In most of the world, especially the developed parts, marriage as an institution is under siege and continues to decline. It has become a subject of intense discussion among academics, religious leaders and social commentators. Statistics show that in the United States first marriages have plunged fifty per cent in the last forty years. Comparable figures obtain in other developed countries.
In developing countries, on the other hand, marriage is alive and well and growing. In fact in Rwanda, it is a thriving business – literally.
It used to be that every Saturday you were likely to trip on a newly-wed couple and their entourage in the streets of Kigali. That largely remains so, but changes are beginning to occur. You are now equally likely to bump into a marriage procession on Sunday or Friday. Such has been the competition for the most sought-after venues that many of them are booked more than three months in advance, forcing couples to shift their weddings to other days of the week.
Whatever else you may say about the increasing rate of marriage in Rwanda– and I am sure there are many views – you must admit that it is good business. Over the last two decades it has spawned a huge industry with many linkages in which large profits have been made from minimal investment.
Let us start with the venue for the reception party that is often hired for upwards of five hundred thousand francs for a two-hour celebration. It started as a simple hall at a church, school or social centre. Then it spread to banquet halls of some of the plush hotels. Finally enterprising people built their own halls for wedding receptions.
Venues for marriage celebrations have since diversified. Anyone who could get a sizeable patch of land and pitch a tent on it got in on the act. But that can sometimes be too closed and stifling.
Something had to be done for those who love the open air. Those with the nose for business got a similar patch of land, fenced it off and turned it into an attractive garden that hosts wedding parties and other outdoor entertainment.
There are venues to suit every pocket – from upscale areas accessible only if you have private means of transport to roadside halls that can be reached by public transport.
The venue is just one. There are other related services that are all too eager to cash in on the itch to get hitched. Nearly all people still think that a marriage is not such without a church ceremony – never mind that most couples were last in the hallowed place when they were getting baptised. I have seen priests embarrassed at the inability of the couple exchanging vows and those accompanying them to church (like they would to any swearing ceremony) to follow the rituals of the mass.
Now, the church charges a fee for indulging the couple’s love for a worthy public spectacle. So does the choir that serenades them – and the florist and decorators at the church.
Then there are the many bridal parlours dotted all across town whose business is to make the bride appear like a doll at a huge cost. These are matched by sops that seem to sprout at every corner to rent wedding-related things like traditional attire, items of Rwandan decor and modern things like plastic chairs.
No wedding celebration would be complete without a cultural dance troupe to lend traditional colour to the event. There are so many of these that, in a bid to make each unique and more marketable, they try to outdo one another in innovation and adaptation that often results in a distortion of the genuine traditional Rwandan dance. And for this they are paid handsomely.
Perhaps one of the most innovative and enterprising creations of the modern marriage ceremony has been the emergence of a new professional group of paid MCs and praise singers. Those with a gift of the garb are now guaranteed a weekly – may soon become daily – income as masters of ceremony. The more poetically creative can be assured of a big package from singing praises to unseen cattle – well, envelopes are not exactly invisible, but what they contain is.
For cultural enthusiasts, this must be something to cheer. Here is an attempt to preserve some of the Rwandan poetic and rhetorical traditions, albeit for selfish reasons.
Do not ask me if all these groups and individuals pay taxes on the professional fees they charge.
Of course there are other businesses that make big profits from weddings and pay taxes – Bralirwa, for instance, and the hotels and restaurants with outside catering services.
Where does all this leave our obvious need to limit our population? With the average marriage age of between 20 and 24 years for women and 25 and 29 for men, the more pessimistic might see a Malthusian nightmare ahead. The more hopeful might count on the post-marriage reality setting in to counter the euphoria of the event and advise a more realistic course – like not exceeding three children.
In the meantime, marriage remains a thriving business.