Marriage has always been a very important cultural institution in Rwanda. Prior to and after the wedding ceremony there are a number of traditional practices that take place. The nature of these practices have changed over time, with several ceremonies being combined to take place over a shorter period, however many elements remain as they were hundreds of years ago.
Many couples began with a relative of a bachelor pointing out a young lady as a potential bride for him. This was known as Kuranga which translates directly as, 'to announce'. The bachelor's family would then select a man as their representative to be the Umuranga who would act as the go-between for their family and that of the bride to be. His role included intensive research on the lady including her ancestry as well as the conduct of her relatives in society.
Following the research, the bachelor's father would go 'gufata irembo', literally, 'to take the gate'. This was when the father of the potential groom, or a special envoy selected by the family, would visit the girl's father to declare the intention of his son to marry their daughter. If the girl's father accepted, arrangements would be made as to when the introduction ceremony, the Gusaba, would take place. Gufata Irembo still takes place today.
'Gusaba' is the Kinyarwanda verb 'to ask' and is the ceremony where the Umuranga officially requests for the daughter as a bride. The Gusaba is a battle of wits often involving traditional tongue-twisters as well as riddles and pranks from the girl's side. The family of the would-be bride, as well as the people of her neighbourhood, were all consulted as, the welfare of children, even in marriage, is the responsibility of the community.
If the Umuranga was successful in Gusaba, the next phase would be the Gukwa – that is the payment of the dowry. The dowry was always strictly a cow, or several cows. Once the negotiations were over, the bride's side would invite the groom's side to share a drink. Then, before the groom's side left, they would often be given a drink known as Impamba which they were to enjoy along their journey home. In modern times, if one side has travelled a great distance they may even be invited to share a meal together with their future in-laws before they return home.
After the Gusaba and Gukwa, the families would meet again to discuss the date of the wedding – this was known as Gutebutsa. In modern times, this is often done privately between the bride, groom and their immediate families without involving as many parties.
Traditionally, before her wedding day, a bride would spend several weeks in seclusion being cared for by one of her aunts. During this time her aunt would give her advice on how to take care of her future family. The bride would also undergo intensive beauty treatments including daily applications of perfumed cow-ghee with special herbs to give her softer and smoother skin. She would also adhere to a diet regime reserved for brides.
The Wedding Day
On the day of the wedding, a bride would be seated in a traditional carrier known as ingobyi. The ingobyi would have two handles which would be placed on the shoulders of two strong men who would carry her to the groom. After arriving at her groom's home, she would be taken inside and a special banquet in honour of both the bride and groom would be held. The banquet would include traditional Kinyarwanda dancing and singing.
The final ceremony is known as Gutwikurura. The wife's family would visit her at her new home and bring a number of items to help her settle in. Prior to this, the wife would not have been seen in public and would have completely refrained from any work. In this ceremony, the wife would make a meal for her family and in-laws for the first time.
At the end of any visit to a Rwandan home, including this one, a host would often offer their guests Agashingura Cumu – which literally means 'that which pulls out the spear'. In the past, men would travel with spears and before entering a home they would pierce them into the ground outside the entrance. The drink would symbolically give the visitors energy to pluck out their spears.
The wife's family would then journey home and the young couple would begin their new life together.