Tying the Knot, Ugandan Style

July 19th 2015

Yesterday Shelby, Jeremy and I had the good fortune of going to a traditional Ugandan wedding. Or actually a kwanjula as it’s called, which means introduction. We went with our bosses, and on the drive out to the bride’s village they explained how Ugandan weddings are long, drawn-out affairs. The kwanjula is one of the last steps in the process, and it’s when the groom is introduced to the bride’s family. Later, after several weeks or months have passed, the couple will have another ceremony in a church. Our bosses explained that both ceremonies are legally binding, however the former constitutes a polygamous marriage, while the latter makes it monogamous. Many Ugandans – especially those who live in rural areas – will only have the first ceremony, since the practice of taking many wives is very common here. For this couple however the church ceremony is planned for next weekend, which will bind them exclusively to each other.

The man getting married works at another NGO, so we’d met him on several occasions at workshops and conferences. However, we really don’t know him too well, but because we’d never been to a kwanjula he graciously allowed us to take three of the coveted seats. Just another example of Ugandan generosity. Needless to say we were extremely grateful, since it turned out to be a pretty wild experience.

From the beginning we instinctively compared the kwanjula to the weddings we are used to. But the similarities ran out very quickly as we were thrown into a world of colourful dresses, foreign tongues, and chickens. So instead of trying to find similarities, here are some of the key differences between a traditional Ugandan wedding and a typical North American one (from my limited experience):

1. It’s not really about the bride and groom. In North America, the wedding is all about the two people being joined in marriage. This is true to some extent here, but it seems to be just as much about the families. In Uganda the wedding symbolizes two families coming together as one. Yesterday this was reflected in the fact that the groom was given almost no preferential treatment, and instead sat at the back on the gathering. In fact, the bride didn’t even appear until halfway through the ceremony! And even when the bride and groom were finally introduced, the host listed each of their lineages in great detail.

The purpose of sharing the lineages was to emphasize the importance of family, as well as showing that the bride and groom come from completely separate clans. As I mentioned in my last post, it’s taboo to marry within your clan or your mother’s clan. Luckily, in this case the bride and groom even came not only from different clans, but from completely different kingdoms. The groom was from Acholi, while the bride was from the neighboring kingdom of Busoga. This meant that the wedding took place in two different languages, with a mixture of different customs. But more on that later.

2. Ugandan weddings have much more dancing. True, at receptions for North American weddings people bust out their most embarrassing moves. But that all happens after the official wedding has taken place. In Uganda however most of the kwanjula involves music, dancing and clapping. In fact we were even criticized when we weren’t clapping enough! A DJ played throughout the ceremony, and there was even a bubble machine. The masters of ceremony also spent most of the time making jokes, even during the more official parts of the proceedings. All in all it was a much livelier affair than our typical serious North American ceremonies.

3. Ugandan weddings aren’t very private affairs. North Americans generally have relatively small families, so weddings can be pretty intimate. Here however that’s out of the question, since people usually have upwards of five or six siblings, meaning that they have even more aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. This means that even a wedding with just family would probably have double or even triple the amount of people a North American wedding would have. Moreover, by the end of this wedding the whole village had gathered around to watch. Hundreds of children and teenagers formed a circle around the perimeter of the tents, wanting to witness the exciting event taking place in their village.

4. PDA is a no no.
Even though it’s their big day, the bride and groom never kiss in a Ugandan wedding. I’ve noticed that here in Uganda women and men rarely exclusively show attention to each other – it is rare to see a couple holding hands for instance. However, this doesn’t mean that affection is frowned upon. On the contrary, Ugandan’s are all about physical contact – it’s normal to hug someone you are meeting for the first time, and handshakes often last whole conversations. Moreover, men holding hands is a regular sight here (somehow it isn’t associated with being gay, which is interesting given Uganda’s strict anti-homosexuality laws). But when it comes to weddings, the bride and groom can only hug each other. Anything more intimate is not fit for public.

5. There are way more chickens. More on that later.

Finally, unlike short and sweet Canadian ceremonies, traditional Ugandan weddings last for upwards of seven hours (or at least this one did). Add on the eight hours we spent in the car driving to the bride’s village, and you’ve got a pretty full day! I’ll give you a summarized account of the events, just in case anyone plans on doing their own wedding Ugandan-style:

Before the wedding started the groom’s side convened at the headquarters of his NGO to get dressed. A few weeks beforehand Shelby and I had gotten traditional dresses made for the occasion (called gomesi), while Jeremy had purchased the customary long dress worn by men on formal occasions. A the NGO the women lined up to get help with their dresses, since the pleats and sashes made it a two person job. They accented their outfits with expensive looking earrings, necklaces, and towering heels.

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Once everyone was clothed, one man introduced himself as a teacher from the region. He explained that he spoke the local language and knew the customs, and therefore he would be leading us all through the ceremony. The bride’s side had a man playing a similar role, so they did most of the talking during the wedding.

After getting our directions we drove to the bride’s family home. Here weddings start with the groom’s side – us included – lining up outside where the introduction will take place and asking to be let in. At this point women dressed as nurses came up to us and pinned little bows to our clothing, while a woman dressed as a doctor pretended to take our pulse. Since none of this happened in English, it was only later that we found out they had been ‘checking’ us all for diseases before we could come in, since we were infected with the disease of love. Ugandan humor I guess.

After we were seated and declared disease-free, everyone stood to sing the Ugandan national anthem, and the anthem from the bride’s kingdom. A prayer was said, and then the bride’s family members were introduced. This process took about two hours: between commentary from the ambassadors, lines of women in matching dresses would dance in, kneel and introduce themselves, and then be given ‘appreciations’ from the groom’s side (i.e. envelopes with money). At one point Jeremy was even picked to help distribute these.

After the introductions, the bride herself finally appeared. After dancing in in an elaborated sequined traditional dress, she was seated on a small platform in the middle of the three large tents. The bride’s paternal aunt then danced her way in and started searching for the groom. After finding him seated at the back of our tent, she pulled him out and brought him to his bride. At this point there was a lot of commentary in Luganda, pictures were taken, and a basket of fruit and flowers was presented to the couple. The groom’s sister’s also knelt before the bride and welcomed her into their family, telling her how much their brother loved her and how excited they were to have her as a sister.

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Once the sisters were done the bride danced out, and it was time for the groom’s side to pay the bride price. Ugandan society is very patriarchal, and as such there is a practice of the groom paying the bride’s family in gifts (like a reverse dowry). Apparently it varies from kingdom to kingdom, but it’s acceptable to give anything from Bibles to cows. In this case the groom’s family had brought a truck load of bags and baskets filled with various types of food and drink. There was also a cow, a goat, an armchair for the bride’s father, several live chickens, and a suitcase the groom had packed specially for his bride, filled with keepsakes from his childhood.

The gifts are traditionally presented by the women from the groom’s side, who carry the baskets in of their heads. This was something Shelby and I had been dreading, since we’d never carried anything on our heads in our lives. Luckily, the women made sure we were given light baskets, and we made it through without dropping anything. It’ll still be a while before I can carry a basket on my head without holding on, and while wearing four inch heels like the other women were, but I think I did well for my first try.

Once the gifts were presented, the bride’s father sat in his new chair and blessed the couple. At this point Shelby’s boss leaned over to me and whispered how she despises this patriarchal custom. She explained that since men often have many wives and even more children, it is the mothers who raise the kids. As such, she said it should be the mothers who bless the marriage, not the often absent fathers. But instead, the bride’s mother spent the whole ceremony in the kitchen preparing dinner. Hmmm.

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Shelby’s boss also frowned on what followed: the groom gave one of the bride’s brothers a chicken. She explained that the chicken was in exchange for the bride – not a very fair trade if you ask me. But as unfair as it is, this is apparently one of the most important parts of the marriage. She explained that in the church ceremony – when the brother gives the bride away – the priest will ask whether the exchanging of the chicken took place. If not, the marriage is not legitimate. No chicken, no wife. At this point I felt like someone should have been whispering into a walkie talkie: “The chicken is secure. Repeat, the chicken is secure”.

After the chicken successfully changed hands it was time for food. Traditionally the groom eats in private with a few members of his party. As the token foreigners, Shelby, Jeremy and I were ushered into a dark room with mats on the ground to join the groom’s private dinner (more undeserved special treatment). There the bride’s aunts served everyone heaping plates of matooke, rice, potatoes, cabbage and beef. The groom was presented with a full chicken – see, told you there were lots of chickens! – and told to eat it all. He laughed and did his best, but the chicken was soon passed around the room.

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After eating, everyone went back to their seats to witness the couple’s official engagement. Since this couple is having a church wedding as well, the engagement was a promise that that would come (like a proposal in North America). The groom gave the bride a ring, and a priest made a speech about living life in the image of Jesus Christ (I zoned out a bit for that part). Then the cake was cut, confetti popped, and music began to play.

At this point it was close to 7pm, so we were glad to discover that all that was left was to greet the newlyweds. A congo line formed under the stars as the guests danced their way to the bride and groom. In typical welcoming Ugandan fashion, when we reached the couple they gave us huge hugs and thanked us for coming. Even though I’d never met the bride before that moment, she beamed at me and pressed a favor into my hand (it was a box containing an apple, a keychain and a candy). I smiled back, awed by her hospitality on her big day.

Finally we stumbled past the tents, quickly changed out of our sweaty dresses in the middle of the parking area – no shame – and were bundled into the car in no time. Four hours and one very close bet later we were back in Kampala, the excitement of the day having drained us of all our energy. Needless to say it was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.

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