The words ‘Rwandan culture’ will induce a bout of collective handwringing that I find amusing to no end. On Friday, the most read article in The New Times website was’ Traditional weddings: Who is responsible for the death of the ‘Ugusaba’ cultural norms?’.
In it, people moan about girls “who don’t know anything at their introductions and every now and then, they turn their heads to look at their mothers to instruct them on what to do next”, about couples who “are just being led sheepishly and do everything for formality”, and families that come, meet and talk “aimlessly, then after a few minutes they drink and eat and walk out without anyone paying attention to any detail”. Lord forbid if the bride is pregnant because “what is the man coming to beg for since he already has her”?
And if the couple actually aren’t being led sheepishly about or expecting a baby together, the complaints don’t end there. One father of six girls complained, a bit self-indulgently in my opinion, that the value of cows isn’t what it used to be back in the ‘golden days’. “You attend an introduction and when time comes to show the cows, the DJ plays the sound of a mowing cow. This is unacceptable. The joy of a girl’s father is to see the cows that have been handed to him. Unfortunately for him, he gets ripped off. All he gets these days are stupid sounds of a cow blaring from loud speakers. It’s unbelievable how much things have lost value. I will never support traditional ceremonies of these days unless they follow the normal procedures that we followed”, he said.
I found not only the opinions cited in the article quite bemusing but also quite reactionary. I like to divide Rwandans into two schools of cultural/traditional spheres; the cultural fundamentalists and everyone else. The fundamentalists think that our greatest days, culturally speaking, are long gone. They look at our popular culture and think, “Rwanda is no more”.
They sneer at the wedding attire, at the toasts, at the relationships and at the transforming gender roles. In fact, there are very few new things that they do like. To them I say, don’t romanticize the past. Sure the ceremonies were nice and ‘traditional’, but they were also extremely abhorrent.
Many of the blushing brides of yesteryear were forced to marry boys they didn’t know in exchange for cattle. While some people might argue that this exchange wasn’t a ‘bride price’ per se but rather a token of appreciation from the groom’s family, the fact of the matter was that the bride left her family’s workforce to join her new family’s workforce. In exchange for cattle and other trinkets.
In my opinion, the whole concept of gusaba is wrong, demeaning and counter to all the gender strides were are trying to make. Why should a grown man have to ask a woman’s father for permission to marry her? Yes I understand a groom seeking his future father-in-laws approval, but permission? Does the bride have a say in it? What happens if, by chance, the girl’s father says no during the ceremony?
Secondly, the cattle exchange rubs me the wrong way. Today, women aren’t seen as a familial labour force (or at least not as much anyway) to be moved from Place A to Place B as the men choose so the bride ‘price’ should be null and void. There can be no price if there is no commodity to exchange. And the ‘appreciation’ argument is laughable. I mean, if the groom’s family gives cows in appreciation for the brides good upbringing, doesn’t it seem reasonable that the bride’s family do the same? After all, the groom was raised in a manner good enough to take their daughter’s hand in marriage. So, why doesn’t his family get even mere goats and chickens? Its hypocritical.
So what if the ceremonies are different? I don’t think its a bad thing; especially because, no matter my efforts, the gusaba will not fade into the distance. At least people are trying to incorporate the old with the new these days. Sure, the mooing sound is courtesy of loudspeakers, but real cows find their way to the father’s pastureland. The only way the gusaba ceremony (or any aspect of traditional Rwandan culture) will survive this century is if it stays relevant and applicable to Rwandans themselves. Instead of moaning, lets sit back and enjoy the festivities. No matter how newfangled they are.