When I first moved to Rwanda ‘contextualization’ was the buzzword. You need to fit in, adopt the customs, manners, dress and traditions of the country you are living in. Not to mention learning the language. Rwanda is among some of the poorest countries in the world. So who would have thought that contextualization in Rwanda would mean wearing a pair of three and a half-inch, spangly, sparkly, silver heels. For me that was exactly what it meant. I’m well-known for wearing flip-flops – only! Flip-flops in Rwanda are seen as bathroom shoes, and bathroom shoes only; no-one would dare to go out in them, well no-one except for me.
Rwandese women are very ‘serious’ about their attire. My Rwandese girlfriends have told me that in Rwanda it is more important to appear smartly dressed than it is to have a full belly. So when I was asked by one of my Rwandese friends to be matron of honour at her wedding, she was naturally concerned about what I was going to wear. This was the same girl who told me that – dressing like a white missionary – was used as a bench mark of how NOT to dress. The brides usual image of me was jeans, a t-shirt and, well, flip-flops.
When I agreed to the privilege of being maid of honour I had no idea exactly what it would entail. The bride explained to me and my husband that they had chosen us to take this place of honour because they felt we could guide and advise them in their future marriage. That seemed simple enough, after all we had been married for over 10 years and had a our fair share of challenges. We had plenty of advice on what NOT to do in the first 10 years of marriage. So marriage advice seemed within my capabilities, but dressing in a way that would please the bride seemed quite beyond my grasp. I had no idea that being matron of honour at this wedding would mean wearing four different dresses, for four different occasions. Typically in the West we have one wedding dress worn on one day. That is it, the wedding is over and done with, everyone can go home and the marriage can begin. It’s not that way here in Rwanda; at this wedding we had four different parties. The dowry, were the old men (umusaza) partake in the ‘traditional talk’ of how many cows the bride is worth. At this party I wore dress number 1, traditional Rwandan dress that looks a little like a sari. After they had agreed on the cows, the couple then had an engagement party in the evening. I made a quick costume change and entered the engagement party in dress number 2.
That was all the action for one week, the dresses could rest for a while. In-between dresses I met with the bride to have some serious style consultation about the next phase. She looked at me with a frown and gestured towards my hair, ‘what will you do with this?’, ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘Well can you do something to it?’ At this point I need to deviate, to tell you about Rwandan women and their hair. They can straighten it, curl it, relax it, braid it, extend it, dread it, and some even wear a wig! Now given the options, I responded to the bride in a weak voice and said ‘I guess I could’ – pause – ‘curl it?’ My top lip curled with dissatisfaction, as I anticipated her disappointment. ‘Now tell me,’ said the bride ‘what shoes will you wear?’ Now this was the million-dollar question. I know she was wondering if I would turn up to her wedding wearing one of my many pairs of flip-flops. ‘Shall we shoe shop together?’ I reassured her. The result of the shoe shopping trip was the three and a half-inch spangly, sparkly, silver sandals, chosen by my Rwandan friends, and worn by me exactly and only once. I had two more dresses to go and we had chosen the one I would wear to the church together. A long, deep purple bridesmaid looking number. So the jury was still out for dress number 3 – the registry office. I went through the options I already had in my wardrobe with the bride, but none of them seemed suitable. That was it, I was resolved to make the most glamorous dress I could ever imagine and I would show these Rwandese girls that this ‘Muzungu’ (white person) knows how to dress up. I chose a fabric that complimented the chosen wedding colours, I chose an experienced and expensive tailor and I designed my glamorous gown. I accessorized with big, glittery, jeweled earrings, I slicked back my hair and strapped on my sparkly sandals. I was ready.
All my Rwandese girlfriends kept complimenting me on how smart I looked. I had done it, I had won their ‘smart style’ approval. But the best moment of all was when the bride said, ‘Mama Josh, I have to say, you really do look so very good today.’ I turned to her in triumph and said, ‘today I was going to show you, that this Muzungu knows how to dress up!’ Everyone laughed as my right hand met the bride’s right hand in a loud clap of affirmation.