Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ugandan Journalist Gets Hitched in Rwanda

Inside the van, as it plied the long route from Kampala to the hilly town of Nyagatare in Rwanda, it was impossible to tell the groom from his friends. They were all young and loud, as if this was their last chance to enjoy moments of youthful banter with a young man who was about to get hitched so far away from home. If the road trip was inspired by love, the dominant tenor of the conversation was far from it.

The talk was mostly about the good old days, about the joy of being young and reckless, and about the possibility of losing all of that. The groom --- nearly everyone called him Emario --- bore the brunt of this nonsense, this searing parody of marriage, but he seemed to take it in good stride. He understood what they were talking about. They visualised the road he was taking. All of us knew there was no turning back. Jackie Umuganwa, Emario’s beautiful bride, was waiting in Nyagatare.

“You are coming down,” one of Emario’s friends yelled early in the journey. Another deadpanned: “I am also going to plan my downfall.”

If this silly banter was a brilliant critique of marriage, it was also a paean to boyhood. And no one anticipated this fact better than the groom’s uncle when he decided, early on, to lecture us about metaphysical questions. “If you have money and life, what is there to stop you from enjoying this world, from having many women?” he asked. “You need to live responsibly, and you must have God in your life.” The response from the young men was encouraging but wild, attentive yet dismissive. Nearly all of us had decided from the start, long before we crossed the border into Rwanda, that we would be stubborn in all the ways available to us. We would recall our days in high school. We would pour scorn on each other. We would make sure it was fun for all the 30 or so people inside the van, even if by sheer force.

By the time we arrived in Nyagatare, several hours later, it was already March 13, on the warm afternoon that Emario was set to be engaged to his bride in a traditional Kinyarwanda ceremony. The groom was still with us, but this time he could be distinguished from the crowd. He was now more attentive than most. And yes, he was in the thick of things. A traditional give-away ceremony in Rwanda, or Gusaba, is not spectacularly different from what obtains in, for example, Ankole. The head of the host family and the leader of the visiting entourage engage in what might be construed as pretentious dialogue, but they mean serious business. The long chat between the two men, which lasted about two hours, put enormous burdens on both. It required each of them to be funny, to be serious, and perhaps to be a good actor. You do not have to be Denzel Washington (or even Abbey Mukiibi) to excel in this exchange, of course, but you need to project machismo. It was as if the men were fighting for superiority, with the host asking tricky questions and the visitor trying hard to appreciate the experience. There is no excuse for weakness. At some point, the head of the host family asked our delegation what the groom did for a living, and I heard the letters “c” and “v” mentioned in a long question. It was time for the head of the visitors to say all the good things he knew about the groom. I glanced at Emario and noticed that he was at ease. Good.

Then, moments later, the host family announced that the groom had been accepted into the family. In our case, because most of us did not understand Kinyarwanda, we missed most of the jokes and often had to be asked, in a language we understood, to clap whenever the host said something gracious. If the ceremony was tough on the head of the visiting delegation, it was so kind to Emario himself. For the most part, the groom was required to just shut up, to wait until his time came to do the glorious walk from one tent to another, to greet his in-laws. He had taken a back seat in the visitors’ tent, perhaps in honour of a norm that requires the groom’s identity to be mysterious in the hours preceding his eventual appearance, and later, along with his best man, had been invited to occupy the seat of honour. In his sofa, appropriately coloured red, Emario watched proudly as his bride joined him there, setting the stage for the glory to come. Traditional dancers, in black-and-white ensembles and matching headgear, would soon torment the ground in a rhythmic dance routine, the dust rising out of the ground to bless the ceremony. It was the dust of joy. Nothing could beat it.

As he put the ring on the lucky finger, around 5 p.m. local time, Emario’s friends cheered for him one last time. It was the moment, as many of them had joked, that he “went down”. In that instant, as everyone scrambled to see what was happening in the tent, Emario had achieved so much more than going down the marriage path. He had found a wife and a new family, united two cultures, and given many of us the chance to make new friends. If Emario was actually going down, we were going up.

As the van took the opposite direction, the ceremony finally over, it was not long before the groom and his best man loosened their ties. The jokes resumed, sometimes with greater tempo, often with nostalgia for the days when Emario and his friends were unencumbered by the new responsibilities he had just assumed. In a good sign, he was still smiling. Emario, whose real name is Emmanuel Gyezaho, is a Daily Monitor journalist. He is my friend.