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.
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.
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.
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.
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!