I bear several titles in Uganda; Reverend, Archdeacon, Auntie, and sometimes Mama. The latter two sometimes come from my students, who sometimes see me as a parent (and it’s an incredible honor, though I feel my age!).
Over the last few years, I’ve grown closer with a couple of the women students, and at different times, two have stayed with me. We’ve had many long conversations and shared several times in prayer, all of which have been precious to me.
Last year, Esther became engaged to one of her classmates, David. I was thrilled for both of them, and hoped to be invited to the introduction and wedding. Esther did me one better: she asked me to be a ssenga, or auntie, for the introduction. The ssenga is the paternal aunt, and since I’m certain that Esther has paternal aunts, I’m not quite sure how she was able to bestow this honor on me. The ssenga has a number of responsibilities culturally, and I think I fulfilled none of them.
In Uganda, there are two ceremonies. First is the introduction, which also doubles as the cultural marriage when it is registered with the government. The introduction is when the bride introduces her groom to the community, and the groom brings the dowry and other gifts for the family. While this is enough for a legal marriage, Christians then go to be wedded in church. Esther and David had their introduction on a Saturday, and the wedding on a Sunday. Though exhausting, I think that’s the way I’d do it; I’m not sure I could handle being married yet not being able to live as though I’m married.
I love the concept of the introduction and how the whole community is involved. Of course, it’s a very long day: both the bride and groom have emcees to carry the day along. The bride’s side sends out several iterations of ladies (often beginning with young girls) from which the groom’s side is to “find” the bride. She is not among them, obviously, and they are given gifts as they go back.
Finally, the bride comes with much pomp and circumstance with her aunties. She walks around the venue a couple times to much ululating from the crowd. When I asked Esther how many people would attend, she casually replied, “About a thousand.” As near as I could tell, that’s nearly how many people were there.
Then the bride and aunties kneel for some of the speeches and prayers. When the groom’s emcee asked the bride’s emcee to ask the priest to bless the lunch, he asked, “Which one? There are like a thousand here.” And it was true.
This is when the groom’s entourage brought the gifts for the dowry, and had he not brought all that the families had agreed to, there would have been trouble in paradise. Thankfully, that was not the case.
One of the things the ssenga is to do is to “find” the groom (he had been sitting in the back) and present him to the bride. I didn’t fully realize that this was my duty, and when another woman came and took the little basket I was holding, I chose to not make a scene.
I wish I had. When it came time to pin the corsage on David, since I didn’t have it, Esther took it and pinned it on David herself. The emcee was quite surprised, and recovered nicely by exclaiming, “Esther! You have taught us something new today!” David said to me a bit later, “Reverend, I thought it would be you [to pin the corsage].” I am utterly heartbroken about that.
We had another gomesi change, but I don’t have pictures of that because the person who had my phone completely depleted the battery taking many photos. Since the function was running late, we opted to remove one gomesi change and moved to the last costume change for the presentation of other gifts. For this, we were seated on a mat in front of the gazebo, and as people brought gifts, we’d rise to our knees to greet and shake hands.
The church wedding was the next day, and I was honored to serve as part of the officiating team. My role was quite small, but clergy have the best seat in the house.
In addition to having the privilege of serving as ssenga and an officiant, most of the groomsmen were David and Esther’s classmates, so I rather felt that my children had come home from university.
Since this is the dot-com generation, photos of the functions were flying around WhatsApp, and I received several photos of myself from students who were in Mukono, as they were unable to attend. That was a riot. Yet the fact that they wanted to show me that they had seen me blessed me tremendously.