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Love in the traditional Rwandan society meant learning to love the partner others chose for you.
It began with a relative of a bachelor pointing out a young lady as a potential bride for him. This was known as Kuranga which translates directly as ‘to announce’. 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 lady including her ancestry as well as the conduct of her relatives in society.
In the event of a spot or wrinkle discovered in the research process, the Umuranga would advise the boy’s family to let go of the girl and look for another who’d have a right upbringing. In fact, it was in times like these that one particular Rwandan proverb stood out: Upbringing is more important than birth.
But in the event that the right girl was spotted, the Umuranga would give the boy’s parents a heads up to continue the pursuit.
The boy’s dad would then do what is still known as Gufata Irembo, translated as ‘taking the gate’. This was done at the girl’s parents’ home and the point was for the boy’s father to bring to light his son’s intention to marry their daughter. Nothing would go on if the girl’s father rejected the bid but if he did accept, arrangements would be made as to when bride price would be paid and then a date for the official introduction would be set.
The introduction ceremony was also known as the Gusaba, a Kinyarwanda verb ‘to ask’. The purpose of it was for the boy’s family to officially request the girl’s family for their daughter. The ceremony was and still is a battle of wits between the two families involving traditional tongue-twisters, pranks and riddles, especially directed towards the boy’s family. For the girl to be given, the boy’s family needed to exhibit the highest form of keen intelligence during this exchange.
The whole exercise was about separating boys from men. If the boy’s family proved to be men, quickly the dowry payment process would begin, also know as Gukwa.
Dowry was strictly in the form cows, because nothing else could ever be able to replace the void the departing daughter would leave. On closing the negotiations, the girl’s family would invite the boy’s family to share a sip. As they left, they would carry with them another drink traditionally known as Impamba to take them through their journey back home.
From the time of the introduction to the time of the official wedding, the bride to be would go through a process of preparation which was known as Gutinyisha. During this time her maternal aunt would give the girl advice on how to take care of her future family. The bride would also undergo intensive beauty care and treatment 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.
The wedding was a time for feasting and celebration.
The bride would arrive in a traditional carrier known as Ingobyi. She would be carried to her groom’s home by two strong men. A special banquet in honour of both the bride and groom would be held, with traditional Rwandan dancing and singing.
The newly marrieds would be given gifts by their respective families and members of their respective communities. This wasn’t just a way of wishing them a good start to a new life but also as a way of emphasising that love in the Rwandan culture is celebrated communally.
Even though a lot has changed over the centuries and young Rwandans do not accept arranged love anymore, the communal aspect remains profoundly present. You do not simply marry a girl, you marry her family and the wedding is a fantastic reason for all relatives to come together.
text: Enock Luyonza