that one time i danced in a traditional ugandan wedding

A friend called me recently on a Friday night saying that he had a traditional wedding to attend the next day. His cousin was getting married, and he asked me if I’d like to join him. Of course I said yes without hesitation. I’d never been to a traditional Ugandan wedding and was excited by the prospect of a new experience. He said he’d pick me up at 9:00 am. Great.

9:00 am rolls around, Justin picks me up, we hop on a boda-boda, and we’re off to the wedding

9:15 am we arrive at the wedding, dressed up and looking nice, to find a bunch of people wandering around, beginning to set up tents, clearly not even near ready for the ceremony
Justin: “I guess we’re a little early”
Me: “hmmm it seems like we are”
Ever the optimist, I figured it couldn’t be long before things would start to come together and then we’d begin. Having gone without breakfast, I could only hope that lunch wouldn’t be too far delayed. What a silly girl I am.

10:00 am Waiting

11:00 am Waiting

12:00 am Still Waiting…but wait, the other family members finally arrived!
In a traditional Ugandan Introduction Ceremony, the bride’s family members and the groom’s family members (not the couple themselves, mind you) get together and negotiate the bride price. Usually there’s an unwritten agreement about what’s expected long before the actual day of the ceremony, but it can still get pretty tense if there are disagreements. Only after the two families have agreed on the price to be paid can the actual ceremony start. So there we were at midday, and the family had finally arrived to BEGIN the negotiation. Excellent. They disappeared into the house.

1:00 pm Waiting

2:00 pm Waiting

3:00 pm …you guessed it, still waiting.

3:30 pm They emerge!! Justin, who’d had to participate in the negotiation and had been gone all this time, said that there had been a few misunderstandings, but everything had been worked out in the end. Time to eat! Not.

After the families emerged, the ceremony began in earnest, and I must say, it was extremely enjoyable. A group of women danced their way into the yard, and the families acted out a drama where the husband-to-be looked for his wife to see if she was among those who had come to visit him. Finding that she was not, he graciously sent the group back, and the drama was repeated again with a second group of young women. The wife was again not among them. Finally, a large procession of many women holding fruit, flowers, and clay pots danced into the yard with the bride-to-be at the center of the group – finally she had arrived!! The groom again went through an elaborate show of searching for her, and there was much cheering, yelling, and ululating when she was “discovered.” Afterward, the couple gave gifts, cut the cake, and told stories. A local leader, the equivalent of the mayor, gave a speech, followed by words from both heads of household. All of these festivities lasted wrapped up around 7:00 pm.

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Woah wait, back up, I thought the title said you danced in the wedding??

Oh that’s right, let’s back up a little. For the final entry procession, the big one that I mentioned, they were apparently one lady short. The very front row of dancers was comprised of Justin’s sister Stella and the two flower girls, but apparently another dancer was needed on the other side of the flower girls to even things out. So they figured, let’s grab the only mzungu in attendance and see how she does. Sure, why not? I was approached by one of the bride’s family members, and she simply held out her hand. When I asked her what was going on, she replied, “we’re going to dance!!” Oh lord. I was plopped in the very front row of dancers, told to follow what Stella did, and given only one piece of advice: feel free.

When Ugandans say “feel free”, it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as when Americans say it. In the US, we really only use the saying in the context of “go ahead” after you’ve asked for permission. As in, “Can I have one of your Pringles?” to which the Pringle owner would respond “Feel free!” In Uganda, they use the saying in a more literal sense. They mean don’t feel constricted by self consciousness, don’t feel embarrassed, don’t worry if what you’re doing is right, just do what you feel. Just feel free. There was no time for me to back out without being rude and causing a scene. The only thing to do was follow her advice, so that’s what I did. We danced in, leading a large group of women, and everyone cheered and clapped and sang and yelled.

And you know what? It worked! I danced to the music, I followed Stella’s lead, I beat my hand fast against my mouth in the Cowboys and Indians style of youth, and when my job was done, someone kindly led me back to my seat where I was surrounded by cheers and congratulations for a job well done. Above all, I felt free. Every time I caught myself feeling awkward, I pushed those thoughts away. I tried instead to focus on the overwhelming joy that was pummeling me from all sides. Aunties ululating, uncles clapping and cheering, children dancing on the sidelines, music blaring – everyone was radiating happiness. All I had to do was let it run through me instead of feeling self-conscious. The couple was clearly in love, and this procession wasn’t about me and my unsureness, it was about them! It was about their happiness, their hope, and their bright future, and I let those beautiful things move me. Afterward, everyone said they were surprised by how well I had danced! They weren’t the only ones, let me tell you.

I left the wedding feeling like I’d stumbled upon a priceless gem of wisdom, a secret with the potential to unlock countless difficult situations. The advice given to me by Justin’s auntie as she threw me into the spotlight gave me the courage to become a mirror for the joy and love that surrounded me. Feel free. What lovely words and how applicable they are for my life right now. Feeling uncomfortable? Awkward? Unsure? Intimidated?
Feel free instead.

Well don’t mind if I do.

ps: “Lunch” wasn’t served until 7:30 pm, and I ate as if I’d never seen food before in my life.

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