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A Rwandan Wedding in Botswana: How Travel and Dance Bring Us Together

I went to a beautiful cross-cultural African wedding.  Bride from Botswana and groom from Rwanda.  Amazing love story.  Initial apprehension on the part of both families due to not knowing or understanding the other's culture, but the couple's love won them over.  I can truly relate.  Crossing borders and boundaries for love is universal!

A little background:  I love weddings! I mean really love them! I've attended the wedding ceremonies of various ethnic communities in the U.S. - African Americans, Arabs, Italians, Malinkes and Susu from West Africa, Sudanese, Habesha and others - as well as ceremonies around the world on 4 continents.

Another important fact:  I LOVE to dance. I'm attracted to rhythmic body movement.  All movement that is an expression of spirit and culture, beauty and creative force feeds my soul.  I love to watch, but mostly participate in getting my dancing groove on!

AND, if you couldn't guess, I love inter-cultural exchange.  In other words, I am delighted when folks from different backgrounds mix it up and learn about each other's history, lifestyle, values and beliefs.

So, imagine my surprise and elation when my new and closest friends here in Botswana, a Rwandan couple from the U.S., invited me to a weekly women's tea gathering that the Rwandan community women hold every Sunday.  It just so happened that I started attending at a time when the women were in the process of learning and practicing their traditional cultural dance.  They were preparing to perform at the wedding of one of the Rwandan brothers here in Botswana.  As a show of sisterly support, they were going to represent Rwandan culture for their brother who was marrying a Motswana woman.

That's right, as destiny decreed, I found myself in the midst of an evolving cross-cultural marriage ceremony.  The best part: I had been invited to join them in the dance!!  My friend told the women about my African dance background and love of the cultural arts, particularly rich African traditions. Suddenly, I found myself attending weekly rehearsals, listening to CDs, watching videos, picking out fabric designs, being fitted for outfits and choosing accessories (shoes, jewelry, headbands) for our performance at the wedding reception.  I was in heaven and deep in my element.

Those colors!

There are about 15 Rwandan families here in the Gaborone area.  It's a small, but close and supportive community.  Many of the families have been here for 10-20 years and have deep ties to Botswana - own businesses here, have raised their children here, and in, some cases, hold Botswana citizenship. My friend commented to me that the Rwandans here are tight-knit and eschew separation based on ethnicity, religion or other historical or social divisions. Interestingly, there is a significant number of Muslim families in the community and the imam at one of the local mosques in Gaborone is Rwandan.

Dance, Dance, Dance

So, what about the dance, you ask?  Rwandan dance is simply BEAUTIFUL.  Some of the most graceful, elegant and hypnotic I have seen.  The music, dancers' long, artful arms, and calmly intricate footwork combine in a seamless collage of dreamlike movement.  The arm motions in particular are meant to imitate cattle which are plentiful and respected in traditional Rwandan culture. To get a small snapshot, watch this video which captures some of it.

Looking at the tapes I was reminded of the subtle aesthetic of the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea).  In fact, my friend told me that the Tutsi had come to the region from Ethiopia centuries ago.

So far, I've studied West and East African dance intensely, with more casual observation of North and Southern African styles.  Each region, country and ethnic group has a unique language, flavor and nuance.  Many dances imitate something in the natural environment, such as animals or terrain . Songs telling a story are typically incorporated and there may be specific dances or styles for different occasions  - such as weddings, baby naming ceremonies or rites of passage celebrations.  Dance can also be an integral part of healing rituals (my colleague and I wrote an academic article on this topic in the Journal of Pan African Studies - see link).  At the same time, some traditional dances have been adapted for the theater, popularized and urbanized.  If nothing else, African dance styles are diverse.

At our Sunday gatherings, the women laughed, sewed matching outfits and critiqued each other's moves.  There were two teachers, both of whom had been dancing since they were small children...and the evidence was in the arms and the slightly forward bending posture. The Rwandan dance style emphasizes graceful, elongated movements with the arms and polyrhythmic foot movements to a steady, hypnotic, mid-tempo beat.  Their arms were so flexible that they looked joint-less. And, the torso position made the behind protrude in just the right way - not too much, but noticeably accentuated.

Some songs and dances performed at Rwandan weddings stem from the "old days" when many marriages were arranged and the bride may not have known her husband, or his family with whom she would be living after marriage. The dance and accompanying songs were used to soothe and calm her. They represented a means for her and her community to cope with and accept the dramatic departure from her family.

Now, imagine being able to study and present this breathtaking dance for the purpose of connecting families, cultures and building relationships among communities.  That's exactly the experience I was able to have with the women who readily embraced me.  My mom commented that I tend to easily blend, form relationships and make myself at home in most cultures and countries where I spend a considerable amount of time.  Glad to say, this instance was no different.

This is a short clip of the Rwandan children performing at the wedding.  It's a little shaky, but shows the pride and support that the adults showed the children dancers!

Rwandan Women Dancing at the Wedding

Wedding Connections What was the wedding like?  So, we attended two ceremonies on a Saturday.  There had already been weeks of negotiations and rituals prior, so this big day was a culmination of all of the formalities and wedding events. Beforehand, the bride's aunt came to one of our dance rehearsals as a cultural emissary of sorts, to explain the Botswana marriage customs and provide details about the wedding.

The traditional ceremony took place in the morning.  A group of men representing the groom had to approach the bride's family home and request permission to enter.  They actually had to kneel down for a very LONG time as the the elder representative of the groom made a formal appeal to the male elders of the bride's family.  I was told that this gesture symbolized respect and commitment from the groom.  While the men were on their knees, the women from the groom's community (including me) waited outside about a block away.  Once the men entered, we were escorted to the compound by one of the bride's aunts.  We followed her in a zigzag walking pattern that was supposed to be symbolic of our search for the bride and her family.  It was an exquisite sight to behold, as we were all gorgeously dressed in our traditional Rwandan two-piece ensembles that had been tailored from colorful handpicked material. 

The Groomsmen

SN:  While waiting, we had an interesting discussion about how the kneeling down requirement may be perceived cross-culturally.  Some people felt it was demeaning to have grown men, elders, on their knees while the bride's male elders sat in chairs.  Others said the gesture did not facilitate equal respect and communication between families and wondered why the family of the man who would be taking care of their precious daughter should be treated that way .  They asked what type of commitment needed to be shown, especially since the couple already had a child together.  Others said it was a cultural tradition that should be adhered to and not overly analyzed.  They noted that there would be a second wedding in Rwanda where their traditions would be on display. Hmmm....your thoughts?