Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Chantal's wedding

November 15th

Another marathon blog, I’m afraid, but this is everything you ever wanted to know about weddings in Rwanda – the complete sequence!

Chantal is Emmanuelle’s younger sister – very much younger sister, in fact. Emmanuelle is the “directrice” of Ruli Pentecostal primary school and one of my best friends among the heads. But Emmanuelle’s a Catholic rather than a Pentecostalist. Emmanuelle is widowed with two boys, around 12 and 10 years old, so she’s much older than her sister. I’ve been invited to the wedding because Emmanuelle has taken a liking to me. I’ve never met either Marie Chantal, the bride, nor Philippe, her fiancé. All I know is that she is a teacher at Ruli Catholique primary school ((which is one of the places I’ve inspected and I may well have been into her classroom); Philippe works in a bank in Gitarama. So by Rwandan standards they’re a good catch for each other. Got all that? Right, now I’ll begin.

Today promises to be a hot one. Even at eight o’clock in the morning it’s burning out in the sun. Tom’s having a lazy day with Janine coming round to do a Kinyarwanda lesson at the flat, so I’m more or less ready to leave as soon as she arrives. She’s had her hair done in braids and looks even more stunning than usual. She sees the wedding invite on our table and says “Oh, I’ll see you there. I’m singing in the choir for the wedding and I’m going to the reception afterwards”. Good, so at least I’ll know one other person at this do.

I get dolled up in my best clothes; it’s the first time I’ve been really smart since Claude’s wedding back in February. I go clattering off on a little moto to Ruli for the dowry ceremony. I’ve been invited for the whole works – dowry, church service and reception. But the wedding invite – despite being printed in three languages – doesn’t say where the dowry do is; it just says “at Ruli”.

Janine rescues me – “it’ll be at Emmanuelle’s house. Just ask for her house when you get to Ruli”. And that’s exactly what happens. We pull off at the Ruli turning and start asking, and the very first person we see gives us detailed directions. As it happens he’s on his way on foot to the wedding too.

At the house I’m just on time for a ten o’clock start, but this wedding will be done in Rwandan time. They’re still trying to get the place ready. My rucksack stowed away in a “safe place”, I tell them not to treat me as a special guest and to give me jobs to do. So within a couple of minutes I’m carrying a sofa into their back yard; the dowry part of the marriage will be held in Emmanuelle’s cowshed which has been spruced up for the occasion. Her cow has been banished to a smaller shed even further back in the compound and is mooing disconsolately. The cowshed is being decorated with pink and white sheets and ribbons. A tented awning has been put up to keep the sun off the guests, and jolly good job too because by now it’s a real scorcher.

A couple of people are setting off with tops of banana trees to mark the route to the wedding; I get photos of then leaving with banana trees slung across their shoulders but never get round to snapping the trees in situ. Never mind; my attention is distracted by a whole gang of young women who are peeling spuds and slicing them up for chips for dinner. Everyone ignores the caterers, so I make their day by snapping them and showing them the results. In another little enclosure two more women are fanning charcoal stoves where pots of meat are already sizzling, and the smell of fresh onions is brining tears to our eyes. Something moves in the background as I’m taking my photo, and I see it’s the cow. I expect the reason she’s mooing is because she can smell beef stewing a few feet from her nose!

I’m called on to give technical help with the portable generator, which they can’t start. (Every wedding here, however small, has to have microphones and a generator to power them). What do I know about electrics and generators? – nothing. But I’m a muzungu so it’s assumed I must be the fount of all knowledge. The generator is in a tiny enclosure about the size of an outside toilet. With me and two other men looking gloomily at the thing it’s downright claustrophobic. We check for petrol and oil – no problem there. I ask them if the plug is clean. We go off and find a moto driver who just happens to have a plug spanner on him, and take out the spark plug. (The French for spark plug is “bougie” (“candle”), which I think is very funny). The plug is filthy. We’ve got nothing to clean it with except a key and a bit of cardboard, but it comes up well and after we’ve replaced it the machine starts on first pull. After that I help set up the microphones and test sound levels. So I’m something of a white knight to the party by now.

It’s eleven o’clock in the morning and guests are arriving thick and fast. It’s clear I’m going to be the only muzungu at this wedding. I greet all the older men and elderly ladies; one of whom turns out to be Emmanuelle’s mum, so that’s another good move. She’s definitely warned all of them who I am and why I’m here, and it’s lovely because I’m just welcomed as if they’ve known me for years.

At last somebody I know comes in. It’s Évalde, the secteur rep from Rugendabari and one of my special team of headteachers (Emmanuelle herself is the secteur rep from Shyogwe). We chat and sit together, and we’re joined by a secondary teacher from Shyogwe secondary who was a close friend of Elson, so straight away I feel relaxed. I’ve got small talk I can make to both of them, and both are fluent in French so I’m not stuck on my own like a dummy in the middle of herds of Kinyarwanda speakers.

The MC for the dowry ceremony is none other than Emmanuel, who goes to Tom’s Presbyterian Church and runs an alimentation shop in the middle of Gitarama. He and I know each other, too, because we patronise his shop on principle and Tom gets lifts with him when he goes into Kigali to buy more stock.

As usual, the action takes place on a raised stage, in this case a flat concrete floor which has been covered with some cloth. We’re all sitting on picnic chairs on a sloping, brick yard, originally designed to drain rainwater and slurry into a central drain. Don’t worry; a combination of recent downpours and a handy hosepipe mean the whole place smells clean and earthy rather than reeking like a farmyard. And the slope is useful because it gives a sort of tiering effect to the seats and means everyone’s got a good view. The only visual problem is that one of the canopy supports is dead centre and gets in the way of every photo opportunity.

The VIPs – about 7 or 8 from each family, will be sitting facing across to each other on the raised platform. At the back of the platform, facing towards us, are four comfortable armchairs for Philippe, Chantal, the best man and bridesmaid. In front of all of them is a huge, low coffee table covered with cloth and ready to receive presents, drinks etc. There is a massive bowl of lilies and other flowers in pride of place.

Chantal’s side of the family take their seats, and the ceremony begins. In come beautiful dancers, male and female, and as usual I take far too many pictures, mostly of shapely young girls cavorting around me!

After a couple of speeches the groom’s party arrive, looking suitably apprehensive. The bride’s side are on their home territory; the groom’s is at a disadvantage. Their arrival is announced well in advance by drums, and they are ceremonially led to their seats by the dancers. We all stand to greet them. There’s a few seconds of rather tense sizing each other up; “our” side vastly outnumbers “theirs”. Then we all sit down and the important action begins.

The representatives of each family welcome each other over glasses of urwagwa (fermented banana juice; looks like urine except that it’s being served from a pretty plastic jug with a doily under it).

Now the fun starts. Dowry ceremonies are meant to be fun. They follow a ritual of speech making where each family has a representative to speak for it. The representative’s job is to talk up the merits of their prospective bride or groom. The whole thing is done with loads of jokes and witticisms, and there’s no limit on the length of speeches. Really eloquent dowry ceremonies can go on for hours until the representatives either get too tired or too drunk to continue. Fortunately today we have a deadline of two o’clock for the church wedding, so there’s a very finite limit. (In many cases the dowry is held on a day some time before the church wedding and can last all day in itself).

The groom’s rep says they have come to look for a bride for Philippe. The bride’s side says there are plenty of lovely young girls in this household. The groom’s rep says he wants Chantal. The bride’s rep says they can’t have her; she’s already married. The groom’s rep says they want her because she’s clever and beautiful and that Philippe has set his heart on her. The bride’s rep says she is strong willed and Philippe will need to treat her like an unruly farm animal if he is to have any chance of ruling the household. And so on and so on. All this is in Kinyarwanda and is being translated into French for me by me neighbours. Évalde is speechless with amazement that we don’t have dowry ceremonies in England, and that this is the first time I’ve ever been to one. He thinks we are real barbarians across the Channel!

At this point the dancers and drummers come in again, and escort in the groom himself. He looks very nervous, and his best man has to work hard to put him at ease. Cue more speeches and the ritual bantering between the two representatives. Judging by the audience reactions the groom’s rep is winning on jokes; the bride’s is giving some really witty one-liner ripostes. Nothing is smutty, but a lot comes close. Everybody’s enjoying the fun.

Now cue even more frantic drumming and dancing and Chantal enters. I’m seeing her for the first time and she looks simply amazing. Her hair and make up is spectacular, as is Emmanuelle’s. The final touch to Emmanuelle’s wardrobe has been a generous sprinkling of “gold dust”; every time she moves or swishes her robes she leaves a haze of gold particles in the air. I know this because when she came over to see if I was comfortable and enjoying myself, she left a trail of gold all over my jacket and trousers!

The dancing girls enter carrying traditional (pointy-top) baskets on their heads. I can’t see how they could possible dance unless the baskets were somehow pinned to their hair, but I’m wrong. At one point they lift the baskets away (they’re not even wearing head-rings to support them), and take off the lids. The baskets are full of flower petals which they strew around the bride and groom and top-table guests. Then they put the baskets back on their heads and gyrate gracefully back up the sloping, uneven brick ramp and out o the yard, weaving past chair legs, walking sticks and gawping children with consummate ease. These dancers, both males and females, really are quite something to watch!

All the neighbours and passers by have come to see the fun. The backyard is packed like a football match. Extra chairs are being rammed into every available space, and still there are people climbing the walls of the house next door to watch. While some guests are either in formal robes or western suits or simply really smart, others look as if they’ve come straight in from the fields. An elderly man sitting in front of me is wearing wellies and a filthy gabardine raincoat, with crusted muck all around the collar. I must remember that for future Rwandan weddings the dress code is – everything goes! Emmanuelle’s two boys are in matching outfits of white shirts, grey suits several sizes too big for them, and brown, shiny “Elvis shoes” with the long chisel tips these folk love. They’re absolutely on their best behaviour and very sweet towards auntie Chantal. I get the impression that Chantal has probably done a lot of child minding for Emmanuelle when the boys were younger.

At this point its well after twelve o’clock and the speeches die down somewhat. Boxes of wedding presents are given to the couple, the size of shoe boxes all beautifully wrapped and finished off with pink and blue ribbons. I’m not sure whether they actually contain real presents or whether they’re just symbolic. But they look the part. Philippe is looking much more at ease now that he’s got Chantal by his side. She’s trying to do the unsmiling, po-faced routine that custom requires at weddings, but can’t keep it up for long. When she does smile she’s simply dazzling – it’s as if someone’s turned on a light switch inside her. Her hair is piled on top of her head and lacquered into submission, and she’s wearing formal robes. Across her forehead is the traditional Rwandan tiara reserved for brides. (The dancers all wear versions of these, too, together with something that looks like an elaborate hairpin). Philippe’s in a cream coloured western suit. Both of them will have a second outfit for the church wedding and reception in the afternoon.

Round about this point one of Emmanuelle’s chickens escapes from wherever it’s supposed to be and tries to reclaim its haunts in the cowshed. There’s a lot of clucking and squawking as people try to shoo it or kick it away, and that’s just from the wedding guests. You should hear the noise the chicken is making! I get a fit of the giggles at this point and have to try hard to control myself.

With the chicken sorted, its time for a ritual offering of drinks. Waitresses come in with silver trays containing – bottles of beer and coke and fanta. The chief guests get beer (it’s noteworthy that not a lot of the banana beer from the start of the dowry ceremony has actually been drunk. It’s still sitting there on the low table, and still reminds me of a clinical sample). The women and lesser ranks get fanta. That includes Emmanuelle herself, even though I know for a fact that she likes her Mutzig!

With the top tables sorted, they bring round drink for everyone. We all get a choice of whatever we like, so there’s an awful lot of Primus and Mutzig being handed around. Just what we need; even with the canopy it’s getting stifling hot and we’re jammed in like sardines. I really pity the poor people standing at the back in the full sun. Some are women with babies on their backs; they’re trying to protect the babies with sunshades but these get in other people’s lines of sight and there’s constant jostling from the adults and yelling from the babies.

When the drinks have been sorted out, plates of food arrive for the bride and groom. These are lovingly presented on the plates (rice put into a mould so that it makes a cone shaped pile, decorated with slivers of tomato and green pepper etc). The bride and groom only manage about a spoonful each; the last thing they want to be doing is a lot of eating. But with them fed it’s our turn and the waitresses and family friends make a human chain so that within fifteen minutes they’ve served nearly a hundred meals. It puts any of the Gitarama restaurants to shame. So what do we get to eat? – mélange, of course, but a nice mélange. Chips, pasta in a meaty sauce, beans, rice, cabbage and beetroot salad, tomatoes and a dollop of mayonnaise. It goes down a treat.

A couple of people from the audience come to the front and give speeches. One is very earnest; the other is really funny and has everyone in tears of laughter. Emmanuelle looks a bit stern; I think she’s wondering quite how far this chap’s going to go…

Then there’s a bit of tradition. The groom’s family produce presents; the main one of which is a hoe blade. The hoe symbolises breaking soil to grow good grass, which in turn means plenty of food for cows and thus prosperity. A member of the audience makes a mumbling speech and gives the bride’s family a bunch of withered looking grass; I think this must also be ultimately about cows and fertility and prosperity. He’s wearing an old, torn shirt, a brand new white skirt of material that looks like an offcut from Chantal’s wedding dress, a polka-dotted robe – and wellies. I really don’t know how he fits into the scheme of things…..

By the time we’ve done eating its pretty well time to be going to the church. The dancers and drummers come in again and escort the bride and groom and all the top tables people out of the yard; they go into the house to get changed. We all help clear away the plates, and make our way through to the front of the house. It’s dangerously hot in the full sun; everybody is looking for shade to wait for the couple to leave for church. There’s a big avocado tree in Emmanuelle’s front garden, and soon every available patch of shade under it is bagged. The ground under the tree has been planted with “patates” and peas, and they take a hammering from everybody’s feet.

Emmanuelle’s house is in the middle of the countryside, quite close to Ruli Catholic primary school. I walked past it when I went to inspect that school. She has lovely views across to the hills of Munyinya one way, and long views eastwards towards Nyamata and the lowlands of Rwanda. There is no fence round the garden; it’s just her particular plots of vegetables and cow grass next to the bananerai of her neighbours. Compared to what surrounds it, she has a lovely solid house, brick built and well maintained, and substantial outbuildings at the rear. Inside the walls are relatively bare, but the place is spotlessly clean and compared favourably with many of our VSO places to live! She has a flower garden at the front. The only downside is that she’s a good mile from the main road, and about two and half miles on foot from Gitarama centre via footpaths. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have either a car or a moto, or perhaps even a bicycle. I know she walks to and from school every day (about a mile and a half). That’s how Rwandans keep fit, and also explains why they laugh at us muzungus who resort to motos or taxis for anything more than a mile away!

In the lane outside the house are two big jeeps beautifully decorated with gold and cream ribbons, a host of other cars, and a couple of matatas. There’s also a dozen or so little motos, many parked under banana trees to keep them a bit cooler. As soon as Chantal and Philippe have left I get grabbed by Emmanuelle and hustled next to her mum in one of the matatas. Her mum can only speak Kinyar but thinks it’s a hoot that she’s sitting next to muzungu who’s doing his best to make a conversation with her. Like many elderly people, she carries a stick with her all the time, partly to help her get up and down hills and partly for protection from wild dogs etc. In the matata this stick won’t quite lie flat on the floor so it becomes a death trap for everyone getting in and out. There’s much to-in and fro-ing as some people are pulled off the bus and others put into it, and then all changed again, but eventually we bump away down the lane, past a line of banana trees marking the route, and past clumps of villagers watching the rich visitors who can afford to come and go in cars rather than on foot. We’re so pleased to get moving and have some air inside the oven of a bus.

At the church the number of guests seems to have increased dramatically. There’s lots more bystanders, ranging from children still wearing their school uniforms even though it’s a fortnight into the long holidays, to market women hopefully offering plastic bags of oranges or Japanese plums. I’m joined by Ernestine, the secteur rep from Muhanga, who’s come for the church service only. And there’s Claude, on his own (Immaculée must be having a rest from the heat), in natty cream suit with bright red tie.

The church service is completely different from Claude’s wedding at Shoygwe. His was Anglican, this is Catholic – a wedding plus a Mass. The bride and groom are met at the church door by the priest; all the congregation remains outside. The pair are escorted to the altar by the priest, and we all troop in behind and take our seats. There’s none of the excited ululating which greeted Immaculée’s entrance at Shyogwe.

It’s not until I’m seated that I realise that this is a double wedding – there are two brides and two grooms. And just to confuse things further, the second groom is wearing a suit almost identical to the one Philippe had on this morning. Philippe is now in a charcoal suit; Chantal has the full works – white dress with plenty of train, very off-the-shoulders; white lacy veil; white lacy things on her forearms that end at her wrists. Her skin is a beautiful milky coffee colour; the other bride is very much dark chocolate. Paler skins are very desirable here, and there’s no doubt that Chantal is reckoned a “looker” by Rwandan standards. – In fact she’s a “looker” by pretty well any standards! She’s got that slightly dazed, floating-on-air look that a lot of brides seem to have at their weddings.

On the right hand side is the church choir, and I can recognise Janine. There is a keyboard, an out of tune guitar, but thankfully no drum machine. The singing is led by a choirmaster; very skilled and in four part harmony. I have to say this – the Catholics have got church music well sorted here, in my opinion. The choir are robed; not in white but in an unbleached linen colour which looks fine.

The service is all in Kinyarwanda; there’s a lot of singing. I’m getting used to the Mass now, thanks to my Nyabinoni visit, and I recognise each part of the service even though it’s in a language I don’t follow. The only thing that jars is that there are at least three “official photographers” making video and still coverage of the weddings. They are totally intrusive. We can barely see anything of the ceremony back in the pews. And members of the congregation just get up out of their seats, walk to the side of the altar, and take their shots, too. I don’t dare; I’m not a “proper” guest so I just look and take it all in.

There are no hymns as such, but there is an anthem. There are lots of choruses. St André’s church is renowned around here for its music (the organist has been known to play Bach, and this in a Catholic church!), and songs usually have simply tunes in call and response format. But the rhythms are intricate, everybody claps to them, and the harmony singing is pretty damned good. Karen was always trying to get me to come with her to Mass at St André, and I might well give it a go in the future.

Midway through the service we have the usual afternoon rainstorm. There’s thunder crashing, and the sound of rain on the corrugated iron roof of the church almost drowns out the priest. Nobody’s really listening to him, anyway. We’re all admiring each other’s finery and looking at what the brides are wearing.

At the end of the wedding the choir lead the two married couples to the church door, and continue singing for around fifteen minutes while everyone come up to hug them and take pictures. At the end of the singing Janine comes down to say hello to me. She has a beautiful, clear, high soprano voice; I have been able to distinguish her singing above all the other women in the choir.

There’s the usual ages spent milling around after the service, but there are no formal photos as at an English wedding. (The formal pictures will either have been already taken or will be done on another day). We all pile back into the matatas and cars and transfer to Gitarama cultural centre for the formal reception. The cultural centre is the biggest public hall in town; the last time I was here was to watch the Chelsea-Man United match live via satellite link from Moscow! Now it has been completely made over – carpets up the aisles; fabric along all the walls, and the stage made into another formal arrangement just like in Emmanuelle’s cowshed. At the entrance there’s a gold ribbon stretched across a decorative archway; Philippe and Chantal will untie the ribbon when they enter. There are far too few seats for all the guests, and as a result there’s a real scrum to get a place. I manage to find seats for me, Ernestine and her friend, but am acutely embarrassed when Janine appears and I have no seat for her. She is with the rest of the choir and eventually they squash up nearby, but I reason that if I offer her my seat and stand, I’m going to make other people embarrassed that a muzungu is left standing while Rwandans are seated and that would lead to someone else being thrown out of their seat. I’ll make it up to Janine another time.

As opposed to the church ceremony, we are all seated and ready when the bride and groom arrive. The same dancers and drummers accompany them, but even they have changed into different outfits. We all stand and there’s pandemonium as the whole place erupts into clapping and stamping. One of the video photographers has a hand-held arc lamp; he can’t control it because it’s too heavy and it keeps shining in our faces and blinding us. My guy with the sound system from Emmanuelle’s barn is also here; he sees me and makes a fingers crossed sign in the hope that his equipment will work all evening. It does – more or less!

We have very few speeches at the reception. There are the usual cakes – lots of them, not just one wedding cake. Two cakes are in the shape of pointy-top baskets, iced so realistically I have to look closely to see they are cakes and not just props. The top cake has a roman candle in it; when it finishes there are a handful of thunderflashes which make an enormous noise in the hall. Good job the bangers are not actually on the cakes or we would all be splattered in icing shrapnel!

A waiter brings in a bottle of champagne, shakes it, and opens it so that it erupts. He shakes the foam all over the couple and bridesmaid and best man, then they drink a toast. She drinks from his glass (he can’t quite get the angle right and everybody roars with laughter), then she gives her wine to him. At the same time the champagne foam is being wiped off everybody’s best clothes.

As soon as Chantal and Philippe have cut the cake we get more food. It arrives in little foil boxes like those used in Chinese takeaways back home. Inside mine is simply a lump of cow meat, complete with a piece of rib, and a serviette. We are given fanta to drink, and we all chew away at our meat/bones merrily. We never actually get any of the wedding cake to eat, but to be given meat is quite a status symbol!

The dancers come on again and all the top table and front row guests are this time really getting it together on the dance floor. The male dancers have their head dresses and spears; there’s a lot of foot stamping and arm waving going on, and health and safety would throw a fit. But everybody’s enjoying themselves; we plebs at the back are stamping and clapping for all we’re worth.

After that it’s pretty well the end of the day. We all line up to give our presents to the bride and groom; mine is money inside an envelope, and that is the traditional OK think for visitors like me to give.

A bunch of street children invade the hall at the end and rifle through the empty food boxes. It’s so sad. They eagerly pick out all the bones and gristle and chew on them, hoping there are some shreds of meat left. Soon they’re hustled out of the hall by men.

I say my thank you’s to Emmanuelle – it’s been a wonderful day and one I’m going to remember for a long time. I’ve taken lots of pictures, and when I’ve edited them I’ll give her copies of the best ones. Just as I’m about to leave, one of the family members comes up to me looking very serious. You’ll remember I’ve left my rucksack at the house for security, and at the church we’ve agreed that somebody will drop it off at my flat tomorrow. (It’ll save them, and me, having to make a return trip back out to Ruli this evening). But this guy is mortified. Somebody, he says, has realised it’s the muzungu’s rucksack and has rifled it. He says you can understand the wretched logic: all muzungus are rich, so if they leave their belongings somewhere where we can find them, why shouldn’t we poor people help ourselves to their belongings?……. It’s almost certainly not one of the official guests at the wedding, but one of the neighbours or bystanders who saw me arrive and helped themselves while the dowry ceremony was in full swing. The guy is almost in tears; he says he’ll come round to see me tomorrow and find out what’s been taken and then we’ll go to the police. Apparently it wasn’t just my bag that has been interfered with – everything in this spare room has been strewn across the floor and there may be thefts from other people, too.

I make light of it; I know for certain that my passport, ID card, phone, camera and iPod are not in the bag; everything in it is easily replaceable and even the bag itself is getting very worn after a year’s constant use.

I get a moto home, and realise on arrival that I’ve stupidly left my house keys in my room when I left for Ruli in the morning. (I was preoccupied in getting out of Tom and Janine’s way so they could get on with their Kinya-rwanda lesson). Fortunately Tom is there – and so is my bag. Somebody dropped it round straight after the church service. When I go through it I find that the only thing – the only thing – that has gone is my emergency stash of “get me home” money. And even that was depleted; I usually have RwF4,000 which will get me home from anywhere in the country; today it was down to about 2,500. My camera case and chip, my sunglasses, and all of my emergency stuff is still there. I have been very, very lucky indeed. I have even acquired somebody’s wrap, which they must have assumed was in my bag.

Unfortunately I don’t have Emmanuelle’s number to be able to ring her and set her mind at rest, but I can do that tomorrow.

Best thing about today – pretty well the whole lot. I’ve really enjoyed myself.

Worst thing – the business with the bag. Not because of the stolen money – that’s a small amount and easily replaceable. It’s the anxiety and shame that Emmanuelle’s family will be feeling that bothers me. They have been so generous to me today and to think that someone could steal from them on her sister’s wedding day just beggars belief.

No comments: