While in Rwanda I have been asked multiple times if I am married. When I say no, I get a variety of responses, everything from; people asking why, people telling me to “make a plan” to get married, and people offering me their sisters/cousins/daughters to marry. The average age of marriage here in Rwanda is 21, so it’s not too surprising that, as a 24 year old with a job, my answer of “no” is often met with surprise. While I have no plans for my own marriage in the near future, I did get the opportunity to go to a wedding this past weekend and see what it would be like if I did take someone up on their suggestion to marry their sister.
I was invited by a friend I met in 2013 to come spend the weekend with his family and go to his cousin’s wedding this past Saturday. I find that adventures in Africa often start with a simple “yes”, so I told him that I’d be happy to oblige. My friend was quite excited as he said, “No mzungu (white person) has ever visited my family, but me and them, we love the white people so much!” He also said that his friends would never believe that he had a mzungu friend unless I actually showed up. So last Friday I left work early, got on a bus for Kigali (the capital city), and rode in the jump seat over the gear shifter right next to the bus driver. Now, my friend had not told me my final destination, but said I should call him when I arrived at the taxi park in Kigali. So, when I arrived at Nyabugogo taxi park I called him and he told me to take the “Yahoo! Express” bus (yes, like the search engine Yahoo!) to Kabarore. I then rode in the back of that bus for 3 hours as afternoon turned into evening, and nervously asked the girl next to me the name of each town we stopped at, until eventually I arrived at Kabarore in the Eastern Province.
I arrived in the evening, around 7:30, and called my friend again to tell him I had arrived. He then came to “pick me” (they say pick you instead of pick you up) and told me he had been very afraid the entire time that I would get on the wrong bus and end up in the wrong town. He and his father helped me to carry my things to his house, where we had a nice dinner of rice, beans, beef, and chips (potato wedges) and I met his mother and his brothers and sisters. My friend is the oldest of 7 and is one of, from what I can tell, hundreds of cousins. I met at least 20 of his cousins in the two days that I was there, and apparently there are many more that I need to meet next time. My friend lives in a small 3 bedroom hut made from mud bricks, which is kept more clean than the average house in the U.S. His family has cooks in a small cooking hut that has holes for burning firewood, uses a drop toilet out back, and bathes in a small pen enclosed by a waist high wall. I bathed in this pen and noticed that there are many holes you can see through in the walls, so I’m pretty sure his whole family saw me naked. I shared a room with my friend and his brother, I was on the bottom bunk of a bunk bed, and they were on top. On the whole the living conditions were quite nice and I greatly enjoyed staying at their house.
On the first morning I awoke and took a bucket shower in said bathing pen, watched by all the neighborhood children. I then ate a breakfast of matoke (mashed, boiled plantains) and milk tea (hot milk poured through a strainer that has tea leaves in it), and which almost included intestines, but I told him I don’t eat meat in the mornings (which normally true). After breakfast we got dressed in our nice wedding clothes and went to the neighbor’s house (the house of the groom) to see if we could get a ride to the wedding. Luckily we were able to get two seats in the matatu (small taxi bus) reserved for family for the 50 minute ride from the house to the beginning ceremony. We passed the time in the bus by singing hymns in Kinyarwanda, but unfortunately I had forgotten the hymnal that I’d been given the weekend before at home.
We left around 9:30 in the morning and arrived at the first ceremony around 10:20. In modern day Rwandan weddings the first ceremony is a visit to the girl’s house (the house of her family) where the families “negotiate” how many cows the groom will pay for the bride (now the families negotiate the real price before). I would estimate there were around 250 to 300 people at this first part of the wedding, and they served us all a sumptuous meal of matoke, beef, beans, rice, salad (chopped up carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, and beets), and a Fanta (soda) of your choice. After we had finished eating we all took our seats under some very large tents for the ceremony. I’m not quite sure what happened during most of this ceremony, as it was all in Kinyarwanda, but I know that it included; the fathers discussing the number of cows the groom would pay, the fathers drinking Fanta that was representative of “a drug”, the wedding party sharing jugs of milk, a man “calling” the cows to be paid (they don’t really do this anymore, they just pretend), and a man “looking” at the cows the other many called.
After the cow ceremony we went to the local church for the wedding ceremony. This ceremony was quite beautiful, and resembled an American wedding ceremony. They had the front of the church all decorated with hanging cloths and string lighting. Several choirs sang, a very old man danced, a pastor preached, and the two were married. Noticeably missing from this ceremony was “you may now kiss the bride”, I guess that would be too public here, I’m not sure if I’ve seen any Rwandans kiss while not being plastered. The bride also must be very solemn during the ceremony here, I’m not sure if I saw her smile at all. Apparently they’re supposed to be sad because they’re leaving their family (I hope they’re not actually sad). The groom, however, did not have to be solemn, and he smiled almost the entire time. They also signed a marriage certificate at the wedding, which I think had their vows on it.
After the wedding ceremony we walked to a nearby school for the reception where we ate another meal of the same kinds of food, and again found our seats for the continuing festivities. Unlike American weddings the reception here was quite structured. First the bride and groom arrived in a wedding procession flanked by traditional dancers, then a cable used for the audio caught on fire so the traditional dancers went ahead with their whole routine because they didn’t need mics, then some people gave speeches, then the bride and groom cut the cake, then a choir sang, then the power went out for the whole area so the choir sang without mics, then we gave gifts. The gift giving was quite long, because each person who gives a gift has to go up to the front, present the gift, give a speech, and have their picture taken with the bride and groom. I took up my gift (a set of pots) at around the 2 hour mark, and then we stayed for another hour after. After my speech apparently the MC said that even though I was white, I was obviously part of the family since I came with a gift, so I’m glad I did.
After the wedding we went back home, had some milk tea, and I went to bed, while my friend went back to the wedding which continued until 1 am. All in all the affair took around 15 hours. The next morning I woke up, took another public bath, and went with my friend to greet the groom. Then I took some pics with my friend and his family, presented my gift for them (a wall clock), and got back on the bus for another 5.5 hr ride home. All in all it wasn’t an extremely eventful weekend (I spent most of my time sitting down) but it was very interesting to see a wedding ceremony here. It was also really nice to meet my friend’s family, who treated me like their own son. Apparently they’re having another wedding in October which I’m sure I will be invited to.