I am sat in Gerry’s Square in the shade of one of the mango trees. All I can hear is the odd goat bleating, chicken clucking, the soft voices of the neighbours and bees busy in and out of the flowers around me. Today is my day of rest and relaxation, recovering from a very long, hot, tiring day but also a very happy, exuberant occasion yesterday of Eric & Fahima’s Introduction. As usual the day included a couple of ‘challenges’ for me! It started early as Alex was due to pick us up at 8. I had prepared my bags the night before with all Mzungu like me needs for such an occasion. I had charged up the cameras, got sun cream, baby wipes, hand steriliser, first aid kit (including the one with sterile epidermic needles in case of emergency!), snack bars (as I can’t go for hours without sustenance!), lots of bottled water, my wedding invitation and gift, and many more ‘just in case’ essentials together, in my rucksack. I had also included my mosquito repellent and torch in case we got stranded overnight as has happened to me before! My added ‘essential’ was my camping stool which, when you remove a flap of material and add a biodegradable bag, becomes a toilet! Since my knees got bad I am unable to get down to use the long drop latrines or if I do manage to get down I get stuck which is both painful and embarrassing!
I bathed, drank two cups of Ugandan tea (without milk), and ate several tiny sweet bananas, some fresh pineapple and a snack bar. I was all set but by 8, but no sign of Alex! The plan had been for me to travel in my ordinary clothes to the Carol’s home James’ eldest daughter and get dressed there, but to save time James suggested I let the two village ladies who were coming with us help me put on my Gomez. I was introduced to Josephine and Alica who is Jackson’s mother. If you remember Jackson was the boy in the Christmas card photo way up a tree wearing James’ Kanzu and a Santa hat! The ladies giggled as they entered my room and for a minute I was actually a bit shy but then went for it and stripped down to my undies. That seemed to get them down to the business of dressing me which they did very professionally other than the fact that Alica kept gently cupping my breasts! She seemed to be discussing how the bra fitted nicely. Well I hope that’s all it was! They indicated that I should put my arms up. Then with string they tied the underskirt which is like a 3 metre plus piece of traditional material around my waste. It came right up to my arm pit and down to the floor. They indicated I should walk around so that they could adjust according to my stride. I hate being constricted so I did big strides around the room which made them giggle again! The piece above the string waist band was then turned down over my hips making them look even bigger than they were already! This is because traditionally the hips are deemed more attractive than the breasts so have to be emphasized!
Then the Gomez itself was put on folding another long section of the material like a concertina followed by the big wide belt that has to be tied in a certain manner to follow the Lasoga rules. I got my jewellery out and they were so excited to see it, trying it on before they gave it to me. It’s only costume jewellery that my daughter Sara lent to me! The Gomez itself was on loan too from my other daughter Nicola who had worn it at Moureen’s wedding way back in 2008 when the idea of St James was born. The Gomez I wore then has been worn many times in UK schools so is not looking very smart now. As I made my way carefully down the step at the door, again assisted by my two companions, James let out a very satisfied “Oh my dear sister, you look beautiful! We must have a photo.” Well I had to look good as I was going to the wedding of a Prince, Prince Waako. James is also a Prince!
When Alex did turn up 30 minutes late I gave him a bit of a telling off not because of being late but because he didn’t let us know! He had had another job the night before and was very late back from Kampala so overslept which is quite understandable but he should let us know and with a mobile phone there is no excuse these days. Many Ugandans are not good time keepers but if you want to succeed in business, especially with Mzungu or internationally you have to be. Actually Alex has improved a great deal and doesn’t often let me down but I think it is worth me commenting as his tour business with foreigners depends a lot on punctuality.
After photos we all piled into the van along with Grace, the young man who saved me from the bees, and another Grace but this time a lady and Jameson one of the village elders. Fatuma my maid and 10 year old Livingstone, the only child living here at the moment as all the others have gone to relatives or foster homes for Christmas waved us off along with many people from the community. Fatuma and Livingstone were to look after St James while we were away for the day, feeding the animals, tending the crops and most importantly guarding the school as unfortunately there are some who would take advantage of the empty compound and steal from St James.
The idea was for all James’ relatives from this side of Uganda to meet at daughter Carol’s house and then go on together to meet up with other members of the family. Many people were already there and preparations were ongoing such as working out the dowry. The veranda was piled high with gifts including a packed case full of new clothes that Eric had chosen for his new wife, and another case empty which is a sign she was leaving her family. There was a solar panel, a DVD player, a flat screen TV, a glass-topped table, oil lamps, kitchen utensils and numerous other items. Ten chickens who had travelled in the Alex’s vehicle with us, their legs tied together to stop them hurting each other, were placed in a giant basket made of papayas grass. The chickens here do have a bit of a mixed life, they are free range but their last hours are often ‘uncomfortable’! A three piece lounge suit had also been loaded into a truck and numerous other items. James told me that there were also goats and a cow travelling with us!
I sat in the shade of a big tree watching proceedings. Gradually the compound filled with cars and people. Ladies dressed in beautiful Gomez of so many different colours and the men in their identical Kanzu with a jacket over the top. I was greeted by everyone and got special hugs from the members of the family I know so well. A gentleman carrying a folder who I later realised was the Spokesperson for the grooms family, came and sat with me informing me of the origin of the ‘Gomesi’, Gomez and Kanzu reckoning that the explorer Speke gave these outfits their name. I’ve found no connection when I Googled but the following was interesting:
‘There are many variations to the origins of the Gomesi. One such is that the Gomesi existed long before the missionaries and Indians came to Uganda, however, the missionaries introduced the use of cotton instead of the bark cloth, from which the Gomesi was originally made. When the Indians came to Uganda, they added the various fabrics from satin/silk blends and the vibrant colors to the traditional attire.
According to some scholars, the first Gomesi were made for schoolgirls in Gayaza, Uganda in the 1940s and 1950s. The Christian missionaries who ran the school hired Indian tailors to design the dress. Traditional Ugandan clothing was made from barkcloth. The Gomesi designed by Indian tailors was made from cotton fabric. The Baganda were the first nationality to wear the Gomesi. Today the Gomesi is the Kiganda traditional dress for women and is also worn by other ethnicities in Uganda
The Gomesi is a floor-length, brightly colored cloth dress with a square neckline and short, puffed sleeves. The dress is tied with a sash placed below the waist over the hips. The Gomesi has two buttons on the left side of the neckline. Most Gomesi are made of silk, cotton or linen fabric, with silk being the most expensive. A kikooyi or kanga is tied underneath the linen Gomesi to ensure that the fabric does not stick to the body. A well-made Gomesi can require up to six metres of cloth. I can verify this fact, the kanga that was bound around me was like a very long table cloth!
The Gomesi can be worn for any occasion, and in the rural areas it’s the form of daily dress. Residents of cities and urban areas tend to wear it on special occasions such as funerals and weddings. The Gomesi is worn at wedding ceremonies during the introduction, also known as the Kwanjula. During the Kwanjula, all female members of the groom’s family are required to appear dressed in Gomesi.’ Interesting!
There was only one person missing, one of Eric’s sisters and no one was able to contact her so there was a bit of a panic and many hushed phone calls trying to trace her. The Bridegroom was getting rather stressed to say the least! I suggested as this sister has her own car that we should go ahead as we were already very late, well past the start of when were supposed to be at the next meeting place. I was informed that we have to all go travel together as is traditional. In the end though we did set off without her hoping she would meet us along the route which thankfully she did. Many of the dowry items were loaded into our vehicle, poor James was squashed against the yellow case! I was privileged and got the front seat beside Alex so was relatively comfortable though I did have several bags and other items on the floor around my legs which made me feel even hotter!
We travelled along the main Uganda to Kenya highway, the main route to Mombasa, which was a well made road but narrow and extremely fast. Fortunately Alex has always been a careful driver. I think he is one of the few Ugandans that have actually passed a driving test to gain his licence! It is easy to ‘buy’ a licence and many don’t even bother with that! The road was undulating and with many bends but it didn’t stop vehicles hurtling passed us, often having to pull in suddenly to avoid collision. I notice that many drivers have their right indicator on to warn those behind that there is oncoming traffic but this didn’t seem to stop some, particularly the Taxi buses which are often overloaded too. You can easily see how so many accidents happen out here!
I tried to keep my mind occupied with all that we were passing such as the colourful stalls of fruit and vegetables. One was called ‘The Roof of Africa’ which reminded me that it was my family’s climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro (The Roof of Africa) in 2001 that eventually led me to Uganda! The stalls were piled high with pyramids of tomatoes, mango, and avocado, each pyramid would be sold for maybe 1000 Ugx, 25p and would weigh at least a kilo. Children some very young carrying jerry-cans on their heads were going to or from boreholes. I wondered how long they had to walk from their homes for a drink! Unattended cows and goats grazed at the roadside where the grass was greener. They would be collected at dusk or even make their own way home. A piki-piki was piled high with what must have been at least a dozen mattresses which stretched across the road into the oncoming traffic! Two men were working hard to push a bike heavily laden with loads of cabbages. When they pick the cabbages they leave a long stalk attached and this is how they are tied to the bike. We followed the railway line part of the way but never saw a train. Only lots of people walking along the track from one town to another.
We were forced to slow down at the BBQ, the local ‘service station’. I quickly closed my window as young men and women pushed forward with chicken or beef kebabs, plates of fried bananas and bottles of chilled soda. Once their hands and what they are selling comes through the window it is very difficult to get rid of them! Alex had to slowly push his vehicle through the crowd to escape! A big sign encouraging people to recycle the plastic bottles was ignored as the place was littered with empty plastic soda bottles. Everyone just throws their litter down as soon as they have finished with it. Even my companions do this but I cannot bring myself to copy them though I know it will eventually join the other rubbish on the streets and in the countryside as there is no other option for disposing of waste available in Uganda. At St James it is sorted though and then burnt or buried.
The surrounding countryside was of massive sugar cane fields and others where the wetter land allowed rice to grow. Small thatched shelters on stilts are erected in the centre of fields allowing the workers to rest in the shade during the hottest part of the day, which was when we were travelling. I was getting slowly cooked as the sun was shining right on me and the heat from the engine was boiling my legs, and my water bottle!
It was an hour and a half journey to where the function was being held but before we got there we stopped at an unoccupied school where I was informed we could ‘relieve’ ourselves. This was the time I was dreading but when you got to go you got to go! Alex fetched my camp toilet disguised in a blue carrier bag and James walked me over the school latrines. He checked each one but all were disgusting with faeces all around, flies buzzing in and out of the ‘hole’ and many didn’t even have doors! He chose the least disgusting and helped me set up the toilet in one corner. When the door closed I could hardly see, I dreaded to think what I was standing in and worse with my Gomez on it was a hell of a job to keep it all from touching the ground! When I escaped into the fresh air and sunshine again my dress was all tucked up and very uncomfortable. James was just about to call my two ‘attendants’ from earlier in the day when I spotted James’ Mother-in-law and other ladies I recognised who were only too happy to help sort me out and catch up with news about Moureen and her lovely family back in the UK. I was glad of all the attention my Gomez got throughout the day as it kept slipping, twisting and dragging on the ground! I should have had a lesson on how to wear and walk in it!
Before we left the school the Spokesman for Eric’s family who had been hired for the day gathered all the men together with the ladies around the outside of the circle. Not sure what they were saying but reckon they were preparing Eric for the big step he was taking. There were serious parts with lecture and prayer and other ones of laughter. It’s times like this when I truly wish I could understand the local language but to learn Lasoga I think I would have to come for a five year stretch where nobody spoke a word to me in English and even then I’m not sure I would succeed!
From this point we travelled in convoy to just outside the village home of Fahima where there was a marquee erected, lots of plastic chairs and nearby giant pots of food ready to serve. The queue for the food was soon very long!
Thankfully James and I along with other close members of his family were to be served separately in one of the buildings. Eric and Tim, one of his brothers, were already seated on mats in the cool dull room. I was asked to sit down beside Eric and James followed. I realised at that point I was sat between two Princes. Yes it’s true! Eric is Prince Waako and I’m assuming James is Prince Mutyaba. I will have to ask him! From behind a curtain two ladies were bringing in cooking pots, plates and bottles of soda and water, warm but wet! The little room filled to capacity with everyone but James and I, sitting with their legs tucked under and to the side. James is having some problems with one of his knees now so we both had to sit with legs stretched out not leaving much room for all the pots and plates!
The ladies served the food straight on to the plates, piling it high with matoki, rice and Irish potato. The only exception was Prince Waako who was presented with plates of the individual ingredient and also a Luwonbo, a whole chicken that had been bound in banana leaves and steamed. This was ceremonially presented to Prince Waako, the lady on her knees, unwrapping the Luwonbo parcel slowly. It smelt delicious. After much persuasion and hand gestures I got a plate with just a little bit of everything which included my own Luwonbo though only a chicken portion but very delicious! As is usual at these functions there were no utensils for eating but I had thought ahead and had brought a set of good plastic cutlery. The only trouble was, as I was worried about messing my Gomez with all the runny ‘soup’ (gravy), and didn’t want to put the plate on my lap I placed it on the floor beside me and found I was dropping the food on the way to my mouth! So I took the plunge and ate with my fingers and was much more successful! One of the very positive things about Uganda is that they are generally very hygienic and always bring water and sometimes soap around for you to wash your hands before and after a meal. Unlike in the UK where we walk into a restaurant, café or someone’s home for dinner and eat without thinking about washing hands! In Uganda I always carry wipes and hand steriliser wherever I go but in this instant I needed water and soap to get the greasy remnants of the food off my hands, mouth and chin! The food was delicious especially the chicken and when I had finished my portion Prince Waako gave me some of his!
We struggled to our feet, James has been suffering with a back problem for a while and me with my knees, must have looked a right pair!
We tidied ourselves up or should I say others tidied me up as the more I tried to adjust my Gomez the worse it got, twisting in the wrong direction and dragging on the dusty ground! We then walked to the venue in two lines men on one side and ladies on the other following the spokesman. I was amazed that none of the Gomez were made of the same material. There are so many different colours and patterns of material. Eric was hidden amongst the men looking no different from anyone else, all part of the tradition. Ladies in what looked like nurses uniform danced amongst the lines presenting each of us with a yellow bow to show we were on the side of the Groom.
People from the local community had started to gather to watch proceedings. We all entered the ‘wedding’ circle through a colourful archway and were welcomed by the Bride’s family with clapping and the tribal wails. As I was not an official part of the family I headed towards the back of the seating but several grooms-men rushed to indicate that I should be seated at the front with the Father of the Groom, and the remainder of the immediate family including Grandmother who kept catching my eye and smiling. She doesn’t often smile! We all had big comfy furniture to sit on while the other guests sat on plastic chairs. At this stage Eric and Fahima were nowhere to be seen!
The ceremony began with the Basoga Anthem during during which your right hand is placed over your heart with the thumb and forefinger forming a circle which represents the Kyabazinga Kingdom with the other three fingers stretched out representing the three water bodies in the district, the Nile, Kyoga and Mpologoma. This was followed by prayer then the fun started! The two families sat opposite each other each with its own spokesman, I suppose similar to us hiring a professional Master of Ceremony at weddings in the UK. There was lots of friendly banter and joking between the two groups creating a great deal of laughter. I only wish I could have understood it all! James’ family were asked many questions from Fahima’s such as why we were there. The answer was that we had an appointment as we wanted to marry from their home and that the Senga (Senior Aunt of Fahima) knows us. At this point a lady in very ragged clothing entered. She had supposedly come straight from ‘digging in the garden’, was carrying a hoe and a raw potato and confirmed that we were in fact the visitors she was expecting. This acceptance was followed by several groups of relatives from Fahima’s side coming to greet us with music and applause. Each group were in colourful matching outfits, and came on in order of age. They introduced themselves and one from each group was given a microphone to speak, even a tiny child spoke reluctantly! Children, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles each asking us if we had been to the Basoga Chieftain to get the Certificate of Introduction. The certificate was presented to Fahima’s family in a glass frame which was shown around the hundred or so family members on the girls’ side. After acceptance a hunt was started for Eric who had not been seen and was hiding in the crowd behind where we were sat. As the Aunt pretended to search here and there other men offered themselves up as a husband for Fahima creating much hilarity! Eventually Eric was found to much cheer and celebration – Muzira – geurialation jubilation (James wrote that bit!)
‘We’ requested that we meet the Bride. She appeared accompanied by her maids presenting themselves to the many guests and then climbing up onto a ‘stage’ that looked very much like a four-poster bed! Eric’s sisters Carol and Irene then joined Fahima on the stage dragging a trolley decorated with plastic flowers and fully laden with gifts for their future sister-in-law. They presented her with three of these simple gifts from the groom, each representing something special. A yellow flower because Fahima is sunshine to Eric and a hapo (Swahili for apple) to stop Fahima going with any other man from this day onwards. The third gift was a bottle of Fanta Orange, ‘F’ for Fahima and Fantastic!
At last the Bride and Groom came together briefly but then separated again until they exchanged engagement rings. Eric gave Fahima the yellow case that had travelled with us, which told her she must pack all her belongings, leave her fathers’ house and move to his home permanently. Many from the groom’s family then left their seats and went out of the compound to bring in the dowry. The cows had been left outside in a truck but everything else was carried in and presented to Fahima’s family. Loads and loads were bought in and laid on the ground around the ceremonial ‘stage’. Several sacks of grain, live goats, sacks of large joints of meat (probably half a cow or similar!), crates and crates and crates of soda, cans of oil, the big basket of chickens we saw being filled earlier in the day, several empty jerry-cans for water, many round baskets full of fruits and many many more items. It must have taken an hours to bring everything into the ‘arena’! A three piece suite had been brought in too and senior male members of her Fahima’s family, maybe father and grandfather, moved to sit on them. The happy couple then went and knelt in front of them and presented a gold wrapped gift.
Fahima cut the cake which was a laptop design with a photo of her and Eric on the screen, surrounded by separate cakes of giant sunflowers. She then helped light fireworks around the cake, one ‘Catherine-wheel’ looked dangerously out of control! The wedding rings were eventually exchanged followed by feeding each other with a piece of the cake and a drink.
All through the proceedings a Jester-like man was clowning about changing outfits often and teasing the groups while they were carrying out the serious business! James says this never used to happen and it has no meaning, is just for entertainment!
We were all given gifts of handkerchiefs printed with ‘Thanks from Prince Waako and Fahima’ and of course a piece of cake. Actually James and I ended up with one of the sunflowers and although we gave lots away, I think there was still a big chunk in his office when I left Uganda! They are a very dry cake and seem to last forever. I’m glad about that as I am a devil for cakes!
Our drive home was in the dark so even more frightening than the journey to the ceremony but thankfully Alex just kept calm and drove very professionally. It had been a long and interesting day but Alex told me when he gets married he is going to have a very simple wedding. I hope he does and starts a good trend in Uganda as they have become ‘shows’ rather than ceremonies!
I was certainly glad of a rest the following day!