Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Cows, Liquor & Flaming Cake: How I Bought My Wife in Rwanda

Three years ago today I arrived in the land of one thousand hills. One month ago today I had a dowry ceremony with my life partner. When I arrived here three years ago I had no idea that I would marry a Rwandan woman. With a young population in Rwanda, weddings are common and important. The differences between the customs in Rwanda and the US are interesting.

August 16th, 2014

Angel and I are applying for a fiancé visa so that we can return to the US together, so we are technically not married yet. But Rwandan weddings have many parts, so it worked out for us to do the traditional Rwandan parts here and wait to do the parts that are more similar to US traditions back home. Rwandan weddings usually have three parts: they start with an introduction, or dowry ceremony, where the two families share gifts and discuss the joining of a new family; after that, they move to a church where they perform a religious ceremony; the final part is when the couple goes to the umurenge (sector) office and signs papers to make the marriage legal. There is usually also some type of reception somewhere between or after the different parts.

My engagement to Angel began with another small tradition. In February, I sent the abasaza (old men) from my family to meet with the abasaza from her family to negotiate a bride price. (The question of whether one should or shouldn't pay a dowry is a complicated one and will not be discussed here) Since I don’t have family in Rwanda, I had friends from the village where I lived and worked for two years represent me. Likewise, since Angel does not have parents, she had some friends represent her. I like that in Rwanda everyone is family and anyone who is in need is quickly adopted.

Planning a wedding in Rwanda is also different than in the US. Everyone is involved. Family and friends give contributions, usually monetary but sometimes in other ways. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes one to plan a wedding. This gives other people a lot more say in how the ceremony will go than it does in the US where the term “bridezilla” is well understood. This democratized process can add some stress to planning, but I was still glad to have it. As a volunteer and a waitress, we would not have had the funds to have such a nice ceremony without everyone’s support.

The evening before our dowry ceremony, I met with some friends and we enjoyed some Ethiopian buffet and beers. Afterwards we went to the casino and I paid $20 to play cards and drink complementary beer. It was a typical night-before-getting-married event.

The day of the ceremony, everyone who was on my side of the bridal party had to meet at my house by noon. This included: four groomsmen plus a best man; four girls; my host mother (who would fill in as my mother) and a man (who would fill in for my host father who would be filling in for my father); my two host brothers; and a few other old people who I don’t even know. After a quick lunch, we got dressed in our traditional costumes and piled into cars (provided as contribution by those who owned them) and headed over to the venue where my bride was waiting.

Preparing for the big day

Waiting for cars to take us to the venue.

When we reached the venue, we were told to “hide” behind a group of people waiting to enter across the street. We entered shortly after.

"Hiding" across the street from the venue.

The two families greeted each other from opposite sides of the garden. The abasaza sat in front to represent each family. A bottle of champagne was brought forth and the two main abasaza shared a quick glass.

Champagne is a friendly way to start a negotiation.

My abasaza then began to describe me to Angel’s family and explained that I had fallen in love with her and wanted to make her my wife. They presented Angel’s family with bottles of soda and liquor to help butter them up. While everyone enjoyed a drink, students from the school where I used to teach danced to everyone’s entertainment.

My former students dance as entertainment to the guests.

Would the real MUJAWAMARIYA please stand up?
 Now that everyone felt loosened up, my abasaza continued to brag about me and started to describe Angel. They asked for Angel’s family to bring her out so that we could be wed. Angel’s family then brought forward a young girl and said “This is MUJAWAMARIYA (Angel), but she is too young to be married. We will give her to one of your younger sons.” My abasaza exclaimed that she was the wrong MUJAWAMARIYA and everyone got a good laugh.

My abasaza then explained that I had brought a cow as a dowry payment. Angel’s family found the gift acceptable and then invited me to come sit in front of everyone in the middle of the garden. After a bit more music and another drink, we quietly gazed towards the house and waited for my bride to emerge.

A train of people emerged from the house, beautiful women and sharply dressed men. Last came Angel, escorted by two boys wearing navy suits. She was stunning in her bright orange traditional dress. I stepped forward to greet her and we exchanged rings.

Angel led me over to greet her family and I presented them with gifts. I then brought Angel to my family and she did the same. We then took our place at center stage and enjoyed another drink.

My face when I saw my bride.

Then the cow sloggers came out. A cow slogger is someone who sings the names of the cows presented in the dowry. The sounds of cows mooing began to play over the speakers and an old man from my family waved a stick around and bragged about the strong, healthy cows that I had brought for the dowry. A young man from Angel’s family then joined him, whistling cow calls and singing. As a surprise to everyone, a young woman then stood up and began to make cow calls rivaling those of the young man! Cow sloggers are usually old men, so nobody was expecting to see her do this.


She was amazing!

When everything calmed down again, a quick prayer was said over our meal. We had a Rwandan style buffet with salad, rice, beans, beef, plantains and potatoes. I was very happy to see that we had enough food for everyone.

After eating, we began to accept gifts from our guests. Some of the gifts were quite memorable. One of our friends gave us an agaseke (traditional Rwandan basket) wrapped  with colorful netting and ribbons. She told us that the basket was empty. She explained the we could put all of our problems and hopes into the basket and give them to God.

When my former colleagues from the school where I taught came to present their gift, they told us that they were giving us a cow. I asked somebody about it later and apparently they are literally giving us a cow.

When Angel’s family came to give us a framed photograph, the children started crying. Then their mother choked up. Soon we were all trying to hold back tears. I just happened to get some dust or a draft in my eyes at that exact moment.

There's something in my eye!

When we finished receiving gifts, we went inside to change for the after party. I put on slacks, a white shirt and a tie. Angel put on a red dress. She looked stunning.

After a short speech, a man popped open a bottle of champagne—after shaking it up. It’s supposed to be good luck for the couple to be sprayed with the champagne. Angel got hosed down. I got a few drops on my shoe. Her dress had a stain running down it the rest of the night, but I guess she’s gonna have better luck in life than me.

Serving cake.

I then presented Angel with a gift from my parents. It was a heart shaped charm on a silver necklace. The accompanying note said that Angel has their hearts as well as mine.

Then the cake came out. It was a couple of layers, nothing too special. But what’s fun about cakes in Rwandan weddings is that they always have sparklers shooting flames out of them! Angel lit one and I lit the other. When they finished flaming out, we cut the cake and served our guests.

Holy flaming cake, Batman!

That’s when the real party began. Angel’s cousin is a DJ at a night club in Kigali. He agreed to DJ our event for free. He blasted some tunes the rest of the night and everyone had a great time dancing and drinking. We didn’t run out of drinks until 10:00 pm. I’d say the party was a success.

We waited for most of the guests to leave and then bought one more case of beer. After killing that, we all went to bed.

Having a ceremony in Rwanda was a lot of fun. We are so grateful for all of the people who helped by contributing and for all of the people who came to participate. We can’t wait to do it all again in the US!

See you in 2015, America!