Are customary marriage rituals on verge of extinction?

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It is a beautiful day as Lucky Nzeyimana and Divine Murekatete say their vows and officially get married. However, for Nzeyimana, the build up to this day was not the typical modern day process that couples go through before walking down the aisle.

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The bride and groom’s entourage attend a tradition wedding ceremony. / Net photo

He did everything the traditional way from courtship to the engagement and eventually the wedding. They followed the traditional rituals to the dot. It was a typical vintage wedding.

Nzeyimana recalls that he had to relieve their love story to his parents.

“I had to tell them about our love story including how we met and why I thought she was fit to be their daughter in-law,” Nzeyimana says.

Nzeyimana who is a devout believer in cultural norms argues that involving parents at every stage is critical because as elders they have so much knowledge and experience to tell if their child is making the right choice or not. Back in the day, parents were central in choosing a spouse for their child-in fact arranged marriages were the norm.

Nzeyimana recalls that like back in the day, their wedding journey started with Gufata Irembo, a ritual in which 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. It was followed by the giveaway ceremony and the main wedding.

70-year-old Joseph Gahamanyi says that these rituals are dying out in the name of modernity.

“These days people meet on social media and within days the next thing they are inviting people for a wedding reception or moving in to cohabit....” says Gahamanyi, adding that one of the reasons the marriage institution is rocked by a big number of divorce cases is because many marriages are not grounded on the foundation of the cherished traditional values.

Esther Businge, who is newlywed echoes similar views. She says that even for those who respect the traditional rituals, they do it for formality without understanding the value of each ritual.

“For example rituals like Gufata Irembo, some people merely do it as a demonstration. Traditionally, this was a function where only parents from the man’s side would go to the lady’s parents, and the groom to be would stay home. But today, parents go with a man when he clearly knows what’s going to happen,” she explained.

She adds that back in the day, parents would give cows as dowry and parents alone would negotiate. But this has significantly changed because people no longer own cows. Everything is measured in monetary value.

Businge cites another issue where a man and a woman sit down and come up with what kind of dowry the man can afford, and then the girl tells the parents. So dowry negotiation is usually a predetermined affair. “Why should people haggle over how much dowry when behind the curtains, it has already been decided,” she wonders.

Jeanine Uwimana, a wedding planner based in Kigali, explains that while some traditional wedding rituals are still conducted, many have changed meaning and probably don’t mean much in the modern era.

“In this age and era why should we have arranged marriages or parents having the exclusive say on who their daughter or son should marry? This should be a personal decision,” Uwimana argues.

According to Uwimana, in traditional society, it started with a relative of a bachelor identifying a young lady as a potential bride for him. This was known as Kuranga which translates directly as, to announce. “But this is no longer done, it is an outdated ritual,” she said.

With Kuranga, 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 woman including her ancestry as well as the conduct and social standing of her relatives in society.

After Kuranga, the bachelor’s father would go to ‘gufata irembo.’ 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. Although Gufata Irembo still takes place today, it’s not given the significance it deserves.

A look into other rituals

Gutebutsa

This is a ritual where the families meet again after the Gusaba and Gukwa 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.

Gutinyisha

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.

This is a tradition that modern people rarely observe. In fact many work up to their wedding day.

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. This ritual is slowly dying out. The ingobyi has been replaced by luxurious things like horses and sleek vehicles.

Gutwikurura

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 travel back home and the young couple would begin their new life together.

Commercialisation of the institution blamed

Critics of the modern marriage frenzy say that the rat race for having the most lavish wedding is the leading cause of the death of traditional marriage rituals. Everyone wants to have an expensive wedding based on concepts copied from the Western world.

To live this lavish wedding dream, many get loans to finance the splendour and glamour surrounding the modern wedding concept. Isaac Nkusi, a Kigali-based financial expert, says that taking a loan to fund a wedding is a big mistake.

“Never take a loan. A loan should always be taken in order to invest and a wedding is not a financial investment. A loan is an expense and taking it is an extremely unwise decision that so many people are doing today,” he opines.

“If you take a loan for a wedding, you will buy a wedding ring, buy a dress, pay for venue and buy food and alcohol, which you are going to finish in that day. None of these things are going to grow and give you a return on investment,” he adds.

Nkusi compares a ‘wedding loan’ as getting a loan to buy food at home that will never make returns at the end of the day. He rather advises that people should plan within their means-adding that the traditional marriage concept is a cheaper option.