We’ve arrived! We’ve reunited with my host family, dragged our piles of luggage home from the airport (all of which arrived, to our surprise, with no issues whatsoever), and already taught my Rwandan niece, Gianna Anaella, how to catch a frisbee. Maman Jimmy, my wonderful host mom, has prepared a lovely room for us in their family home, newly painted a welcoming pink color (chosen of course by Anaella). They bought a big, fluffy, blue comforter for the bed, with matching fluffy pillows, which we’re now calling our “Baloo Bed” (like the bear from the Jungle Book!).
It’s been wonderful, especially, to see Anaella, who is now 4 years old. I first “met” her in the womb when I studied in Kigali and she’s already blossoming into such a chatty, funny, spunky little lady. She’s been attending a French preschool which means I can communicate with her, at least minimally, compared to last time I visited when she chattered to me solely in Kinyarwanda and wondered why I always stared blankly in response to her never-ending streams of questions. She desperately wants to learn English so we’ve already been teaching each other, and Colin, lots of French/English/Kinyarwanda words. Last night, she performed a myriad of songs, with accompanying dances, in all of the languages she knew, with the family clapping along. This morning at breakfast, she sat in Colin’s seat after he’d left the table and pretended she was Colin by speaking in a low voice and saying “Merci beaucoup” in Colin’s terrible French accent. It’s going to be fun.
My host sister, Ariane, is getting married this coming Saturday and we’ve been able to witness some of the preparations. Rwandan weddings have lots of steps, the first being a general meet-and-greet between both families where they approve of the choice and find out if there is anything wrong with the background or standing of the family. This is called “gusaba” and happens about a month before the actual ceremony. The second step is “gukwa” or the ceremonial offering of the bride’s dowry, which happens amongst the menfolk at the bride’s house. Then there’s the traditional marriage ceremony, which occurs at the bride’s home or if their house is too small, at a rented venue, paid for by the wife’s family. Then there’s a civil marriage (signing the legal documents) and a religious ceremony (in a church) with a reception, both paid for by the groom’s family. The traditional and religious ceremonies often have 700-800 guests and because it’s rude to exclude anyone, all sorts of folks attend—neighbors, coworkers, acquaintances, friends of friends…. (Somebody outlined some of the other traditions, which we may not have witnessed—read for more info: https://itriedtowarnyou.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/a-traditional-rwandan-wedding/).
On our first evening here, jetlagged and unaware, we witnessed the “gukwa” for Ariane’s wedding, almost unbeknownst to us. We should’ve figured something was up when we were sitting on the couch with a family friend and my very well-dressed host mom, who usually only wears wrappers and t-shirts in the house. We heard a knock at the door and two well-dressed men arrived, an older gentleman wearing a full black suit with a ruby red tie and a younger man with trendy glasses and a full-body, brightly patterned outfit. Everyone greeted each other, with handshakes and cheek-kissing, and Maman Jimmy served them the customary Fanta with a straw. She and the family friend shared pleasantries with the visitors and Colin and I, still in our gross plane clothes, zoned out amidst the Kinyarwanda chatter. Then Maman turned to me and whispering, she explained something to me in French that I interpreted as her asking us politely to leave. Turns out that was the opposite of what she meant (yikes, my French needs work), and we were awkwardly called back into the living room and explained that we were to be witnesses of a Rwandan marriage tradition. Only a few hours in the country and we’d committed a major faux pas—such is life I suppose 😉
With a cousin quietly translating for us, we learned that the two gentlemen were from the husband-to-be’s family, here at the house to present a dowry to the family of the bride. The older gentleman, in many words, formally thanked Ariane’s family for raising the bride and spoke of the tradition of marriage. Strangely, he spoke not directly to Maman Jimmy, Ariane’s only living parent, but to the male family friend, who has no blood relation to the family whatsoever. According to tradition, the exchange must be conducted by men only, and historically, women were not even permitted to be present. The dowry also used to be a cow (or a herd of cows if you were rich, I’d assume) given by the groom’s family but these days it’s simply money. The older gentleman then handed over a packet of money to the male friend who then handed it to Maman Jimmy, and everyone applauded to signify the exchange.
The older gentleman then wanted to know about American marriage traditions and via our interpreter, we explained how different marriage is for everyone in the US. We shared our own process and, surprisingly, he approved greatly of the equality between the sexes, in both the wedding and in marriage. He was shocked to learn that Colin generally cooks in our household while I do the dishes but argued that Rwandans would benefit from doing the same. He explained that in Rwanda men don’t do anything while the women have to work very hard to take care of children, cook, clean, etc. We later found out from Ariane that in the actual home, couples negotiate the chores but maintain a front of the woman doing everything when family or friends are around.
The days have been filled with other wedding preparations–meetings with the cook (who will be cooking for 300 people for only about $370 total—weddings cost significantly less in Rwanda than in the US. Ariane’s wedding of 700-800 people will probably cost about the same as our wedding of 75 people), delivering wedding invitations around town, shopping for “mushananas” (the traditional clothing for the wedding party). We also witnessed a family meeting, where members of the bride’s family and friends came to a beautiful rooftop restaurant for sodas and discussed final wedding preparations. Because weddings are so huge, meetings like this are held so that the entire family can share in the planning and make sure the bride and her immediate family haven’t forgotten something. The budget is discussed, family and friends are encouraged to pledge money to assist in paying for everything, and roles are assigned for the wedding day.
In terms of our work and long term plans, things are moving slower than we want but we’re reminding ourselves that it’s to be expected. We met the MindSky team, where Colin has been working on a contract, and I’ve started visiting various NGOs, attempting to meet with directors. I recently applied to an ESL teaching position in the city and was told that I was too overqualified to even interview for the job, so I guess that’s a good thing? We have several housing options but we’re continuing to look around and negotiate prices.
Love to you all!