You and a group of friends arrived at Mr. Mugisha’s compound with the last echoes of the sun on a Thursday evening, eager and joyful, ready for all Maria’s Giveaway ceremony would bring. Her boyfriend of ten years had, six months earlier, proposed marriage to her and the day for her traditional marriage ceremony had eventually come upon you. For two of your friends, this was their first time in Rukungiri district; in fact, this was the farthest they had ever been out of town. For all they cared, the road could have stopped right after Masaka – why else would they have called it Masaka Road?
You always thought Giveaway ceremonies were unnecessarily extravagant – more so if they happened to be out of town, at the bride’s ancestral home. With all the vast ceremonial gardens across the city, you wondered why your friend’s parents insisted of holding these elaborate events in the village, where they could never control the numbers. You never quite understood why family, friends, tents, service providers and music systems were ferried over 400 kilometers for an event that lasted hours. The numbers didn’t add up.
As the bus sped through villages that day, your thoughts lingered on the logistics of matrimonial ceremonies, and cows! People from this side of the country held cows in such high esteem, that for a function to go down in history as a successful one, death was required. The death and exchange of cattle by the numbers. You thought about all the Giveaway ceremonies you had been a part of in the past – the food, the drink, the traditional dancers and most importantly, the girls’ room.
There are always two girl’s rooms at Giveaway ceremonies. There is the communal room where the multitude of all the bride’s friends will stay for most of the event, and the deluxe room, the one with limited access and maximum secrecy. Entry to this room is strictly by invitation. The bride will spend all her time in this room, because there is supposed to be a sense of mystery around her. She will stay hidden in this room until it is time to come out to the world, clad in jewels and the most extravagant traditional attire.
In the girl’s room, you have come to learn that less is always more. It is a room with more estrogen and egos than you would normally care for. But because you have had your fair share of Giveaway ceremonies over the years, you know what to expect. First, you know never to carry your favorite lipstick and eyeliner unless you are ready to pay for a new one. You know that the girls don’t really steal these things but they just have a way of ending up in the wrong bag at the rushed end of the ceremony. You always make a point to not be surprised by the total anarchy and chaos between the start and end of the function, but nevertheless, it still shocks you.
In this room, there will always be the almost-quiet girl who does not say much but smirks at all the jokes, raises an eyebrow at the juvenile conversations and quietly shakes her head when she disapproves of something. You will be shocked when, towards the end of the event, she talks to you, asking for help with her headpiece or dress. You will help and she will, slowly, give you bits and pieces of herself. You will both forge a bond that will hold until three weeks later when you’re back to Kampala and the humdrum of your lives has resumed, making her just other contact in your phone.
There will be a slightly older girl who will regard all your careless talk and youthful laughter with something that looks like contempt, or is it envy? When you look closer, you will almost see a hint of nostalgia. A life left behind. Perhaps she has been married long enough to know that some dreams remain in the realm of illusion. Perhaps being a mother of twin boys and looking after her husband’s youngest cousin leaves her no extra time to go on the random adventures that you and your band of friends keep going on about. Perhaps she pities you, young ladies who have it coming, young ladies who are heading to the place she feels like escaping. She will not say much either, but you will imagine that it is not because she is a quiet woman, but because her words have been reduced to silent thoughts and naturalized opinions.
Through the door, a young, beautiful and cheerful aunt will often poke her head to bring food, glasses full of bushera and tiny tumblers of wine. She will quirkily stick around and offer a little wisdom and leave just as the conversation is getting stirred up. You will like her very much and subconsciously long for her to come back, carrying another tray full of food.
The day will pass as you sit around and chat aimlessly about this and that, making conversation with the other girls when the ones you came with on the bus take a nap or go out in search of a bathroom.
Afternoon will sneak up on you and a girl (usually the maid of honour who has access to both the deluxe and your ordinary room) will come and assign you to different categories in which you will elegantly present yourselves to the guests, who by this time would be halfway through their second beer. They would have shifted their chairs away from the sun and into small circles to get closer to their long lost friends they only see on such occasions.
As she hands out the myenda and pearls to go with them, an uncle will knock on the door and impatiently tell you to hurry up. The function is dragging because of you. How long does it take you to dress up? One of the bride’s cousins will coolly inform him that you are ready and he shouldn’t worry about it. When you look at her closely, you will see her muttering something inaudible under her breath and her eyes will roll lightly. You will remember that this also happened at your cousin’s Kuhingira in Kabale. A man you had never seen before had barged into the room and told you and the girls to get out, you were apparently holding up the function.
“Those who are ready to go should move and the others find them there,” he had said.
The afternoon sun will turn to tree shadows and soft wind, but still, no word will be heard of the bride. The mugole, your friend, will be a distant thought, something mystical. Transcendent of this earth. Angelic. She will be somewhere off in utopia being tended to by elves and fairies. You will anxiously look forward to seeing her – out with the normalcy of an everyday twenty-four year old, and in with the bridal veneer. Peach and gold, she had said her first Suuka was. You hadn’t been able to picture it, but trusting her exceptional style and taste, you were confident she would look glamorous.
There will be a quick five minutes of scrambling over belongings and property where you will drop your lipstick and pick up someone’s eyeliner. The master of ceremonies will line you all up as the song you chose for your entrance goes on. This will be your cue to begin the slow sway and wide smile as you make your way to the bridal tent. The group will sit on the mat placed in the gazebo decorated with white and peach roses as the most confident of your lot is handed the microphone to welcome the guests from so far away. Just as you find your comfortable spot between the heels, layers of cloth and the mat, your cue music will play and you will dance-walk back to your room.
Your entry back into the house will be blocked by a swarm of people who you will soon find out are surrounding the bride, now freed and let loose on the world. Cutting through, you will see her standing gingerly in the middle of the room, smiling for selfies and mouthing “Thank you” to an endless stream of compliments. You will look at her and words will fail you. She will be stunning, like a thousand stars in a dark sky and just like the first rays of sun on a glum morning, she will brighten your day and all the annoyance that was slightly creeping up on you will dissolve. You will be amazed by the result of a few hours behind a closed door. She will look gorgeous, shining bright in her conspicuous bridal attire. Peach and gold. Two colors never blended better together. She will smile as everyone trips over themselves for yet another selfie. She will not tire of saying thank you, even twice to the same person. She will be beautiful.
Her cue music will play; you will watch the back of her gold bedazzled suuka in the corner of your eye as she floats above the cheer and handclaps. You will find a comfortable spot at the sitting room window through which you will observe the rest of the function. You will wonder why the girls escorting the bride never get to have real seats in the tent, like any other guests, but nevertheless, you will almost shed a tear of happiness when her new husband gets on one knee to propose to her. A proposal she already accepted in the privacy of their home.
In a blink of an eye, it will be midnight and the flowers would have been thrown to the ground, the linens taken off the table and the dazzling gazebo, now four old and rusted poles strung together. Like the music that will blare through the speakers, booze will flow all night, keeping the villagers on the dance floors with their classic moves.
One by one, the girls now clustered over a box of Namaqua sweet red wine will slowly go to bed. Back to the sanctuary, your room, leaving you alone with your thoughts and two litres of wine.
This is it.
You will think.
You will look over the past six months of preparation for your friend’s Kuhingira and feel a little cheated because it had only lasted a few hours. You will remember the deliberations; peach or grey napkins? Long or round tables? Stiletto or block heel? All would be vanity now. Six months of non-stop planning would be long forgotten by the guests you’d worked so hard to please. You’d forget the panic attack your friend almost had when the tailor made her dress a little too short, and the boda–boda trips to the thickest parts of downtown Kampala in search of the perfect fabric. This would be it.
All you had thought about for six months, wrapped up in under six hours.
Resigned, you gulp the last of the wine and make your way back to the girl’s room. Somewhere amidst the limbs and flesh of slightly snoring women, you will find a place to rest your head as you think about your return journey.
Those are never fun.
Shanine Ahimbisibwe (@sha9ne) is a Ugandan psychologist by profession who enjoys reading, travelling and writing.
Related country: Uganda