Dangerous trend: Weddings turn into big business and celebrity spectacle

There is a season for everything, and a time for every event under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1). In Rwanda, the wedding season is here. There are periods when marriage is unthinkable. These include the Genocide commemoration, lent for mainstream Christian churches, and advent for Catholics when passions are kept in check and wedding plans put on hold

There is a season for everything, and a time for every event under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1). In Rwanda, the wedding season is here. There are periods when marriage is unthinkable.

These include the Genocide commemoration, lent for mainstream Christian churches, and advent for Catholics when passions are kept in check and wedding plans put on hold.

 

Then comes the spell from July to December and it is like the floodgates have been opened. It is a season of great joy and celebration. Religious and civil leaders are kept busy, houses of worship full and pockets of business people bulge.

 

The young people tying the knot are doing it for conventional reasons – the propagation of the species. So there is no danger of Rwandans becoming extinct any time soon.

 

However, there is a different worry.

Weddings have become very expensive events. They are no longer a family and community affair, but huge public events that rival any political rally, religious convention or major sporting event.

Indeed a study by the Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture (RALC) on marriage in Rwanda shows that families are increasingly excluded, and only brought in to give the event a cultural flavour.

That is another problem, according to RALC. The cultural aspect of marriage in Rwanda has been so modified as to make it lose its authenticity. But that is a subject for another day. Today we will concern ourselves with the commercial aspect.

Six years ago, this column examined this very question.  Nothing has changed and so today we reproduce an edited excerpt of that article.

It used to be that every Saturday you were likely to trip on a newly-wed couple and their entourage in the streets of Kigali. That largely remains so. You are now equally likely to bump into a marriage procession on Sunday or Friday.

Such has been the competition for the most sought-after venues that many of them are booked almost a year in advance, forcing couples to shift their weddings to other days of the week.

Whatever else you may say about the increasing rate of marriage in Rwanda, you must admit that it is good business. Over the last two decades it has spawned a huge industry with many linkages in which large profits have been made from minimal investment.

Let us start with the venue for the reception party that is often hired for upwards of Rwf500,000 for a two-hour celebration. It started as a simple hall at a church, school or social centre.

Then it spread to banquet halls of some of the plush hotels. Finally, enterprising people built their own halls for wedding receptions.

Such venues have since diversified. Anyone who could get a sizeable patch of land and pitch a tent on it got in on the act. But tents can sometimes be too closed and stifling.

Something had to be done for those who love the open air. Those with the nose for business got a similar patch of land, fenced it off and turned it into an attractive garden that hosts wedding parties and other outdoor entertainment.

There are venues to suit every pocket – from upscale areas accessible only if you have private means of transport to roadside halls that can be reached by public transport.

Another bit was added to the marriage business, houses and related premises that are rented for the day for gusaba and gutwikurura.

The venue is just one. There are other related service providers that are all too eager to cash in on the itch to get hitched. Nearly all people still think that a marriage is not such without a big church ceremony – never mind that most couples were last in the hallowed place when they were getting baptised.

I have seen priests embarrassed by the inability of the couple exchanging vows and their entourage to follow the rituals of the mass.

Now, the church charges a fee for indulging the couple’s love for a worthy public spectacle. So does the choir that serenades them and the florist and decorators at the church. The posh cars hired for day also cost a pretty sum.

Then there are the many bridal parlours dotted all across town whose business is to make the bride appear like a doll - at a huge cost. These are matched by shops that seem to sprout at every corner to rent wedding-related things like traditional attire, items of Rwandan traditional decor and modern things like plastic chairs.

No wedding celebration would be complete without a cultural dance troupe to lend traditional colour to the event. There are so many of these that, in a bid to make each unique and more marketable, they try to outdo one another in innovation and adaptation that often results in a distortion of the genuine dance. And for this they are paid handsomely.

Perhaps one of the most enterprising creations of the modern marriage ceremony has been the emergence of paid professional MCs and praise singers. Those with a gift of the garb are now guaranteed a weekly – may soon become daily – income as masters of ceremony. The more poetic and with a good voice can be assured of a big package from singing praises to unseen cattle – well, envelopes are not exactly invisible, but what they contain is.

Do not ask me if all these groups and individuals pay taxes on the professional fees they charge.

Other businesses make big profits from weddings and pay taxes – breweries, for instance, and the hotels and restaurants with outside catering services.

The cost does not seem to be a hindrance. People still put on a huge spectacle so they must be getting money from somewhere. Some have been known to take loans or sell family property to have their few hours in the limelight. Others resort to a form of forced fundraising. In the process they impoverish their families and exhaust the goodwill of friends.

And so when young families should be starting on a foundation of happiness and security, they may start on debt and an uncertain future. It is perhaps time to return to marriage ceremony as celebration that involves family and friends and not a celebrity spectacle, even if it is for only one day.

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