Last weekend, my Ugandan friend, Carol, got married, and I had the chance to attend her wedding—it was so beautiful! Ugandan weddings are definitely go big or go home! it’s a once in a lifetime celebration, so you make it as lavish and memorable as possible. You also have to invite every brother (brother and sister are loosely defined terms in Uganda), sister, uncle, aunt, cousin, grandma, grandpa, distant relative, friend, and distinguished district official, and you have to feed them all (with plenty of meat)! Carol’s wedding had 700 people! Many Ugandans actually live together calling each other husband and wife before they get married because they can’t afford a wedding. Once they save enough money (sometimes years later), they’ll have the ceremony. There’s usually two ceremonies—a traditional and a church wedding. Carol already had her traditional wedding several months ago, so this was her church wedding.
The wedding started at the Catholic church in Gulu on Saturday morning. The bridal party drove slowly through town with ribbons on their cars and horns honking. Even the boda boda drivers stayed respectfully behind, and they normally cut in front of everyone! The cars pulled up to the church 15 minutes late (not bad for Ugandan time), but most of the guests weren’t there yet either. The cute flower girls and beautiful bridesmaids followed by the dashing groomsmen slowly made their way down the aisle rocking backwards about three times for every step forward while the choir sang. Arrayed in gorgeous matching gomas (traditional Ugandan dresses with pointy shoulders and waist sashes), the choir sang beautifully throughout the ceremony. Finally, the bride appeared! Escorted by her husband, Carol slowly rocked down the aisle amidst whistles and the shrill celebratory yell of dozens of Acholi women. In any song, dance, or celebration, Acholi women let out this high-pitched screech /cheer/whistle by yelling while rapidly wagging their tongues. Whenever I try to do it, they laugh, but I’m getting better! Carol and John took their seats on the stage, and an older man and woman sat beside them. These were two trusted, close friends who helped the young couple throughout the day (usually by repeatedly wiping sweat off the bride and groom’s faces with a handkerchief) and will offer guidance and counsel throughout their marriage. The choir sang more songs, the priest preached, and then the bride and groom exchanged vows and rings. I was disappointed they didn’t kiss, but Ugandans don’t show affection publicly. Church is considered sacred, so kissing in church is especially frowned upon, even at a wedding!
Three professional photographers and three more videographers captured every moment of the ceremony! As the only mzungu in the church, I was quite the attraction. The photographers kept snapping photos of me and everyone wanted to greet me. Even the bride’s mother came over! Next, the guests walked forward and dropped small coins in a basket, and then the bridesmaids and groomsmen came down the aisle carrying baskets of gifts from family and friends. Holding everything from watermelons to soap, the baskets were for the newlyweds, but they’re often left for the priests.
The priests (there were a lot of them! Some even came from Kampala and other districts) then offered communion and the bride and groom signed their legal wedding document. After a few more songs, the ceremony was finally over, and the bridal party slowly filed out of the church. Carol and John were both waving and smiling exuberantly—a picture of happiness. Outside, rows of traditional dancers in feather headdresses with ankle bells and drums lined the way to the cars.
The guests all made our way to the reception at a hotel and restaurant with a large grassy compound on the outskirts of Gulu. It was beautifully decorated with ribbons, flowers, and lights, and nearly a dozen tents were setup and designated for religious leaders, the bride’s family, the groom’s family, and other invited guests. The bridal party’s tables were on a raised platform, and the bride and groom had a private table with huge, plush chairs that looked like thrones!
The bridal party was taking pictures, so the guests sat and waited for a couple hours. Ugandans are very good at sitting and waiting—even if they don’t know people sitting next to them, they’ll contentedly sit silent for hours. However, they like to talk to mzungus. One lady told us she thought of us as her daughters because her daughter studied in the US. We were also entertained with a few traditional Ugandan dances. With drums, whistles, and bells hanging off their arms and legs, the young dancers shook their feet so quickly to the beat of the drum—it was like a quick feet soccer drill!
Finally, the bridal party arrived and made a grand entrance! As the drums beat and the women shrilled, the procession passed under the arches and made it to their tables—there was even a fog machine! In Ugandan ceremonies, cake comes before the meal, so the bride and groom danced down to the array of cakes. Yes, they danced, and yes, there were many, many cakes. At a Ugandan wedding, you never walk—you always dance. There was one large, multi-tiered cake surrounded by over a dozen smaller, wrapped cakes. At the emcee’s countdown, the couple cut the large cake and bam! confetti and white foam exploded! I was standing quite close and got covered! I was so surprised! Apparently, tradition says if you’re sprayed when they cut the cake, you’ll be the next one to marry…we’ll see!
The bride and groom fed each other bites of cake and orange Fanta (out of champagne glasses) then the rest of the cake was cut up into small pieces and placed in bowls. The bride and groom took a bowl and danced over to the father and mother of the groom to present them cake then did the same for the bride’s parents and finally for the nuns (who were distinguished guests). The bridesmaids then brought bowls to all the other guests, and everyone took a small piece. Ugandan cakes are much denser and not as sweet as American cakes, and the frosting is much stiffer and more sugary. Then the smaller cakes were presented to distinguished groups of guests. The emcee would call out groups, such as “the bride’s aunts” or “the archdiocese” or “the Children’s Rehabilitation Group of Gulu,” and representatives would dance to the front to accept their cake from the bride and groom. Sadly, they didn’t open the cakes (I was hoping to get a few more bites!) but brought them home.
The traditional dancers returned, this time in different costumes, and entertained us while the bridal party changed to their reception attire. They returned in matching bright blue and yellow while Carol wore a shimmering gold dress and John boasted a flashy, silver suit jacket. They danced through the arches again and announced lunch was finally served! At 5 pm. As we waited in line, country love music floated through the air (country music is quite fashionable in Uganda), the sun began to beat less mercilessly as it set, and feelings of happiness, joy, and peace permeated the soul. Everyone piled their plates with rice, sweet potatoes, irish potatoes, chapatti, skuma wiki (a Ugandan green), cabbage, chicken, beef, g-nut, pea paste, and of course soda.
After eating came the speeches. Every Ugandan ceremony has speeches. Any slightly important relative, friend, or official stands up and gives an often lengthy speech. I haven’t met a Ugandan yet who’s afraid of public speaking! Thankfully, Carol kept the speeches at her wedding comparatively short, and the dancers soon returned. Then the guests formed lines and danced their way to the bride and groom to present their brightly wrapped gifts. Everyone was dressed up in their finest! Some wore modern attire, but many wore the brightly patterned traditional gomas. As the sun descended below the horizon, the strings of lights hanging from the tents twinkled on, and Carol and John each gave heartwarming speeches of love and dedication to each other. Then came their first dance—a beautiful, slow song where they seemed to just get lost in each other.
When the music switched to the traditional, fast Ugandan drum beats, everyone joined in! I wasn’t too good at Ugandan dancing at first, but I’m getting better! It’s mostly a lot of foot and booty shaking accompanied by the periodic Acholi shrill. In traditional dancing, they get very close to each other but never touch. It’s a little intimidating when a large Ugandan woman sidles up to you shaking her booty or chest and expects you to do the same to her, but once you throw yourself into the dancing, it’s a lot of fun! The dancing lasted late into the night, and as I boarded the bus taking guests back to town, the party continued! The passengers continued singing and letting loose the Acholi shrill—one lady even danced in the aisle, until the road became too bumpy and threw her to her seat!
The celebration continued on day 2 with a party at the bride’s family house! This was smaller with only three to four tents. They said come at 10, but we’re starting to figure out Ugandan time, so Lei and I showed up after 2. Food was served at 4, which is early for Ugandan celebrations! Ugandans are punctual for some things, such as school, but for parties or meals, it doesn’t matter what time you show up. As long as you show up at some point, it shows you care about the person.
We sat under the tents where the drinks flowed and talked with Carol and other guests. She doesn’t know where her honeymoon will be—her husband is keeping it a surprise! Some of the women started dancing, and Lei and I made friends with the family children. They called us Aunty Lei and Aunty Paige and loved having their picture taken! They kept stroking my arms and turning over my white hands. Later, they pulled out a small ball they had made by wrapping strips of balloons together. I would bounce it high in the air, and they would all scramble to catch it and bring it back to me. It was fun for all of us! When I left, they swarmed me with such a huge hug, we almost all fell over!
I love weddings and am so thankful I got to experience one in Uganda. While the music, dresses, and cake might differ between Ugandan and American weddings, the emotions of love, commitment, and pure happiness etched on the bride and groom’s faces are the same, and that’s what truly makes a wedding beautiful. No number of fog machines, fancy dresses, or flower bouquets can change the way the bride and groom look at each other. That picture of utter devotion and happiness only comes from finding your soulmate—no matter what country you’re from.