Settle down, it wasn’t us that got married.
I was so excited to get invited. The bride is Canadian, but she’ll have her time to shine when they plan their Canadian wedding. This wedding was for the groom. Or more like the groom’s grandparents and every other person in their village. I raced home and gave Josh the great news that we were invited and he responded by giving me that deadpan look and chuckling that low sarcastic laugh and saying “My dear, you will go and you will have fun, but you will be going by yourself.” I spent the next three weeks poking and prodding and whining about how important it is to go to weddings together, but in the end, he ended up having to work, and I can’t argue with that.
I ended up going with Josh’s brother & his friend, and his sister-in-law, all who live next door. The wedding started at 2 pm, so at 1:30 we all met each other out front and spent fifteen minutes “Eeeeh!”-ing and “Yiiiii!”-ing over how smart everyone looked. Betty and I opted not to wear gomas, the traditional Ugandan formal dress, because she doesn’t own one, and I feel slightly disrespectful wearing one since it feels like a costume. Tim and Jalil were all dressed up in their suits, their shoes slightly scuffed, and their jackets a few sizes too small. I was on “bow tie duty” all afternoon, which involved adjusting and straightening their clip-on bow ties that kept shifting underneath their shirt collars. We were a banging bunch, but unfortunately not banging enough to think to get any photos of everyone together. You all know at this point anyway that I'm not one to accentuate my whiteness by going out of my way to get amazing photos of regular life over here.
We arrived on time to the wedding, where, surprise! the ceremony area wasn’t even set up yet. It rained, all the white linens got muddy while we sat in chairs under tents, then it stopped raining. We spent two hours shooting the shit and listening to Tim’s long list of complaints about mzungu women, ranging from how much water they use when they wash their hair to how they flirt shamelessly and then refuse to give you their numbers because they say they have a boyfriend.
People were wandering in and out of the site and slowly filling seats. Around 4 pm, someone drove their motorcycle right through the middle of the wedding area, and as I was laughing about it, we realized that he was the emcee for the wedding. To keep everyone entertained (the wedding party was on a river cruise that ended up going a few hours late after a more private ceremony where they exchanged vows and rings), the emcee got things going by saying…I have no idea, the next two hours were all in Lusoga. Tim obligingly translated when I asked what was happening, but at this point I’m kind of used to having no idea what’s going on most of the time. There were jokes, there were loud blasts of local music that kept my ears ringing long after the wedding was over (Ugandans only have one volume for their music: LOUD!!!), there was whooping and hollering from the crowd, there were discussions and question and answer sessions (none of which had anything to do with the wedding; one question was “Who is better: the one who gives you a kidney, or the one who gives you money?”) but most of all, there was dancing. Dancing, as in a few women ranging in ages get up and dance in the middle of the wedding area by shaking their asses and then men watch and hoot and holler and cheer for the best one. The emcee makes more jokes, calls for more dancing, and the cycle continues. It went on like this for two more hours.
|Some of the dancing guests; many of them over the age of 40, wearing traditional gomas.|
Before the wedding party arrived, I was the only white person there. I really don’t mind the stares, you get used to it after a while, knowing that you’re always being watched. But I hate being singled out in front of everyone, especially at big gatherings. That’s when I stop being the mzungu woman and start being the zoo animal. I was avoiding eye contact with the emcee anytime there was dancing because 1. I really can’t move my ass like that, and 2. even if I could, this stuck-up white woman does not approve of herself being paraded around or objectified. Ugandan culture embodies a very tangible and raw sexuality that we don’t have in Western culture, but at the end of the day, I’m not Ugandan, so I’m fine being a wet blanket. Anyways, the emcee finally honed in on me and said something about how the love of Africa is for everyone as he outstretched his hand. I shook my head and covered my face in my hands and he didn’t press. Phew! Tim and Jalil laughed and we went back to picking out which one of the big-bottomed dancing women we thought Tim should marry.
At 6 pm, the wedding party finally arrived. They danced down the dirt road and processed to their seats, which took about half an hour, between corralling the ever-growing crowd of village kids that wanted to get as close to the action as they could, and the emcee barking instructions to everyone, telling them to stop and go and do this and do that “DJ! Music!” and “DJ! Stop da music!”. His favorite English phrase the whole night was “Allow me to control dees function!” which he repeated every few minutes.
Then the speeches began. Person after person got up to speak, some were translated into English, some weren’t, but almost all, including the groom’s grandfather, included some version of “Hey! You bagged a white woman! You lucky bastard.” My eyes kept darting to the bride and her parents, wondering how they were doing. All the mzungus in the wedding party had looks of blissful confusion and resignation on their faces, and I was reminded that if you can’t handle curve balls, like your own wedding being four hours behind schedule, you probably don’t have much business living in Africa or marrying an African anyway.
|The bride is in blue. The guy holding up his phone to take a video on the right is not part of the wedding party; he was just a really excited guest and barely stayed in his seat the whole ceremony.|
The emcee made a big deal about repeatedly hugging the bride’s big-breasted Canadian maid of honor, and then there were more jokes and more speeches and more dancing. People were wandering in and out of the ceremony space, kids had climbed trees to get a better view, and the ones on the ground were inching slowly as a unit toward the cake, which was in the middle of the stage area. One woman blocked the bride and groom’s view of the speeches as she was taking photos; someone told her to move but she shuffled back into place a few seconds later. Some government chairperson wandered in halfway through the ceremony and he was given the microphone for a good ten minutes to give a speech, which I’m assuming didn’t have much to do with marital bliss.
When the bride and groom stood up and gave speeches to each other, the groom said something very sweet that made the bride and the rest of the mzungu wedding party start crying. The emcee saw this and grabbed the microphone and said, “No! Dees is too much feeling. DJ! Music!” So the music started blasting again and there wasn’t much to do besides dance along until the music was cut off and the groom could continue his speech. There were presents given to both sets of parents, a receiving line for anyone who had brought gifts for the happy couple, and the cake was cut and passed out to the seated guests, much to the chagrin of the mob of probably hungry village kids that kept getting swatted away as they reached for stray pieces that fell to the ground. The cake looked fabulous, by the way. The groom is a raft guide: it was a three-tiered green cake with a little yellow and red raft on top of a river that was cascading down the side. Then everyone abruptly rushed to get food and the whole thing was over at 8 pm. It was chaotic and I was exhausted. But the reasons that Josh gave as to why he didn’t want to attend had fully matriculated: it takes all day, and it’s more an expensive spectacle with free food for everyone than it is a celebration of the couple or the marriage.
|Pictured: mob of village kids eyeing the green cake on the right, kids in trees, and one of the breastfeeding mothers in the foreground.|
It took me a few days to process everything, but I woke up in the middle of the night to grab a pen as I finally realized what the big difference is between here and the Western world that this wedding embodied for me (and pardon my French, this is what I wrote down at 4 am): Ugandans just don’t give a fuck. It’s simultaneously their most detrimental and their most beautiful quality as a culture. It inhibits economic growth and development and allows for rampant corruption on both an individual and government scale, but on a social level, they aren’t afraid to make mistakes. That’s what makes them such a joy to be around, despite all the other annoyances of living here.
At an age where American kids start to withdraw and become self-conscious in school, kids in the class I used to teach in Kenya couldn’t wait to raise their hands and get to the blackboard, even if they had no idea what to do after I handed them the chalk. There’s no shame or embarrassment for not knowing an answer or getting it wrong.
In the U.S., there’s a lot of pressure to have the look, the social media accounts, the artisanal products, the right conversation, to drink the right coffee, to be witty and educated and to be in-the-know, to be so well put together and perfect all the time, and it feels exhausting to come back to after being removed from it for a while. I haven’t experienced much of that over here. Everyone dresses how they want to: I once saw a fashionista walking around Jinja town in fleece onesie adult pajamas, the type with the zipper that runs from neck to ankle, with her hair in a nice weave, swinging her fancy purse as she strutted her stuff. As I’ve mentioned before, Africans are many things, but never ironic. She was serious and everyone took her seriously. Betty walks around outside with her youngest son’s basketball shorts on her head if she doesn’t have a clean scarf on hand.
No one cares if you say the wrong thing or act awkwardly or are anti-social or rude, no one talks about you after you leave. No one has anything to prove to anyone else, no one is inauthentic or deceitful or apologetic about who they are. Hell, a lot of women don’t bother to wear bras around here, and no, they’re not trying to make a feminist statement. Breastfeeding in public isn’t an issue here because everyone does it without trying to hide it (there were at least two women openly breastfeeding at the wedding that I saw, both in the front row). There’s also not much emphasis on being respectful or contentious of other people, which is really tiresome to be around sometimes, but it’s still refreshing that there’s absolutely no pretense. What you see is what you get.
There were a lot of aspects about this wedding that felt very disrespectful to the bride and groom. There’s a certain aversion to any kind of emotional depth in conversation here that makes it hard to really connect with locals that I think comes with this apathetic aspect of their culture. There wasn’t much conversation about the couple as people, and anything serious or emotional was either brushed off or skipped over. But why do I focus on that? Because I’m an American and we’re used to weddings being perfectly planned and well-executed and being heartfelt and sweet and, oh! bonus points if you can get the in-laws to cry during your speech! Both Ugandan and Western weddings embody a certain amount of showmanship; they just focus on different aspects of the “show”. Western weddings are all about the couple. Ugandan weddings are all about the audience. They’re just there to eat food and have a good time, right? Why fight it? And honestly, when’s the last time you went to a Western wedding and the thought of cake didn’t slip into your mind during the toasts?
The bride and groom at this wedding are both mild-mannered, easy-going people. They’re incredibly gracious and looked like they were having a great time. And everyone that attended the wedding? It was obvious everyone had a blast. To Ugandans, it was a great Ugandan wedding.
Don’t worry, I don’t want a Ugandan wedding. There are certain parts of this culture that I’ll just never assimilate to and I’m fine with that. But I don’t want a Western wedding, either. So much pressure and investment to make things go right, when I don’t place a high priority on spending time or energy to make things “go right” right now. Living over here, you’re fighting an uphill battle on that one anyway.
But if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s obviously the cake. World peace? World piece of wedding cake is more like it. And in the spirit of living in Uganda and not giving a fuck, I really don’t care what you think of my puns.