Kigali Night

by Ann Simm

At a Gusaba, a traditional Rwandan pre-wedding ceremony, families once separated by politics and geography gather to debate, gossip, barter, and exchange stories about their lives.

A man whom I have just met whispers in my ear. I move my chair closer to him and nod. The lights of downtown Kigali twinkle beneath us, visible through the marquee opening. The marquee is festooned with palm leaves and baskets woven in the patterns unique to Rwanda. The night is warm with a hint of burning charcoal in the air.

“They are asking for Ariane. They want her for their Jason,” says the whispering man. Two lines of tables bisect the marquee. Seated at one table are the senior male members of the groom’s family. Facing them, about two meters away at the other row of tables, sit the senior males of the bride’s family. The guests are seated behind their table of affiliation. On each side a man holds a microphone and converses with his counterpart in pre-marriage negotiations.  Both are called “uncles,” though, as my neighbor explains, they are professional wedding negotiators and not related to the couple. The set-up reminds me of a school debate competition, except here the crowd engages, cheering at points scored and booing at obvious pitfalls. This event is a Gusaba, the first ceremony of a Rwandan wedding, after which, all going well, the couple will be engaged. A week later there will be a church ceremony, and some days after that, a final ceremony acknowledging the union.

I sit on the bride’s side of the marquee. The bride, Ariane, is the daughter of my friend Immacule. Decades ago Immacule, a Rwandan national, arrived in the U.K. as a refugee with her children. The eldest, Ariane, was six years old at that time. They fetched up in Liverpool where Immacule’s husband Alfred was pursuing a Ph.D. A Rwandan Tutsi, Alfred had a checkered past, having been made a refugee three times, from Rwanda as a child and then from Uganda in the reign of Idi Amin, and finally from Congo. Had they not fled to the U.K. when they did, they would have been in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994, when one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

Along with guests from the U.K., many of the folk here had formed part of the Rwandan diaspora. They were people who had answered the call to return to Rwanda and aid in the rebuilding of the country following the genocide.  

My neighbor continues to translate the Kinyarwandan spoken by the uncles.

“Why are you here?” the bride’s uncle says to the groom’s uncle. “This is a private party. We didn’t expect you today, and in any case, Arianne is in Paris.” Booing ensues.

“Oh, you must be mistaken,” the groom’s uncle replies. “Ariane was seen in town yesterday, buying a wedding dress.”  Laughter and table thumping ensues.

“Even if she was in Kigali, Ariane has an MBA. She has no need of a husband,” says the bride’s uncle.

During the exchange the bride’s family plays hard-to-get, thus raising the bride price. The bride price is transacted in the number of cows paid by the groom’s family, notionally in this case, to the bride’s family. The uncles stroll up and down in front of their respective tables, trailing their microphone leads. They enjoy the banter, feign surprise, guffaw and cajole, all the time oiling the amusement and lobbing their comments at each other like tennis balls.

“Oh good,” says the groom’s uncle, “they will be well suited. Jason has an MBA, too.” The fact that the couple share a life together in London plays no part in these proceedings.

I met Immacule and her family because my partner dealt with their U.K. immigration status, a struggle of eight long years to settled status, in the face of the Home Office’s refusal to accept that they were Rwandan, the family enduring all the privations and restrictions that statelessness entailed.

Traditional dress at a Gusaba celebration in Kigali, Rwanda

The table tops groan with bottles of spirits, and the uncles grow ever more expansive. The remark that Ariane has tweeted that she was getting married today proves conclusive. In a flash of lemon chiffon, bridesmaids sweep in with gifts for the groom’s family. Ariane and Jason enter and sit on chairs that are slightly raised over the throng. The guests are served a vegetative drink, and drumbeats reverberate outside. Male dancers file in dressed as warriors bearing sticks. According to my neighbor, they re-enact in dance the feats of warriors of the great historic Rwandan kingdom.  A singer embroiders the history in song. There follows a troupe of female dancers whose bodies and arms sway sinuously in a Polynesian-influenced dance.

There is a flurry of movement, and people throng to the exits. Outside is a pick-up truck with a cow tethered to the back. It is important to inspect the cow to ensure its health I am told. I inspect the cowit looks good to me. The smell of hot food fills the air as stewed beef, chicken, and manioc are served.

On our first meeting in the dimly lit bistro of Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, Immacule had shared her story. At that point, the rhythm of her speech was unfamiliar to me, and her meaning was not always clear. What was clear was the strain of exile, the necessity to masquerade as Congolese during their time there and the constant danger of being found out. Notwithstanding that, she had made what she could of it and had gained qualifications and work in nursing, a career she pursued in the U.K. Alfred too gleaned much of his early education in refugee camps, chalking notes onto his legs for lack of writing paper.

No longer now would Immacule and I enjoy socializing in Liverpool; the wedding marks her return to Rwanda to join Alfred, who had already returned to take up a post as policy adviser to the Rwandan government.    

The buzz of conviviality goes on late into the night. At one point, Immacule stands alone in the Gusaba tent. Oblivious to the attention of others, she performs a tightly knit dance, her arms bent at the elbows, her shoulders gyrating, her head lowered in concentration, a moment of private celebration and homecoming.

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