Monday, June 14, 2010

traditional ugandan engagement ceremony

This weekend, Scarlet, Colleen and I got to experience a traditional Ugandan "introduction" ceremony. The basis of this ceremony is that the bride is introducing her fiancé to her family and asking formal permission from her father to approve him as her husband, but it is so so so much more than that.

While this is a traditional ceremony that is supposed to happen before all marriages, not many couples in Uganda still participate, so when one actually occurs, it's a huge deal. There are no American celebrations that I can really compare this too, because it is essentially the proposal, engagement party, and wedding reception all rolled into one (although, Ugandans also throw a big wedding reception after the wedding ceremony).

The celebration is a weekend-long affair, with members of the bride's and groom's family travelling across the country for this special day. Preparations begin days in advance with tents set up, chairs brought in, hundreds of pounds of matooke and rice and beef and chicken prepared for hundreds of people, traditional dresses bought and ironed and women getting all "done-up" in the salon. We arrived in Mubende on Friday evening and went straight to the home of the bride's family, where the celebration was to be held. The bride happens to be the niece of Margaret, my boss for the summer, and she invited Scarlet, Colleen and me along with her to take part in the ceremony. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by our guests and met the bride's father, some more aunts, brothers, sisters, cousins, and many others who I can't remember. We were then officially accepted as part of the bridal party and told we would be participating in the next day's events. At this point, I was not aware that our status at the party was to be the ultimate in VIP (I think we may have stolen the spotlight from the groom's family). Before we left, we took some pictures of the preparations and of the cow that was about to be slaughtered for the next day's ceremony.

We stayed at a hotel on the side of a hill overlooking Mubende and had a beautiful view of the valley on Saturday morning as we ate our breakfast on the porch. Our escort, George, drove us to the top of the hill after breakfast to see the Nakuyima shrine, an ancient spiritual tree that people journey to for prayer and celebration.

After, we went back to iron our gomessi (the traditional Ugandan dress that most women wear here daily) and to prepare for the ceremony. We had some trouble getting the dresses on correctly, but when we arrived at the bride's house around noon, every woman there wanted to help us fix them. In all their eagerness to help, my dress was untied and re-tied at least 10 times. This may have done more harm than good, but everyone was so excited to see three "mzungu" in gomessi that I don't think they could help themselves. Everyone kept saying "you look so smart, you look so smart!"

The ceremony lasted for about 8 hours.
All of the bride's family arrived first and sat under one of the large tents. The important fathers (taatas) of the family sat under a smaller tent in the middle and across from the bride's tent was another tent set up for the groom's family. The ceremony officially begins when the groom's family arrives. They all line up outside of the tents on the other side a decorated arch with a ribbon stretched across. Before they enter, they are formally greeted by the bride's family. As the VIP, we were asked to go and greet the guests. We walked up the red carpet to the archway and I was handed a microphone. Luckily, I practiced the traditional greeting repeatively the night before;

"Tusanyuse okubalaba bassebbo. Tusanyuse okubalaba banyabo. Eladde bassebo. Eladde banyabo. "

Rough translation: "We welcome you gentlmen. We welcome you ladies. How are you gentlemen? How are you ladies?"

The groom's family was more than surprised and delighted to have been greeted in the traditional Ugandan way by a mzungu. They then cut the ribbon, and the grooms family processed down the red-carpet to their tent. For the next couple of hours, the groom's family was greeted by various members of bride's family. Men in traditional tunics and women in gomessi danced out to ugandan music, kneeled before the family, and repeated the greeting I wrote above. We also got to participate in this and danced out with all the other daughters of the family to kneel before our guests and formally greet them. ( I say all the "other" daughters, because scarlet, colleen and I are now officially daughters of the bride's family, which was confirmed on Sunday when we were toted around the small village where margaret's entire extended family lives)

The there was much presenting of gifts, and joking between the two emcees (one for the bride's family and one for the groom's family) as they built up to the identification of the groom (done by the "Auntie of honor", margaret) and the presentation of the bride. After the bride (Joannie) and groom (Godfrey) were "identified" (it's clear who each is, but each party pretends they don't know) with a bouquet of flowers and a boutonniere, the bride then formally presented her fiancé to father. He accepted, naturally, and there was much rejoicing as the groom's family all went out to their cards to retrieve the gifts.

Godfrey's (the groom) family then re-entered with hundreds of gifts for the bride's parents to show their appreciation for the father's approval of Godfrey. The gifts included but were not limited to: pineapples, melons, tobacco leaves, cooking products, coffee, sugar, bread, pictures, personal gifts, two chickens, a cow's leg, a suitcase, a bull, and kitchen cabinet set. All of these gifts were then presented formally to the bride's parents as we sat and watched.

After the gifts, dinner was served to all the guests. Delicious matooke and yams, white rice, brown rice, beef stew, pineapple, fried irish potatoes, and kale. All types of soda in glass bottles were available and guests ate and laughed in the glow of the evening sunset.

We took a short walk after dinner to "make room in our stomachs", as George said, and then returned to watch the formal proposal between Joannie and Godfrey and the presenting of the rings as they placed a "permanent mark" on each other. Then small fireworks (yes, fireworks) were lit on the cake before it was cut and distributed among the guests. The groom's family then processed out and congratulated the couple as they left. With the formal ceremony over, the after-party began soon after with dancing and laughing and rejoicing among the bride's guests.

The dancing went on all through the night and we crashed in our bed's late at night, exhausted, full and happy.

Before we headed home on Sunday, we made the rounds in Margaret's family's small village to greet all her family members. We were served tea (with milk) and steamed maize at her father's, given avocado's at her mother's, and received warmly everywhere we went. Everyone seemed excited to meet the Mzungu's who had been at the party the day before. Our final stop was the bride's family's home, where we stayed and talked for a while before we said our final goodbyes.

We packed the car full of gifts and leftovers from the party. After a three hour journey home to Kampala along some paved roads, some shambly roads, and some not-really-roads-at-all, I took my backpack out of the trunk only to find it covered in fresh cow's blood from a bag of meat that Margaret had brought home from the slaughtered cow.
No better way to end a traditional Ugandan weekend than with a little cow's blood on your belongings.

All in all, a great success.


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