Friday, August 01, 2008

Mushanana At The Wedding


When I arrived here in June, I found out that Fred, one of my closest friends in Rwanda, was getting married on the last weekend of July. I couldn’t believe my luck—I would actually be able to attend! He was excited, as well.

To make the event extra-special, I decided to wear a traditional Rwandese dress, called a mushanana. Other than “umudugudu,” this is probably the best word in Kinyarwanda. I have made a goal of saying “mushanana” as much as possible.

I wasn’t sure where to get one—it seemed to be the kind of thing you could buy off the rack. It’s just an elastic-banded long skirt, a colored tank top (usually--but not always--white) and a length of material tied over a shoulder. Women can technically wear it whenever they want, but it’s typically omnipresent during big occasions like weddings, funerals, baptisms, and church services.

After talking with several people about where to get a mushanana, I found that 1) it’s not cheap, and 2) you have to have it made. (You can rent them, but I figured I may as well have one for future occasions.) Apparently they cost between $70-100. Youch. The price really depends on the quality of the fabric.

As for where to have it made, Laetitia, the housekeeper, offered to go with me downtown to help me through the process. We went to the middle of town, where people hustled and bustled and cars jostled for parking and loud music blared from every shop. We went from store to store, about 8 in total, to look at their fabric.

If there’s one thing I can say with certainty, it’s that mushanana fabric is generally hideous.

It’s a gossamer polyester, generally—a chiffon weight. And it comes in all kinds of undesirable colors, like sea green, puke brown, and magenta. The patterns are really what make these stand out, though! Some fabric had a gold embroidered scalloped edge (think grandma’s tablecloth), most had flowers, others had planets, and one—I kid you not—was pink with strawberries, hearts, umbrellas, and sickles. Yes, sickles. Who knows.

I was a little worn out (and worried that I couldn’t find anything—even the pink strawberry-sickle fabric was $50, and I couldn’t justify paying so much for something so hideous) when we wandered into a larger fabric store. One of the mannequins was wearing a zebra-esque mushanana. I tried it on and decided it looked pretty good, certainly compared to the alternatives. I negotiated and bought it for 20,000 FRw (roughly $40) along with enough white fabric for a slip (about $3) and Laetitia and I headed toward her tailor.

What a sight! There were about 20 tailors in a shop so narrow that you could barely move between the sewing machines. The tailor, obviously tickled (as was everyone else) that a muzungu was having a mushanana made, took some quick measurements and told me to come back the next day. I held my breath when I asked how much it would cost for labor.

“Ibihumbi bibiri,” she said, which means “2,000 Francs.” About four dollars. Awesome.

The next day, I had my dress and tried it on. Laetitia had to show me how to tie the top part. (There is an art to it.)

I looked like a fat zebra. Mushananas are not intended to be flattering. All in all, I liked it, although I must admit that it makes me look like the stereotypical muzungu that goes to Africa and has a dress made. Meh. It couldn’t be helped.

So this past Saturday, I wore it to Fred’s wedding in Gisenyi. I brought my friend Victoria with me. Walking down the road to the church, strangers smiled and told me in Kinyarwanda that I looked nice. It was all very sweet.

The church service was conventionally Catholic, with a chaotic communion. It was also surprisingly short. Fred, dressed in a white suit that drowned his tall, skinny frame, led Vivian down the aisle and out to a Mercedes that he had rented for the occasion. The bridesmaids all wore matching green dresses (very J.Crew-esque, actually) and hopped into another car. Both cars were decorated with ribbons and bows.


As a side note, one of the interesting things about Rwandan weddings is that the groom is expected to pay for everything, from a cow (in Fred’s case, two) down to his bride’s wedding dress. And as an orphan, Fred has had to do it on his own, without any support from his nuclear family. It’s remarkable.

After the wedding, the wedding party went to a studio for photos, and met the guests at a reception held at the ULK, the private university in Gisenyi.

At one end of the hall was a stage, where there was a table for the bride and groom, and chairs for the bridesmaids and groomsmen behind them. There was a big dance floor (not for guests’ dancing, as in the U.S.) and on the left and right sides were chairs for the groom’s family and the bride’s family. (I’m still not quite sure who was representing Fred’s family—his uncles, maybe?) All the guests were seated classroom-style—the reception is not the dinner. The dinner is just for the wedding party and the family.


When Fred and Vivian entered the hall, they walked down the aisle between the guests, under white arches. The first had a ribbon across it, which they cut together before proceeding. Traditional Intore dancers jumped and sang behind them, and performed several times during the ceremony. Neither Fred nor Vivian spoke, because the ceremony was more about their families than it was about them—the purpose was for each family to tell the other family how happy they were about the union. They did that for about two hours, interspersed with dancing and a distribution of Fantas. To solidify the union of the two families, they had to drink together! They also cut some banana cake and shared it with everyone.

After the speeches, the newlyweds came down to the floor to accept wedding gifts from the attendees, which they did while the deejay played one of Faycal’s songs. The Intore dancers then dragged the newlyweds to the floor to participate in a traditional dance. Fred, having grown up in Uganda, obviously had no idea what he was doing, in a very charming way.

Seeing Victoria and I, the Intore came to us next, pulling the two muzungus onto the floor. I danced my heart out! I kicked off my shoes, mad cow horns with my outstretched arms, and stomped my feet, all the while trying not to trip on my mushanana. When we finished, I was exhausted. You need to be in perfect shape to be an Intore.

The ceremony closed with another Fanta for everyone (they call it “agashingurachumu,” or “one for the road”) and then some people went out to Fred and Vivian’s house to give them housewarming gifts. Victoria and I had made plans with friends for dinner since we wasn’t part of the dinner group, so we headed back to the hotel. Later that evening, many of the guests went to the Jungle Party, the monthly all-night beach party at the Serena Kivu. But that’s another story.

7 Comments:

Blogger E. Griffin said...

Muzungu, that is a funny word.

8/01/2008 4:31 PM  
Anonymous Jane said...

Hey Morgan,
You look great in Mushanana, I must say. You picked a great color and next buy a cheap one in US. You can get them from any fabric store. The good thing though is that you can use Umushanana for ever,no need to have more than one.

Thanks for sharing.
Gira amahoro.
Jane

8/01/2008 6:01 PM  
Blogger Edward M. said...

Wow. Fred looks so handsome. And such a pretty bride too. Please send him my congrats when you get a chance. I haven't checked on your blog in a very long time and I'm so happy you have kept it up. Stay safe, Morgan.

8/11/2008 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

The idea that the groom must pay for everything is not actually correct. The gusaba, or engagement effectively, is the responsibility of the bride's family - this may have happened sometime ago but not always - and also the clothes for the bride and bridesmaids and her family at the wedding and the cost of the gutwikarura - at the couple's house - which I think you may have missed - is down to her side. However this leaves the groom's side with the cost of the weddings, both civil and religious and the reception and also the payment of the dowry - cows or their equivalent. Quite how an orphan can do this I am not sure unless he has some good friends and/or he takes out a loan - Rwandans spend a lot on weddings - I am just back from attending one in Rwanda. Well done to Fred and all the best to him and his bride.

8/16/2008 2:46 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Alex, you are right--I went to an engagement for someone else, and found that the bride's family paid for it. Fred had told me that the groom pays for everything...sigh. I do know that he saved a lot of money over time so that he wouldn't have to take out a loan! He was so proud of those 2 cows.

When I get a moment, I hope to write up an account of the engagement party I attended!

8/28/2008 5:54 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

Morgan - I look forward to reading your account of the engagement party, sorry "gusaba". While we are talking about who pays for what - dictated by tradition -it is worth stating that Rwanda is a country that is changing in many ways and that includes culture or at least its observance. At the Gusaba I recently attended the potential groom was present in traditional dress with 5/6 supporters of his own age also in tradional dress - (These are to be distinguished from the elders who speak on his behalf.) As a muzungu I cannot give a complete account of the modernisations involved on that day but as i understand it the potential groom would never be present at all never mind in traditional dress with various supporters. [Briefly, his family would traditionally seek to get the agreement of the bride's family to his proposal - she might not be present either - and agree the dowry - cows - to be paid.] This takes me on to a main theme of weddings today and Rwandan life generally and that is clothes. Typically a wedding in Kigali will require a gusaba, civil wedding [at the equivalent of the town hall], religious wedding, reception and then the gutwikarura [at the couple's house] and I do not think that is everything. For a main person/relative/attendant you may need a different outfit for each of these - lots of work for tailors and you can see how the cost mounts up - or one reason why it does anyway. However you have I am sure commented on how Rwandans seek to be smartly dressed or at least smart casual. Well for the first time I managed to "get away with" wearing jeans in Rwanda - not that often mind. I pointed out that the President wears denim although this cut little ice with my "umugore". Yes, things are changing.

9/12/2008 7:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The beauty of the mshanana is in the feminine shape (large hips) that the outfit accentuates in women, the colors are meant to be loud and pleasing, a well known fact is that white people don't wear colors Africans do, embrace and don't criticize the differences in culture and actually I think that was a pretty ungrateful thing to do, to be invited to a cultural event and speak such negativity about it, believe me there is more than one way of doing things and the American way is not always the right way

11/08/2011 3:06 AM  

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