“You Are All Invited”

This is probably not a phrase you hear or see often, at at least not in America, especially on a wedding invitation! However, this sounds all too familiar to anyone who has been invited to a wedding in Rwanda.

Before you are pronounced “husband and wife”, or more specifically say “I do”, it is customarily to go through THREE different types of wedding ceremonies in the Rwandan culture: the engagement party (dowry distribution), the town hall (before the mayor), and finally the church wedding. The engagement party is in normal circumstances a 2-3 hour ceremony where the groom’s family & friends metaphorically bring a dowry to the bride’s parents’ house, to ask her hand in marriage.

My best friend during her engagement party (2009). Probably the most beautiful bride I've ever seen!

My best friend during her engagement party (2009). Probably the most beautiful bride I’ve ever seen!

Traditionally, a dowry used to be mainly a cow (a symbol of wealth in Rwanda, and still applicable in some areas); but nowadays, it’s mostly money in cash. Depending on the arrangement between the groom and the bride’s family, this amount of money is most of the time handed to the bride-to-be in advance for the wedding shopping spree. Even so, there still has to be a gift exchange during the ceremony(if not a cow), as a symbol of a dowry. The second part to the engagement party is that it’s the day the bride actually receives her engagement ring (in the western term: the proposal), in front of all guests.

Engagement Party Decoration Example

Engagement Party (Traditional) Decoration Example

Few days or weeks later, the groom & the bride, along with their witnesses have to show up before the district mayor in order to become legally married, since churches don’t have a power to legally marry people in Rwanda as of this writing. The process lasts about an hour or so, and is followed by a small reception.

Finally, few or several days later, it is the final day in the process where, in a church, the priest or a pastor officiates the wedding and the couple exchanges vows, rings & I do’s. This is followed by a reception (it can last up to 5 hours), and everyone, I mean “everyone“, attends. You purposely have to rent a gigantic reception hall, unless you can’t afford it or don’t know a lot of people.

The wedding invitation cards are distributed a month or two before the wedding, and not only it reminds guests that it would be the couple’s pleasure if everyone could be there to celebrate with them, but it also specifically stresses: “you are all invited“. In other words, you have to hand out an invitation card to everyone you know: co-workers, classmates, neighbors, church members, acquaintances, friends, relatives etc. Even better, now with the use of social media, people either post the entire wedding invitation on Facebook visible to the whole world, and/or create a Facebook event where they invite you without even knowing if you are in the country or not.

Therefore, if you have a cousin/friend who’s in town visiting and other friends you were supposed to hang out with that day, you all simply make a trip to this wedding reception. In the end, the total number of guests may range anywhere from 300-1,000 people, sometime more, depending on how famous you are, not to mention that since the invitation card isn’t required at the door, anyone can show up as they please. For that reason, most of the time you cannot feed them all, and you may never know that they were at your wedding.

Rwandan Traditional Dance

Rwandan Traditional Dance

Needless to say, the Rwandan wedding ceremonies are amazing and I still believe they are the best out there: the music, songs, outfits, cultural dances, beautiful people, extremely eye satisfying! And like they say “the more the merrier,” you do not need to hire a wedding coordinator: your friends do everything for you at no cost. Besides professional tasks such as photography, video shooting, hall decoration, food preparation, etc, friends are likely and eager to help out as if it’s their own, as well as contributing some cash.

With this in my head, I was extremely sad when a co-worker at my first job in the United States got married and I wasn’t invited. I wondered what wrong I had done, to not be included. And I was even surprised to hear her sharing the wedding details and excitement; in Rwanda, if you aren’t planning on inviting someone, you simply don’t say anything to them. Only later I learned that around here, people invite a specific number of people, just family and close friends. And the ceremonies are much more smaller, private! It makes sense.

While the newlyweds in Rwanda will definitely not know every single person who made it to their special day, at least not until they watch their wedding DVD and see pictures, in the United States, the bride and the groom specifically walk around to say hi to their guests and thank them for coming. They also make sure everyone who attended feels welcome, gets food, and a seat!! Back home, if you arrive late to a wedding (not to mention that the “Rwandan time” runs a couple of hours  behind the “real time”), you may risk to stand in the back, since seats are first come first serve, unless you are a family member, a close friend or an important person in the wedding.

Church Wedding Day Convoy

Church Wedding Day Convoy, it may consist of a large number of cars

So this week, I received a wedding invitation from a friend I had known a little bit over a year. I was deeply touched because I am not that “very close” to her. Now that I learned that to be invited to someone’s wedding is an honor, I treasured her invitation and couldn’t wait to tell her how excited and special I feel by her invite. I am honored!

Tour D’Europe, In My Own Words!

In the warmth of the European summer 2012, I was honored to be invited to my best friend’s wedding. I was very thrilled and looking forward to walking past the European airports ‘walls, at last. In the past, as I navigated between terminals to reach connecting flights at the London’s Heathrow or the Netherlands’ Amsterdam, I’d peek through the bus or airport terminal windows to gaze upon the city’s beauty. I wondered when I would be able to get out and wander in the streets of London but I was anxious to reach my destination at the same time.

On July 6th, we touch down in Milan, and are immediately waved onto two buses that would take us to the gate for immigration purposes. I have never seen more confusing signs than the Linate airport. As we step out, the driver signals everyone in our bus to go left. I follow the crowd only to find myself before a sign that says “EU residents”. I quickly switch lanes to go to the “Non EU Residents” when a policeman rushes in my direction and harshly points me to go back. Exhausted and jet lagged, I gather my courage to explain to him, in English, that I am not a European resident. He does not understand a single word that comes out of my mouth. Unwillingly, I turn around and join a very slowly moving line. The female Immigration Officer that checks our passports is the slowest I have ever seen.

After what seemed like eternity, it’s my turn and I hand my passport to her. She doesn’t seem to have a clue about the Schengen visa that is stamped in my passport and proceeds to asking me questions. In Italian! I respond to her that I don’t speak Italian; she keeps talking and I grow silent. She calls her supervisor and they chat in a language I don’t understand. Few minutes later, she comes back with my passport. I grab it as quickly as possible and disappear to avoid the possibility of being asked further questions I don’t get. I let out a sigh of relief and annoyed by the fact that this is the most touristic country I know, and yet, an Immigration Officer who speaks no other language besides Italian, at the airport. My friend on the other side begins to worry about what might have happened to me because I am already more than an hour late or so since after I landed.

Duomo di Milano, Italy

Duomo di Milano, Italy

The very next day, Honorine and I board a flight to Paris, and Geneva afterwards. I don’t remember any question asked in either of these two countries; perhaps because I understood their main language: French, of course! I enjoyed touring the city, visiting the Eiffel Tower, the United Nations Headquarters, the International Telecommunications Union HQ, riding in the Geneva Trams etc.

Paris, France

Different parts of Paris, France

Paris

Paris, France

Different parts of Geneva, Switzerland

Different parts of Geneva, Switzerland

Genève, Suisse

Geneve, Suisse

Fast forwarding to several days later, I set for Croatia, my main reason for this trip. On the way, my flight connection is in Berlin, German. I face exactly the same issue: an Officer who speaks only German and he is yet to verify my visa to Croatia. Similarly, he talks to his supervisor before I am directed to the Security Check. Couple hours later, on a hot afternoon, I land in Zagreb. Lining up to show our passports, I silently pray that someone will at least speak some English, so that I can be able to explain that I had applied for the Schengen visa through the Italian embassy. This time, I am more concerned with the process mainly because I was told that I can use the EU visa as Croatia was scheduled to enter the European Union in 2013. I am very afraid that the Officer may wonder where I got that information. To my surprise, he doesn’t ask a single question, and with a smile, he says: “Welcome to Croatia”. That was the beginning of my adventure in the most beautiful country I have ever seen.

My best friend was running a little late. In the process of finding a pay phone and exchanging my cash into Croatian Kunas, there I see my friend’s fiancé, and we both walk to my best friend. It was great to see an amazing woman I met in school six years earlier, and haven’t seen her in 3 years. Later that afternoon, my best friend and I go to tour the city, run errands, chatting, exploring, talking and what not. However, every turn I make, there is at least one person staring at me. I check my outfit to make sure I didn’t spill food on my clothes or have stains. Everything is fine; a brown polka dot blouse and a light blue knee length jeans don’t look any different from what other women around me are wearing. Children, older people, eyes on me everywhere I go.

Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb, Croatia

Confused, and with million questions into my head, I decide that it’d probably be a perfect time to figure out what’s so different about me: not another single black person anywhere. None! Not in the super market, shopping center, ice cream shops, restaurants, nada. Only then, I come to a realization that many Croatians have possibly never seen a black person in their life time. I figure that this is probably the part of the globe where only white people live, almost exclusively. To this day, I wonder if my best friend even noticed people looking at me or if I look different. Ms Z. is the most diverse and loving person I have ever met. To seal my anticipation, her parents are just like her: wonderful people. I have never liked the sound of my first name than when Ms. Z’s Dad called me. Their warm welcome overwhelmed me. I left a part of my heart in Croatia!

On the wedding day, the DJ was hired for the entire night. I am not a dancer by any means, but I was determined to make it up as I go for my best friend’s special day. We danced until about 2am. When I took a break and sat outside to chat with other guests, two men and their wives approached to ask me about myself. They knew much more than I expected about my home country, Rwanda. In the end, they confessed that they have been talking behind my back, as I danced, saying that Beyonce had arrived in Croatia. I was not sure if I should say thank you or that’s nice. I gathered a smile and explained that it was just creativity, nothing of experience. And a “thank you” of course.

Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb & Bjelovar, Croatia

During my days in Croatia, I am sure that I counted almost all black people in Zagreb and Bjelovar: a teenage boy and girl who looked like tourists at one restaurant, and one couple at the Zagreb airport on my way back to Milan. A little girl (about 5 years old) one seat over, looked at me without blinking for about two hours during my flight from Zagreb to Berlin, leaning forward because her mom was sitting between us. Her mom was super nice. She patted my hand when I was scared from the turbulence. She offered a hug, should I need to be comforted.

Without a doubt, I fell in love with this beautiful country, and its people. I hope to go back when I have more time. In the end, I had traveled to 4 countries, boarded 10 flights at 10 different airports in just 11 days. I doubt I would do it again. Next time, I will plan my trip better! My very first night back home, a cold finally caught up with me and I was down for two weeks! Nonetheless, it was quite an experience!