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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Names for Baby

I apologize for my delay in putting up another blog post. The internet has been cutting out badly these last two weeks and I’ve also been a little busier than usual. It’s finals week next week so besides writing an final exam I’ve had to finish grading my student’s quizzes and papers from last week, a total of ninety-five quizzes and one hundred and ninety homework assignments (probably less than the average TA has to deal with, but I‘ve never TA‘ed a class so I wouldn‘t know). I have an Excel spreadsheet of all my students’ grades and I decided to copy it out by hand because I wanted them to know their grades before the final and I don’t have a way to print things. Judging by my students’ reaction, this must not be common practice amongst the teachers at my school. At the end of my last lesson I took out the spreadsheet and said that I had their grades recorded there and before I could say anything else my normally well-behaved students had jumped up and swarmed me, pushing and shoving each other for a look at the paper. I told them to form a line and they obeyed for about five minutes but as soon as one student stepped forward, five others came with him and soon I was surrounded again. I finally resorted to drawing a line on the floor with chalk and instructing my students to step over it one at a time to look at the spreadsheet. Fortunately only a few of them wanted to dispute their grades or I would have had chaos again.

I never got a chance to talk about the naming ceremony I mentioned in my last post. It’s a really interesting tradition. In Rwanda, a child isn’t given a name until eight days after it’s born. On its eighth day, everyone in the family gathers together. All the children in the family (and sometimes the adults as well) come forward one at a time to suggest names which are recorded in a list. Then the mother or father chooses one name from the list. Once the name is announced, there is a brief period of drinking, dancing and jubilation, and then everyone goes home.

I expected my friend’s niece’s naming ceremony to be a casual gathering because I was invited at the last minute, but when I arrived at her house I found the entire extended family there, dressed in their Sunday finest. It felt a little like crashing someone’s Easter brunch. I sat down next to someone who I guess was a friend of the mother and attempted conversation while drinks were distributed. We waited for what must have been three hours. Finally, someone stood up and made a brief speech, and the mother emerged with the baby. A hush fell over the room as all the children there, most of them dressed to the nines, lined up single file to whisper names to the mother. Each of them gave at least two names, one Kinyarwanda, one French. Some of them gave as many as four names. Then each of the adults in the room stood up in turn and suggested names. Then the mother gave her suggestion. When the list was complete, we waited for what may have been another hour for the father to give his final decision.

We talked in hushed voices as if speaking loudly would break the father’s concentration and prolong the ceremony. Finally, the name was announced. I never heard what it was because someone immediately burst into song, and pretty soon everyone was singing and half the room had jumped up and started dancing. I tried to stay sitting but someone pushed me off the couch into the middle of the floor so I danced, singing along with everyone to the best of my ability. At some point I realized that while it wasn’t my family and I didn’t even know the names of half the people there, I felt completely at home. It was a similar to the feeling I had at my headmaster’s wedding. People wanted to make me a part of things.

Next week I will be proctoring twelve different exams, I think because a few of the other teachers won’t be in town. I’m tired from grading and a little disheartened because many of my students are not going to pass my class without some kind of miracle on the final. But then I remember things like that naming ceremony and I realize there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Also, I saw a baby goat sneeze yesterday. How can I not love it here?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Goin' to the Chapel

My headmaster got married yesterday. It was the first Rwandan wedding I’ve attended and it was awesome. It was an indescribable experience but I’m going to try and describe it anyway so bear with me. This is going to be a very long blog post.

I’ve been anticipating this wedding since my second week at site when my headmaster hand-delivered my invitation but I wasn’t anxious about it until last Tuesday. That’s because last Tuesday the teachers had a meeting to pool money for a wedding gift and they decided unanimously that I should be the one to present it at the reception. This meant I would have to make a speech. A wedding speech. In Kinyarwanda.

Fortunately I have a friend at site, a nurse named Louise, who infallibly comes to my rescue in such situations. When I told her my predicament she sat down and immediately wrote something out and told me to memorize it. She explained all the words I didn’t know and had me read through it several times until she was satisfied with my pronunciation. For the moment, I was in the clear.

But then there was the problem of what to wear. My skirts and dresses from home are too short by Rwandan standards. There was the dress I wore for swearing-in, but it’s made from igitenge material which generally isn’t worn at weddings. I asked my neighbor Claudine for help and she had me try on different combinations of things until she found a acceptable skirt and blouse. I was all set, or so I thought.

The night before the wedding Louise came to check up on me. She had me recite my speech again and when I was done she asked me what I planned to wear. I showed her the skirt-and-blouse ensemble. She said, “Who told you to wear that?” I told her Claudine had helped me pick it out. She said, “Claudine doesn’t know anything. You need Rwandan wedding clothes.”

I said, “What are Rwandan wedding clothes?”

Next thing I knew I was being dragged by the hand to the local tailor. Together with Louise she found me a traditional Rwandan wedding outfit, a silk camisole and a beautiful blue wrap with a matching shawl that I wore draped over my shoulder like a toga. It had to be fitted and washed but finally, by 10pm the night before the wedding, I had something to wear.

Sometime around midnight that night my headmaster called me and told me to be dressed and at his house by 6:30 a.m. He said he wanted me to go with him and his family to the dowry ceremony. I said I hadn’t realized I was invited to the dowry ceremony. He said, “Of course you‘re invited. You’re my best man.” I said I thought Vincent was his best man. He said, “Well then you’re my best woman.”

Eight hours later I was jammed into the back of an old pickup truck between my headmaster’s mother and another woman who I think might have been his aunt. It was a long and arduous trip to the bride’s family’s house not because of the actual distance but because we couldn’t get there via the main road, which meant driving down a series of extremely bumpy and narrow dirt paths. We clattered along for what felt like hours over boulders and up hills and through ravines. It would have been kind of fun if I hadn’t had to pee the entire time. When we finally arrived I was so happy to be done traveling I didn’t mind that we had to wait another hour or so for the bride to be ready.

The dowry ceremony was beautiful. It was also very long. It mostly consisted of a very theatrical back-and-forth between the father of the bride and the father of the groom. The agreed-upon dowry was a pair of cattle but instead of offering the cattle straight away the father of the groom offered up a series of small gifts, including a water jug and a pair of hoes. The father of the bride accepted the gifts but every time he asked for something bigger until finally the cattle were presented. Then the bride emerged. She took her place next to the groom while speeches were made and drinks were distributed. Then she and the groom drank traditional sorghum beer from a huge gourd. When the ceremony was over, a twenty-person choir entered and gave an exuberant performance that included dancing and drum-beating and hand-clapping. Then everyone piled into cars and went back to Gihara for the actual wedding.

The religious ceremony was unremarkable. In fact very few people attended because the majority of the guests were in the community center across the street preparing for the reception. The bride wore a veil and a white dress and was attended by bridesmaids like in an American wedding but her father didn’t give her away at the alter since that had already been accomplished at the dowry ceremony. Instead she and the groom each read a series of very long vows, and then the priest made a very long speech, and then a choir performed a few songs, and then she and the groom read more vows. Finally, the priest pronounced them husband and wife and they embraced (without kissing because Rwandans do not kiss in public) and it was time for the reception.

The reception was also very long and laden with ceremony but it was a lot more relaxed and fun than anything that had happened previously. People lit sparklers while the bride and groom made their entrance and food was distributed (one piece of bread and a bite of roasted pork per guest, but it was better than nothing since none of us had eaten all day). Someone shook up a bottle of champagne and sprayed it all over the newlyweds. Then the cake was cut and distributed (a small sliver for each guest, but that was as expected since there were probably two or three hundred people there). The bride and groom fed each other cake and champagne and the bride’s uncle told some jokes. Then it was time to give gifts.

I was first up and I was shaking like a leaf. They handed me a microphone and I think most of the congregation expected me to speak in English so the room went dead quiet when I opened with, “Murakokze mwe mumpaye ijamo. Nshimiye n’abajiye kuntega amatwi kandi murambabarira kuko ntazi ikinyarwanda neza, ariko ndageregeza…”

The crowd went wild when I finished. I got slapped on the back by two or three teachers and a member of the bride’s family (who was quiet drunk due to the lack of food and overabundance of beer) came over and told me we were leaving Gihara together then and there because she was going to take me home with her as her adopted daughter. Success.

After the gift-giving was over, the dancers came out and took the floor. Rwanda is famous for intore, a traditional style of performative dance, but until yesterday I’d only ever seen it in YouTube videos. It involves a lot of stamping and graceful twisting the dancers accompany themselves with singing and clapping. Video cannot capture the intricacy and energy of such a performance. It was especially incredible to see because many of the dancers were my students. They performed in sets - first all the very young girls performed, then very young boys, then the teenage girls, then the teenage boys, then boys and girls together. Then the dancers started pulling members of the wedding party onto the floor. One of my students ran over and tried to take my hand. I told her I didn’t know how to dance intore. She said, “Try!” and I said, “No!” and the tug-of-war continued until I was in the middle of the floor with the rest of the wedding party. All eyes that weren’t on the bride and groom were on me. I was horrified for a moment but then I decided to give into not knowing and just dance. I have no idea how well or badly I performed but when the dance was over I was again slapped on the back and congratulated and told I was a real umunyarwandakaze and that multiple families wanted to take me in as one of their own.

As I was leaving my headmaster found me and took one of my hands in both of his and thanked me for coming and his new wife, Christine, embraced me and kissed both my cheeks. I have been to close to twenty weddings in my life, some for relatives and close friends, but never have I felt such an intimate part of things as I did at my headmaster’s wedding yesterday.

Now I’m off to a naming ceremony. My colleague’s sister had a baby girl last week and most of the community is gathering to choose a name for her. I’ll let you know how it goes.