Weddings are one of the biggest cultural ceremonies in Uganda. They are usually attended by hundreds of people who all know the bride or groom in some way, or just love an excuse to party!
Almost as important as the wedding itself is the introduction ceremony, where the bride’s family and the groom’s family are ‘introduced’ to each other. It normally takes place a week before the wedding, at the bride’s ancestral home.
I was lucky enough to attend an introduction with Madina, my host mum, and Thea, another volunteer from Denmark who was staying with us for a month. Although we didn’t have the traditional gomesi to wear, Thea and I put on our best clothes and set off with Madina to her village, a three hour drive away in Mukono District.
After driving on dirt roads for at least two hours, we noticed they were getting gradually smaller and smaller, until we turned a corner and found ourselves in a large compound full of cars and trucks, with huge white tents rising up behind them. There were people everywhere but somehow we managed to find Madina’s brothers almost immediately.
After greeting them, they took us straight to the food tables where huge portions of rice, potatoes and meat were being dished out. Looking around, everyone else was using their hands to eat but a few minutes later they had found a couple of forks for the muzungus (much to my relief, I still haven’t mastered eating rice with my hands!)
The tents themselves were set up in a rectangular shape, with the bride and groom’s families occupying opposite tents, arranged behind the parents and direct siblings in the front row. There must have been over 500 people in total; by the time the ceremony started people were still arriving and finding themselves standing at the back, watching the screens that were showing real time footage from two cameramen who were circulating in the space in the middle.
The whole ceremony was meticulously planned by an organising committee, but it was clear tensions were running high when an argument broke out between two men in the bride’s family, one of whom was sitting in the wrong seat. We couldn’t understand much of the argument as it was in Luganda, but we realised it was serious when a woman went to intervene and was knocked on the floor in response!
It was over five minutes later, however, and the ceremony got underway without any further interruptions. The ‘introducing’ part involved a series of processions of the bride’s family members, starting with the youngest and going up through the generations, dancing into the space in the middle, then kneeling down (if they were children or women) to introduce themselves. In return, each one received a gift from the groom’s family.
This went on for an hour or more, until it was the turn of the bride herself to come out, dancing with her bridesmaids and cultural dancers, and accompanied by a live singer.
After that came some speeches from the groom’s mother and father, the local chairman and finally the imam (as it was a Muslim wedding).
Then came the gifts (dowry) from the groom’s family. I’ve heard friends and colleagues joking about the dowry part of weddings, as traditionally cows or other animals were given, but these days it can be anything from a TV to a car. The bride’s family request the items they would like to receive, and the groom’s family usually add a few more as a goodwill gesture. On this occasion, it was a whole dining set of tables and chairs, sofas, a TV and a huge water tank, as well as some extra bags of sugar, flour and crates and crates of fizzy drinks! We couldn’t believe our eyes as all of these things were carried out of the back of a truck by the groom’s family, then passed by a chain of about ten men until they were all safely inside the house.
By this time it was getting dark so we decided to head home. Madina assured us the only part we were missing was the cake, which was distinctly overshadowed by all of the huge gifts that had been produced! We spent the journey home marvelling at the whole thing, Ugandans certainly know how to put on a show!