Last Friday my brother in law, Augustine, took a step toward engagement. In Burundian culture this is the first in a collection of ceremonies that lead to marriage. This first ceremony is called gusaba irembo and is for close family only. This ceremony is where the families first meet and the man's family asks for the door between the families to be open for connection, conversation and eventually marriage.
The ceremony begins at the door, when the women of the family bring baskets of goods to offer to the woman's mother. In our case, the women with baskets are my sisters-in-law and aunts. (Augustine wanted me to be part of this entourage. While I am honored that he selected me and even believed I could balance a basket on my head... I am glad Claude persuaded him otherwise!) The baskets are filled with bags of rice, beans and bottles of beverages. These gifts to the family indicate that this is a significant visit.
Once the baskets are given, our family is ushered to the front lawn where there are tents set up in anticipation of our arrival. The Nikondeha clan sits together on one side of the tent while Martine's family sits on the other side. We are served drinks and there is hushed conversation and murmured laugher among each family. This goes on for about an hour.
You can see here my Augustine tucked in the corner, sitting quietly, surrounded by his sisters and aunts. The protocol dictates that he not say anything to Martine's family during this ceremony. He does not speak for his hoped-for-bride, this honor is delegated to the elder of the family. If our papa (Andre Nikondeha) was here, the responsibility would be his. But in his stead, stood his brother Aloys. So Uncle Aloys would represent the family, speak for the interests of Augustine and ask for the open door between the families gathered under the tents. But he would not speak until invited to... by Martine's father. And as I said, we sipped fanta for over an hour before that part of the evening was initiated!
But at long last Martine's father, a military man, did engage the family in conversation. And as is the tradition, he began by noting the gifts brought, indicating that this was a special visit. So he asks the nature of our visit tonight. (Keep in mind, we all know why we are gathered here tonight, but for the sake of the ceremony, everyone plays along with the etiquette.) Then Uncle Aloys speaks. His opening remark included the acknowledgement that while it is his tongue speaking, it is the word of Andre Nikondeha being communicated on behalf of Augustine. Then he rehearsed the merits of my brother and how beloved he is by the family seated here. Then he reminds all of how Augustine and Martine first met. And then the question... if the door between the families can be open for conversation. At this point we all clap and everyone takes a sip of soda.
Then Marine's father says 'ego' (yes), we can be in conversation. More clapping and more sipping of soda by all! Then he says that certainly our families can talk together, and that he hopes we will visit he and his wife and friends often. (The joke is not missed... because the ones really wanting to visit one another are Martine and Augustine!) But there is more clapping and drinking. Then it is Uncle Aloys' turn...
This goes on for a while, the back and forth of speeches, clapping and drinking. Part of the conversation included the recital of family history. Uncle Aloys shared that the Nikondeha Family came from a certain province and a certain mountain and is of a certain clan. (I learned, for the first time, that we are from the Sons of Tiger clan. This is a highly esteemed clan in Burundian culture, apparently. I would have learned this had Claude and I had an gusaba irembo of our own - but we modified a few traditions in our union!) Then we learned about Martine's family profile, though with fewer details. But then the two family men spent quite some time debating the clan history and who knew the historical lore better. All the while, the rest of us clapped and drank at regular intervals. (Here is Uncle Aloys, seated in the middle. On either side are Claude's older brothers and their wives.)
We were invited into the house for a lovely meal and then came the after dinner drinks. The military family certainly drank more lavishly than our family of pastors! I think our reserve disappointed them. But this is how it is when different families open the doors to relationship - we learn about what we hold in common and where we differ.
You may wonder why there is no mention of Martine's role in the evening and no photo of the lovely bride-to-be. This, too, is part of the protocol. She is unseen, cloistered in the house for the entire evening. (Augustine told me that he imagined her watching through one of the windows, peeking from behind the lace curtains!) But she is invisible in a ceremony that will begin a shift in her life. This is a reminder of how women are often seen in such cultures and in ages that predate us.
I was told that the next phase of the engagement will be the negotiation of the dowry. Uncle Aloys will come to see Martine's father and have a more private and candid conversation about the financial gift that is part of the tradition. Here is where he will make his case for what he believes his daughter is worth. (This is hard for us to imagine as Westerners, but it is part of the process to this day in Burundi.) Once the price is set, the next step will be the ceremony involving the exchange of the dowry. I am told this includes more family members, more speeches, the presence of both Martine & Augustine and... more clapping and drinking!
But this is the beginning of the engagement. Now the door has been opened between our families.
P.S. As I observe all this, I think Claude got off pretty easy! He did not have to bring baskets of food, negotiate a price, host more ceremonies.... But I think that over time he has certainly paid the price for his bride!