Wedding traditions go back for many centuries and even though some westernization has crept into certain segments of the Rwandan society, a lot of these traditional weddings are still carried out today.
Traditional weddings have continued to be important family rituals.
In Rwanda marriage is a social institution which was accorded much respect and dignity, people desire to establish a family by getting married, raising children and establishing kinship systems. Rwandans used to believe that being single especially among women was considered weird and unacceptable.
Courtship (‘Gufata irembo’)
After the preliminary search for a woman and if two families approve of the relationship, this phase is locally known as ‘Gufata irembo’. It is when courtship begins and culminates into marriage under traditional laws and customs.
John Rusanganwa, 65 years, of Gatsibo district says that this procedure of ‘gufata irembo’ consists of a set of rituals that involves negotiations for the bride price with representatives from the groom’s family to the bride’s family. The preparation for marriage takes a while order to allow the prospective bride and groom to know each other better.
The introduction ceremony (Gusaba)
At this time, preparations of the traditional introduction ceremony (Gusaba) are ripe. It is an occasion where the bride-to-be introduces her future husband to her friends, parents and relatives.
Rusanganwa emphasized that both families were required to have a spokesman to represent them. The spokesman takes the role of the final emissary on the day of the introduction and he has to pull a lot of antics learned from tradition and experience to engage or answer challenging questions from the other side’s spokesman.
Originally, the spokesman had to be a member of the man’s family to speak on behalf of the man’s side. Today, few people remember prominently the cultural requirements and tongue-twisting of old at these ceremonies, many people now offer the service at a fee.
During the introduction ceremony, a Rwandan man is required to pay dowry in form of a cow or money before the solemnization of the marriage. Bride price carries the purpose of validating and legitimizing the relationship between a man and woman.
Rwandans gave great respect to the practice of bride price such that in cases of divorce it was usually returned. It is a way of assuring that a girl is properly treated; in case of mistreatment, she can always return home and be accepted by her parents and other relatives. The payment of dowry is a still common practice in Rwanda.
The Wedding (Ubukwe)
In Rwandan culture and custom, marriage ceremonies (Ubukwe) are held at the residence of the groom’s father, with the bride and groom beautifully dressed in traditional outfits. Family members and friends gather to witness the joyous occasion. During the ceremony, the family of the bridegroom will make statements of affection before the in-laws with promises to take care of the bride and to meet all the expected responsibilities. The bride is formally introduced to the family of the groom amid exchanges of friendly remarks.
Seclusion ceremony (Gutwikurura)
After the reception party, some of the guests drive to the couple’s new home for the seclusion ceremony (gutwikurura). Traditionally, after marriage the newly-wed wife stays isolated for an undetermined amount of time. At the end of this period of seclusion, a ceremony is organized by the family and friends to visit her and bring her several items to stock in her home.
Jean Mukarugwiza, 55 years, says that the husband is expected to furnish the home completely and new wife is expected to bring household goods (Ibishingirwa) which include the wedding presents.
Additionally, the evening after the wedding at their new home the couple respects other rituals that have evolved over the years. Word is that in the past, wedding guests waited while the couple consummated the marriage to find out if the woman was a virgin.
Other rituals include: The groom’s aunt is cutting a piece of the bride’s hair to symbolize that she belongs to him. Also a young bridesmaid is also given to the bride as a symbolic little sister to help her out for a few days. Also, an aunt or godmother putting a mosquito net over the couple to symbolize their union, the man chasing his wife around the house and more.
Rwandan weddings have three parts: a traditional introduction ceremony, a religious church ceremony, and a civil ceremony. It is a means of keeping relations between the two families alive and strong. Basing on the traditions, parents played a huge role in assisting their daughter or son in selecting a marital partner or giving in approval to the relationship.
The involvement of parents and relatives emanated from their willingness to provide security and peaceful homes for their children. They used to carry out a background check on the family of the prospective bride or groom before establishing contacts.
Marriage is considered the most basic social institution in Rwanda, unlike in the past; most couples today select their own mates, though approval of the family is expected.