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I love weddings.

I like thinking about different gown ideas, a variety of color schemes, and exactly what songs would be the best at certain moments. And you know what? I know I’m not even the worst; I have a couple of girlfriends who scour wedding blogs and watch hours (and hours) of wedding shows on TV. To be fair, if I had regular internet access and cable TV, well, I’d probably do the same.

Weddings are popular conversation in Rwanda; more specifically, people (men, women, and yes, children) always ask me, do you have a husband? Of course, the answer is a resounding, NO.

If I could photograph their reactions, well, it’d make for a great blog entry or something. You would think I have offended everything they know to be true in the world. Usually, we then move the conversation along to either how they will find me a partner, how I should have a wedding within the year, or at the very least, I should take a boyfriend, preferably a Rwandan boyfriend.

What’s great now though, is that I have a perfectly manufactured and scripted response to this. I hit the following points:

  1. I explain that in my culture, I’m still considered very young—in no way is a single 23 year old woman a weird thing.
  2. I would not be opposed to having a boyfriend. However, I don’t want to be with someone for the sake of being someone; and what’s especially a problem in Rwanda is that many of the men that are interested in me see my skin color and that’s all they see. I tell these nay-sayers that if I take a boyfriend then he better want to know me for me, not because I happen to be an umuzungo. Oh, not to mention the drama of having a boyfriend IN my village. That would just be a can of worms that I would not want to open.
  3. I have a lot on my plate right now; I am constantly using another language to communicate and live in my community, I have lessons to plan, projects to follow through on, and a life to build here. I don’t need a boyfriend—or a husband—to do all of this. I did the Peace Corps for a lot of probably overly-idealistic reasons to change the world, and idealistic they may be, I stand by them. I always said meeting the love of my life here would a huge bonus but I’m learning rather quickly that more times than not, the classic Peace Corps love story is a myth.
  4. I’m happy with my life right now. Sure, of course I want to share this all with someone. Of course! But, I didn’t come half-way around the world to be away from my family and friends to simply find a life partner. If something comes along, then great, but I have a lot of my ahead of me. There’s no rush, and I genuinely am perfectly content with that. I’m happy; isn’t that enough?

So, I go through all of these points, exhaust them completely, and at this point the person questioning my relationship status often nods, smiles, and laughs.

Touché, they must be thinking. That, or oh my god that girl is crazy.

But that’s neither here nor there; like I said, I love weddings and whatever culture I’ve been a part of, well, they’ve always been important.

There’s something fun, energizing, and of course romantic about families and friends coming together to celebrate the beginning of two people uniting their lives. I’ve seen and been in all kinds of weddings—from Hawaii, to Colorado, to Tennessee, to Ghana, and now even Rwanda. Like the classic girl who is never a bride and always a bridesmaid, I have a collection of dresses sitting back home in my closet. Some are from when I was a small child in my flower girl days and others are from when I was the maid of honor when both of my parents remarried. I recently missed the weddings of two very good friends from high school, and though this was difficult to be away from, I did get to experience the next best thing: I did not just attend a Rwandan wedding this August, oh please, I was a bridesmaid (with a sparkly spaghetti strap lavender dress), bringing my wedding experiences to an entirely new level.  

In Rwanda, a couple can have as many as three ceremonies—a civil ceremony (usually phase one of the wedding process), a dowry (the traditional wedding), and a religious wedding (usually “Western style” with a big, over-the-top white dress, and a wedding entourage with groomsmen and bridesmaids). Becoming a couple is a big deal (as it should be) and I would speculate that weddings are at the very heart of Rwandan life and culture. When it’s wedding season, people are attending marriage ceremonies left and right and it’s the main form of socialization, it seems. For example, after the wedding I was in ended, the wedding party drove around town—the bride and groom in a white mustang convertible and the groomsmen and bridesmaids in a nice Toyota SUV—to show off the brand spankin’ new union (and obviously, the cars). We went to a leafy and flower crazed garden area in the middle of Kigali to take photos. It was clearly a well-established place to have photo ops; each section of the garden had pre-set places to sit, stand, whatever, to get a variety of bridal shots. We had to wait nearly 20 minutes just to drive in and park the car, and once we did, there had to be at least 30 other wedding parties doing exactly the same thing.

The wedding itself was beautiful and unique. My day had started with nails and hair at 7:00am, and after bridal prep (with lots of milk served—this is Rwanda after all), we made it to the large, all-encompassing Evangelical church to march down the aisle by 1:00pm. This differs from your typical American wedding in that a) the bride and groom arrived together b) it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it is when people see the bride for the very first time and c) the bride led the way down the aisle as opposed to walking in after the bridesmaids. We settled off to the side when—BAM! Another bride and groom and complete wedding party entered the church. Apparently, multiple weddings are very common here, and so during the entire religious ceremony, the couples participated together and at the same time. 

Religious it was—there was a booming choir and lots and lots of prayer. All of this was in Kinyarwanda, but my fellow groomsmen helped me stay in the loop. After vows, prayer, a special time for gifts, prayer, family and photos, and another session of prayer, we jetted away for an hour long photo session and back to the church for the reception.

The reception room was pretty—decorated with sparkles and the colors of the wedding—pink, blue, and lavender. We sat at the head table as the ever-present glass bottles of Fanta arrived for us and all of the guests. The couple clinked their glasses with faux champagne, and I nursed my glass of Coca-Cola without any problem—I do love my Coke. We got to light some sparklers, share the cake, and watch some fire performers, all before the buffet of Rwandan food was ready (this wedding was extraordinarily nice and the families must have spent a fortune). The buffet was your standard heap of Rwandan food, but after a week bout of illness and consuming bread and corn flakes, I was ready to gourge. Following food, we received gifts on behalf of the bride and groom. It was at this time where many people commented on how great of a couple myself and my groomsman partner were (what was his name?). Um. No. Typical, of course that would happen. Thank goodness I was in no way bound to give a speech, and so we left the reception, helped the bride (a sister of a good friend of mine in the village) move her things into her new home with her husband. When this was finished, I was relinquished of my duties and headed back to the Peace Corps office on the opposite side of Kigali close to midnight. I was exhausted.

Initially a little frusturated that I got roped into being a bridesmaid (I wondered if I was being used as a status symbol) I went to bed that night with uber curly hair (I had a prom-esque hairstyle) and a greater sense of contentment and appreciation. Honestly, taking part in the wedding of a family that I have grown close to was a pretty unique opportunity. An honor, even. Weddings are weddings anywhere, but it’s incredible to see how people integrate histories, customs, traditions, and values into a day of celebration. I can’t say I’ll do it the same one day, but whenever I do get married, I now have a whole new array of ideas. 

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About Heather Michelle Newell

Hi! I'm Heather. I am a writer and counselor in-training and love to share stories so we can all learn about one another. I spend a great deal of time laughing loudly, going on adventures with my grandmother, walking amidst the beautiful Colorado mountains, and spending time with my fiancee, friends, and family. A Colorado native, I love dark-roasted coffee, sunshine, and getting up early before the rest of the world beats me too it. I am an ENFP, so brace yourself for all the passion, all the enthusiasm, all the possibility.

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