A Tale of Two Weddings

Getting married is exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. Getting married twice in two days is to endure a financial, emotional and physical crucible. Yet last month I experienced such heights of joy and fatigue as I married fellow BMS worker Annet Ttendo, first traditionally and then in a Christian church ceremony, in her home country of Uganda.

The Kwanjula, or Introduction, is the traditional marriage ceremony of the Baganda people, to which my wife belongs. It is the day when the bride-to-be introduces her future husband, accompanied by his entourage of relatives and friends, to her family. The Introduction serves as a customary marriage, but since Western-style white weddings have gained in popularity the Introduction is frequently performed as a formal engagement ceremony. This latter situation was the one I found myself in. However, the Introduction’s engagement function is no less essential. If Annet’s family disapproved they could refuse me permission to marry her, and if accepted I would be ‘born into her family’.

Our Introduction was held the day before our wedding, but in truth it started long before that. In the preceding week I visited Annet’s father and also her uncles, aunts and cousins on both maternal and paternal sides to show respect and inform them personally of the forthcoming ceremony. If someone was missed it could cause grave offence. Specific gifts had to be bought for relatives, to be presented on the day. These included sacks of sugar and rice, salt, soap, cooking oil, a jerry can full of paraffin, traditional clothing, the thigh of a cow, and various fruits and vegetables (with the exception of aubergines, which are considered highly taboo. The unthinkable act of gifting an aubergine would lead to my immediate rejection by the family). I also needed to obtain a certificate from the Kingdom of Buganda to show that I respected and supported the cultural monarch (the Kabaka).

On the day I arrived at Annet’s family home with my entourage we were invited to enter our marquee, which faced the marquee occupied my in-laws to be. Men wore a flowing white tunic called the Kanzu, while women enthralled the eye in vibrant Gomesis, floor-length dresses with short, puffed sleeves and a large sash resting over the hips.  A lively dialogue then ensued in the Luganda language, as my designated spokesman exchanged jokes, challenges, poetry and witty repartee with the orator for the other side.

At times I felt a little lost, but there were many highlights to this colourful ceremony. One was the appearance of the aunts, who one by one adamantly denied any knowledge of me and my group. My spokesman implored them to look for another who might know us. After much petitioning and gift giving the aunts agreed and re-appeared with the chosen aunt or ‘the aunt with a purpose’. Finally, when asked ‘do you know these people?’ she confirmed ‘yes, father’ and cheers erupted from the crowd. Asked to pick me from the crowd, the chosen aunt danced over towards several other men, eyed them and then turned her back on them before arriving at me, holding my arm aloft and pinning a flower on my jacket to a background of praise and clapping.

Another highlight was the first time Annet made an appearance. A line of ladies emerged from the house in gomesis of every dye, tint, and shade and took their place before the marquees. One by one the spokesman called for them to be seated until only my fiancé remained, dazzling in silver and purple as she danced the traditional Maganda.  Later in the ceremony a cockerel was thrust into my hands and I was told to present it to a brother-in-law in front of the gathered parties. The cock crooked its neck to fix me with a detached, confused gaze that reflected my own as I struggled for the words that are appropriate when awarding poultry to your bride’s brother. After more dancing, eating and discussion the evening drew in and the ceremony ended with a re-enactment of the moment I had asked Annet to marry me, which of course all in attendance had missed and, this being an engagement party, wanted to partake in.

The following day, on the 25th April, Annet and I were married at Kampala Baptist Church. The wedding ceremony was far more familiar, my bride resplendent in her ivory dress, groomsmen smartly attired in a charcoal and red combination, and the two of us exchanging golden wedding bands with coy smiles.  We were reminded that this was Uganda once again as we walked back down the aisle hand in hand, when the reserved atmosphere was shattered by a chorus of ululations hailing from the assembled aunts.

Distinctively Ugandan elements were also introduced to the recognisable format of the reception. There were speeches, but with an open invitation for guests to submit at will and absent troublesome time restrictions. There was the cutting of the cake, but escorted by explosive fireworks launching from somewhere deep within the marzipan. There was the giving of wedding gifts, but accompanied by hip-jarring dance moves and eager embraces. By the end of the reception Annet and I were both weary and yet deeply satisfied.

Introductions and weddings are deeply rooted in custom, virtue and respect for family. However, influences such as materialism and consumer culture mean that both ceremonies are now often used to impress by demonstrating wealth and influence. Annet and I wanted to use both the Introduction and the wedding to demonstrate our faith whilst at the same time respecting tradition and family. My sister-in-law Helen afterwards said that these events had brought together family members who had not seen each other for some time and helped to heal longstanding rifts. For this we will always be grateful to God, and to those who worked so tirelessly to organise the many facets of our double marriage celebration. A heartfelt thank you goes out to all those who read this blog and who contributed to our wedding in some way. Without your help we would have struggled, your kindness is a deeply valued blessing.

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