Thursday, 26 November 2009

Wedding in the time of umuganda

November 21st

Today is G’s wedding, and today’s blog gives you an insight into the fraught world of trying to plan anything in advance here in Rwanda.

G and M have been planning their wedding for months and months, and have all the arrangements in hand, all the bookings made. They are going to have the civil ceremony at the district office, followed by a reception in the grounds of St Paul centre in the middle of Kigali. Everything’s ready for the big day. Then, about three days before the wedding day, an official rings them to say that the government has decided there will be a complete shutdown on Saturday morning because it’s part of tree planting week, and that all public buildings must be closed for the morning. It’s too late to rearrange things, so they decide they’ll postpone the civil wedding until the office reopens after twelve, and the guests will just have to hang around a while before the reception starts. OK, here we’re used to “African time” and people would be content to wait a while. Next, a couple of hours before the wedding, they are rung again to say that the office staff have some function to go to in the afternoon, so the wedding will have to be at twelve sharp. By this time everyone needed for the wedding itself has been contacted to put them off until half past twelve, and because of the transport shut down they won’t be able to start making their way to the district office until after twelve, when public transport resumes and the police stop blockading all the roads in the town centre. So they say to the office staff they will stick with twelve thirty, and explain why. At twelve o’clock they are rung again by the office, demanding to know why aren’t they there, and saying that the officials are waiting for them and unless they get here immediately they’ll lose their slot for the wedding….. But eventually the ceremony happens at half past twelve. But not exactly the relaxed run up we would have wished them

Meanwhile, prompt on twelve, a massive rainstorm and thunder has broken out over Kigali, there is torrential rain and everybody is pinned down for two hours until the rain eases off. Nobody travels in heavy rain; it’s a perfectly acceptable excuse for lateness. Meanwhile the dancers have all arrived for the reception and are hanging around St Paul’s.

I’ve gone in to Kigali very early to beat the bus shutdown, but find myself with three hours and nothing to do until life resumes at twelve. Police are everywhere manning roadblocks and turning people away from the city centre. Even if you’re not actually planting trees (and I don’t see any being planted all day), they have orders to prevent normal life continuing in the capital. I have to walk all the way up from Nyabugogo to the town centre, which is a long, hot, sweaty distance, three kilometres, uphill all the way, on a sticky morning. I go to St Paul to see if I can book a room for the night, but the reception is closed, and stays closed for the entire day. I’ve decided St Paul’s is a waste of time if you try to get a room on a Saturday.

Fortunately I meet Eric, who has come up the night before and managed to get a room at St Paul’s, and we go to see a friend of his to pass the time until the shutdown ends. The friend is a woman living in one of the very poor areas of town. She has a five year old daughter, Joie. The woman’s home is tiny – two rented rooms, about ten feet by eight feet each. There is electricity but no water. There is almost no furniture and few possessions. The woman was about to move elsewhere, had all her possessions boxed up ready for the move – and was then robbed. Thieves took her mattress, clothes, even some of the little girl’s toys. All the houses in this part of Kigali are so on top of each other and so intertwined that it’s inconceivable that someone could carry off a mattress and not be seen. I think it must have been somebody local. So much for community solidarity. The destitute are robbing the poor.

We just get back to St Paul’s before the storm breaks, and shelter in the Economat – the supermarket and café attached to the big catholic church next door. While we’re sheltering we’re found by Nick who tells us the wedding reception is expected to start at 2.30. By now it’s already close to 2 and we know full well what it’ll be at least 3 before people venture out after the rain and get themselves in position for the reception. We both need to use an internet café, so we race up into the town centre, where everything has reopened and business proceeds as usual. So I find myself sending emails home two hours after I’m supposed to be at a wedding reception….

We get back to St Paul’s for three, and people are gathering. Catherine is a maid of honour, also Polly; both are in formal Rwandan robes. M’s family (Rwandans) are sitting to one side, a solid mass of people. We’re on G’s side, and the gathering is much thinner. There’s a handful of VSOs – Kersti, myself and Eric, Épi (who shared a house with G all last year) and G’s mum who has come all the way from Canada. It’s her first visit to Rwanda; she arrived here about six days before her daughter’s wedding.

The reception finally starts around four o’clock. And it’s wonderful. G looks stunning in a simple white dress with lots of gold decoration. M can’t keep the grin off his face the entire afternoon. They look absolutely right for each other, and I’m so pleased that everything seems to be coming right for them. The dancers are superb; the speeches mercifully short and most of them translated into English for us; we are fed very well indeed, and because most of this is happening in daylight we all get some good pictures. By the time we have cut the cake and given presents, though, it’s dark.

I still haven’t got anywhere to spend the night. The reception at St Paul’s has never opened. I had intended to get the last bus back to Gitarama, but by the time the reception has finished it’s too late. Fortunately Kersti and Nick come to my rescue, as usual, and offer me a bed at their place for the night. But meanwhile I’ve left my backpack safely locked away in Eric’s room, and he and Becky are off to Zanzibar early tomorrow morning. Things are getting complicated.

After the reception we gather up the wedding cakes, presents etc and pile everyone into two cars, and set off for the Serena Kigali hotel. Kersti, Nick and Catherine have clubbed together to book a room for the newlyweds on their wedding night. This particular wing of the hotel has only been open a fortnight, and the room is opulent beyond belief. Outside there is the heated swimming pool. Glass lifts swish up and down between the floors. The ground plan of their room is about the same size as the flat I share with Tom. The bed could easily sleep three or four people without being cramped. There are eight of us in the room and it doesn’t even feel remotely crowded.

The maids of honour change out of their robes into something more practical and we go round to Republika, one of the best restaurants in town. Here we have a really super buffet meal –so two big meals today in a very short time, and sit and chat until nearly midnight. Then it’s time for the bride and groom to leave; Nick and Kersti’s car is being used as the runabout to ferry people around the town. We also pile into the car for a second run and leave, the youngsters off to Cadillac to club the night away; the old stagers (i.e. the over 30s) back home to get some sleep.

It’s been a crazy, crazy day, but the wedding was lovely and despite all the interruptions – officialdom, rain, lack of transport etc – everything has gone to plan.

G and M will stay in Rwanda until next November, by which time we hope M will be given a Canadian visa. By next Christmas we hope they will be in Canada and that everything will go well for them.

The key to organising a major event such as a wedding in Rwanda is to allow lots of time between the various parts of the affair, to expect delays and last minute frustrations, and to be patient.

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