This weekend a girl my age from Canada was staying in the guesthouse as she was traveling through Rwanda on her way to Burundi. I was grateful to have someone to explore with, and as it was a weekend jam-packed with new experiences…it was nice to have company!
Saturday was the wedding of Jeannette and Jean-Bosco that I was so unexpectedly lucky to be invited to. I have been told that what I experienced was very traditional for a Catholic wedding here, so any generalizations I make should be taken with a grain of salt and at most only applied to Catholics in Rwanda!
When we arrived at the Eglise St. Michel in Kigali, I was not expecting to find what can only be described as a “bridal herd.” There were four weddings happening at the same time (and I’ve heard a Saturday in the Catholic Church here could even have up to ten marriages at the same time!). All four brides, and all four grooms, were standing at the front of the church, with all eight best men and maids of honor standing behind them. Each bride wore a lovely white wedding dress, and grooms were wearing black or white. The ceremony felt somewhat like a factory production line: one couple would say their vows, then the next, then the next, then the next. Then the first couple would exchange rings, and then so on down the line. There were sound effects for the entire service, primarily synthesized timpani rolls every time the priest finished a particularly exciting sentence. The audience was a huge sea of folks, mixed all together, each caring only about one-quarter of the ceremony. Most women attending the wedding wore Imikenyero, the traditional formal dress involving beautiful silk fabric that ties on one shoulder and comes down around the body almost like a toga.
After the ceremony everyone poured into the parking lot where chaos reigned the time for photos and congratulating your particular couple. After the ceremony the bridal herd split up to have individual receptions—so they do get some individual attention! We went to a semi-outdoor pavilion, where we sat in lawn chairs and awaited the happy couple. Jeannette and Jean-Bosco arrived, flanked by traditional Intore dancers. The Intore singing and dancing was unbelievably amazing, and is one of the more famous Rwandan traditions used today for special occasions.
The reception was utterly bizarre to me, but quite enjoyable. It was never quite clear what was going on, and I would normally have credited this to my inability to speak Kinyarwanda, but it seemed that no one knew what was going on…not just the umuzungu. For awhile, the father of the bride and the father of the groom stood up and spoke to one another, offering customary greetings and blessings, etc. The audience started to get bored, and the fathers’ words were eventually drowned out by general conversation. Then Fanta was served when crates of orange, coca-cola, and lemon-lime sodas were brought out. The fathers’ were further ignored with the excitement of choosing flavors and enjoying of beverages. Then, about half-way through the reception events, the power cut out in the overhead lights. The fathers kept trucking along through their speeches, but all hope of maintaining audience attention had been lost. People were getting up, moving around, getting more drinks, and striking up conversations in the dark.
The lights came back on after about 15 minutes, and people settled back into their seats. Then came my absolute favorite part: Jeannette and Bosco went to cut the cake, and as they stuck the knife into it, it literally exploded with fireworks and silly string. The cake was exploding, and the silly string was going everywhere, all over both of their heads, arms and clothes. Neither one smiled or laughed—they were utterly expressionless, as this extraordinarily formal act was interrupted by such an absurd addition. They returned to their seats, still coated in silly string (to the extent that I don’t think Bosco could see) and still neither one laughed. It was only after attention was diverted to something else that they began to help one another pick the silly string off. I still don’t know if this is normal or not, but I laughed enough for the both of them!
Each part of the reception was divided up by the Intore dancers, and then the reception ended when the dancers preformed a traditional dance of offering and anyone who had a gift or card for the couple had to walk up to the front of the room (while everyone watched) and present your gift and offer your congratulations. It felt a little on-the-spot, but I was grateful to have brought a card at least. The whole thing lasted about 2 hours, and I laugh when I think about what all the bride-zillas in the US would have thought of this wedding. The day’s events end when Jeannette’s parents accompany her to Bosco’s home and teach her how to manage his house. I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t want a wedding like this for myself, but I am enjoying this broader conception of marriage ceremonies!
On a different note, yesterday we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which is utterly devastating but an incredibly poignant, beautifully presented, and well-run memorial. The inside of the memorial walks you through the genocide—before, during and after—as well as a history of genocides around the world. There is also a hall where they have the pictures of 14 children killed during the genocide, with their names, ages, favorite things to do or eat, and how they were killed. It was hard to get through it all, to say the least, but really well done in terms of a respectful and educational memorial. The memorial is constructed in Gisozi, which is the site of a number of mass graves in which an estimated 258,000 people were buried. Outside of the memorial are rose gardens, which are jarringly lovely next to the flat slabs of cement covering the mass graves. Being in the memorial and thinking about the genocide that I’ve studied in books for so long, and then realizing suddenly that I am actually here, is hard to believe every time.
The Rwanda of today, no matter how much is left to do and how many people are still in need of healing, is still a Rwanda of weddings, of singing and laughter, and even when the power goes out, of people happy to see one another.