It is Saturday morning, and the town of Apac is looking forward to what is perhaps the Wedding of the Year: George and Grace are getting married in St. Thomas Church of Uganda. The church is decorated with white and red plastic flower arrangements and packed with people. The groom and his best man are sitting in a sofa and a large armchair, respectively; the furniture has been brought into the church for the occasion. They wear dark blue suits, white shirts, ties and plastic flowers in their chest pockets.
Then enters the bridal party in a procession: little flower girls and page boys walk in front, they look flashy in their little white dresses and pin-striped suits, six bridesmaids in beautiful light green and pink dresses, and then Grace, wearing a white Western-style wedding dress with lots of laces and decorations, a bouquet of white flowers and a [sloer], and the maid of honour, in a green dress which is different from, yet matches, those of the bridesmaids. The bride sits down in the sofa next to the groom, the maid next to her in a large armchair. In Apac the maid of honour is always the wife of the best man, themselves married in church.
Enter the clergy. The reverend of St Thomas and a virtual army of other priests, from most of the 15 sub-counties of Apac district. The religious wedding ceremony now begins, all speech takes place in the vernacular, ‘leb Lango’, which means the tongue of the Langi tribe. The congregation sings hymns, recites various passages of the Bible, and listens to the introductions – a compulsory component of every formal occasion, whether religious or traditional, social or political – of the clergy and the couple’s families and clans. The pastor asks the groom and the bride if they will take the other as wife and husband. Upon hearing the ‘I do’s in Lango, the congregation whistles, hoots, shouts happy words and recites various passages such as ‘To death do us part!’, ‘As husband and wife!’ Everyone is happy, old village women in traditional wear wave leafy braches in the air and hoots.
At this point the flowers in the chest pockets of the groom and the best man blink and shines, lit up by little battery-driven lamps hidden in the arrangement. The four main characters move to the altar, where they sign the wedding book and complete various paper work; at the end of the ceremony the groom is handled his wedding certificate. More hymns follow, about ‘Yecu’, ‘Kricito’, ‘Rwot’ (Lord) and the far-away places – geographically if not spiritually – of ‘Jerucalem’ and ‘Icrael’.
Now it is time for the preaching. The clergy laments the lack of weddings: almost all couples are married in the traditional sense, through the payment of bride price, the sanctioning of the relationship by the clans of the man and the woman, and a traditional wedding ceremony, but not everyone opts for a Christian wedding following the paramount sanctioning. One reason for this could be that the Christian wedding is conditional: the couples have to lead good Christian, i.e. monogamous and non-alcoholic, lives. The pastor has a right to turn down a wedding request if he deems that the life style of the couple is undesirable in the eyes of Christ.
Most men in Apac, one senses, find it difficult to live up to the monogamous ideal, and the drinking culture is also very strong. To marry in church, therefore, requires a lot of what they would call ‘discipline’. Attending the Sunday prayer, usually at 7 am for the Lwo service 8.30am for the English service, is a natural part of life for most people in this almost completely Christian part of Uganda; but to abstain from extra-marital affairs and alcohol is an altogether different challenge.
The pastor also preaches about how to be a good wife and a good husband. “Many wives do not greet their husbands, they do not smile when they come home” he says, and continues, “how many of you make your husbands’ beds? Such things as defilement [of maids, young girls working in the house] come about because you refuse to make the beds for your husbands. These young girls then make them.” “Often,” the pastor says, “you refuse to serve your husband food when he comes home”. The pastor also laments that “you men, you want to kiss your wives when you come home and smell of alcohol and cigarettes. But it is only natural that they do not want to be kissed”. Couples, he says, “should understand each other. They should share their thoughts. And what happened to tickling? When you tickle each other, you laugh. This can bring you closer to each other.”
The congregation absorbs the preaching, as is only polite; probably think theirs. Some women might think that after a 16-hour working day in the field and the home, smiling at one’s husband when he returns from the pub is perhaps too much of the pastor to require. Others might observe that blaming them for their husbands’ defiling is a particularly Ugandan, or patriarchal-traditional, interpretation…
After the preaching, the congregation reads together a passage where the Bible observes that:
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5, 21-33)
This illustrates the decontextualisation of the written word: Possibly authored by the apostle Paul in Rome in AD 62, the letter to Ephesians is used as a summary of ideal gender roles in Apac in AD 2007. The context of Rome almost two millennia ago is dissolved and the words themselves, fixed on paper, are given meaning in equatorial Africa.
Now the official part is over. Grace and George and their party leave in a procession, followed by the clergy. As the walk up the aisle, they are received and greeted with hoots, shouts, waving, and whistling of celebration.
Outside, the church garden is prepared with newly-erected shades of tarpaulins with UNHCR logos; a hand-out during the recent history of insurgency-marred Apac is transformed into a vital ingredient in the open-air wedding reception. An arch decorated with flowers and balloons stands on the grass and a red carpet leads through the arch and to a table where a three-storey wedding cake awaits.
After the allocation of seats according to importance in the life of the couple or that of Apac, and the allocation of prime seats to visitors from outside Lango region, the reception begins: there are speeches and more introductions, another procession through the flower arch and up the red carpet, and cutting of the wedding cake. George and the best man are seated on little traditional stools on the grass, and Grace kneels down before her husband and pours water over his hands so as to cleanse them. Then she feeds him a piece of the wedding cake, symbolically providing for his feeding in life, looking after his survival. George then also feeds a piece of the cake to his wife. After this ritual, the guests line up with presents for the couple: parcels wrapped in colourful paper, goats, chicken, pots and cash collected in a designated plastic bowl.
Then it is time for food. Women, usually friends and wives of George’s friends, began cooking for the 200 or so guests at 6 in the morning. They line up plates and pots of traditional Langi food, and serve it to the queuing guests: millet bread, rice, boiled cassava roots, boiled sweet potatoes, chicken stew, beef stew, beans, fried cabbage, stewed cow peas and stewed local spinach. The wedding committee has also budgeted soft drink or bottled water. The reception ends after the food has been consumed.
Derived from the Latin matrimonium, the mater, ‘mother’, and suffix of –monium, ‘action, state, condition’, matrimony perhaps originally meant ‘the act of mothering’. In Apac, as we have seen, holy matrimony is traditional patriarchy. Perhaps more interestingly, Grace and George had a typical Western wedding in terms of their wear, the flowered arch, red carpet and wedding cake; at the same time the ritual and reception had been (East) Africanised in terms of the elaborate introductions, the large furniture and the importance of seating positions inside and outside the church which reflects positions in real life, the large meal served, the status awarded to branded softdrinks (Coke, Pepsi and Fanta) and the fact that the bride served the cake for her husband and the important guests. Lastly the cost were probably kept down by the possibility of purchasing vital wedding ingredients – the plastic flowers, chairs, and plates, the metal pots, and the tarpaulins – … made in China.