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.