at the bride's house and was mentally prepared but, by this time, I had switched off and was thinking of the Primus beer that Justin had promised back at his house. Suddenly I was told that it was my turn to 'guha ijambo' (lit. to give a word). For some reason the first word that came out of my mouth was 'amafaranga' (money). I was like Pavlov's dog. The key street word had obviously permeated my brain. I recovered, no one seemed to notice the faux pas - maybe they were just being kind or, since abazungu are made of amafaranga, they thought it would simply pour out of me there and then. Anyway, I made one of my poorer speeches in Kinyarwanda since I felt confident enough to stand up and talk in the language.
During one of the other speeches, I kept hearing abazungu (white people) again and again and asked Theo for the context. It seems to have another meaning which is 'to be exact in what you do', supposedly one of our traits. The literal translation of part of the speech came back as follows: if you work like a white person (gukora nk'abazungu) you will ascend to heaven where the original abazungu sat at God's right hand making all people equal. How it got from the right hand to equality I don't know but we sure have a lot to live up to.
The speeches finally over, there were some dances, a piece of poetry reading by a young boy that brought the house down, some food - which had been cooked in the backyard of the newly weds - including an important drink and food sharing moment between the couple, and the coup de grace - the receiving of presents from guests. These included our own contribution, on Theo's recommendation, of popular batik-style cotton. The bride continued to look glum the whole time the presents were given although Stella says she was smiling during my speech. Nice to know that those well crafted jokes cut through!
By this time it was getting quite late and we went, along with half the crowd, for a final sticky beak inside the couple's house. I glanced into the bedroom and saw the pair's individual minders dabbing at their faces as they sat on the bed. Then we had to hang around waiting for the Chelsea supporter to come back with his barely functioning minibus and take us to Justin's house for the promised Primus to finish off the day. We did get back eventually and drank beer in the candle light of Justin's front room where we analysed the events of the day and forged new bonds in Rwandan/Australian relations. We had of course left it too late to catch the last bus home and ended up hitching our first ever lift in the country on a truck going only part way back to Kibungo. At the point where the truck turned off we managed to find three motos to take us home for a suitably inflated evening price. The beautiful, star-lit sky, infusion of beer, cool evening breeze, exhilaration of speed and the knowledge that we were going to be able to get home after all, combined to imbue with a feeling of utter contentment after such a wonderful experience. We both agreed that it was probably the best day we have yet spent in Rwanda.
|Theo and Justin with Philippe and Delphine, Justin's daughter|
|Scene from the house window|
|The bride appears|
|A wedding 'spokesperson' shakes hands|
|Stella in wedding garb with goods waiting for minibus to the church|
|Face dabber at work. Groom's dabber with tissue at the ready|
|The newly built house for the young couple|
|The woman carrying the suitcase didn't even duck. There must have been a dress rehearsal!|
|The million dollar view from the house (to the left)|
|Under the awning at the groom's village and their new home. Bride's mother sitting to the right with tiara. The bride also had a crown but with flashing tiara!|
|The sip from the hand of the groom that signifies so much|