I’m not too good at singing; nor am I capable of discipline when eating ice cream, but, I can say with certainty that I have a strong knack for getting invited to Rwandan weddings.
This, literally, is what I do. Even in Denver.
When I attended a 300-guest East African wedding last week, I expected the small nods to Rwandan culture. You know, the traditional dress of umushanana (fabric draped over the shoulder in all different styles; a dress central to the heritage of Rwandan social ques). Maybe the proper foods (I’m thinking plantains, rice, and beans) would also be present, as well as demonstrations of Rwandan-style dancing.
I expected these things, but what I also (wrongly) assumed was that a glass-like wall would separate the nuances of an East African wedding in the United States.
I was incorrect to think that geography can mitigate the love for culture and tradition. Geography, I learned, has very little to do with the identity of the heart.
In fact, in the nearly 50 Rwandan weddings I have attended (yes, I have a “wedding tracker list”), this most recent wedding in Denver might have been the “most Rwandan” of all.
So, that begs the question, what makes it “Rwandan” exactly?
For 15 hours, I observed, took part, and engaged in conversation that re-aligned my original thinking. You see, this family and larger community were committed to creating a Rwandan ceremony because they are so far from home.
My brain could hardly handle the layers of culture, connections, languages, and traditions played out in front of me.
The smells of the room; the accents of language; the babies wrapped in loud fabrics on the backs of many women; the selections of beer; the handshakes of new friends – all of it. It felt like I was in a world not here, and honestly, not there either. It was altogether new.
Moreover, I realized how malleable culture can be even in a determination to stick closely to it; I met young men and women who could speak Kinyarwanda, but do not have memories of living in their home country. Instead, they grew up in refugee camps and have a deep longing to return home someday. They asked me about what it is like to grow up around cows and banana beer and Sunday church. Y’all, it was weird. Talk about a new kind of culture shock!
One gentleman, Mugema, shed tears as he explained the way he carries Rwanda in his heart here. He lives in a more rural part of Colorado and he doesn’t know many people. His community places identifiers on him – “Tanzanian” or “African” – but he insists, “Through and through, I am Rwandan.”
I came to see that the purest expression of our culture is extraordinarily natural. Numerous individuals approached me and asked, “are you Rwandan?”
They asked this in spite of my skin color. And, this wasn’t a tongue-in-cheek sort of thing. It was a real question.
They said that, “We see you interacting with our family, our friends. You know how to do it! Sure, you speak our language, but somehow you are one of us.”
The things is, I wasn’t really trying that hard. It was natural. It was learnt. It was exposure. It was what is inside my heart.
We can’t explain how these things happen. How people’s lives and journeys cross and align and create this amazing mixture of life. Culture is life, and honestly, I can’t get enough of it.
My feet were sore as I drove home. I turned off my music, preferring silence in the twilight hours of morning. I prayed a prayer of gratitude, feeling as if I had returned to a really special place in my identity. I let the thoughts flow freely from my mind – I was overwhelmed by the number of stories I had heard about moving and finding oneself in a new place.
I’m excited to be a part of this. Whether it’s here or there, it doesn’t really matter. Because who we are is not bound by the lines we have placed in the world.