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FM — a portal to new cultures

The African rains could do nothing to dampen the spirit and vibrancy of the traditional Rwandan wedding of FM alum, Grace Rutagengwa.

Rwandan couples generally celebrate three different wedding ceremonies before formalizing their union. On this day I was being given the honor to not only witness, but also participate at the second of these ceremonies, the Gusaba, (kinyarwandan meaning ‘to ask’) for my adopted daughter, Grace.

Grace, who lost her family in the 1994 genocide, looked stunning in her silk umushanana as she sat alongside her handsome soon-to-be husband, Titi, under a tent filled with flowers.

I watched in awe at the procession of women carrying ornately cloth wrapped gifts, as dancers motioned their arms over their heads to symbolize the shape of a cow’s horns, and as poets, clutching herding sticks and leaves, chanted about the beauty and benefits of the cow that had just been negotiated from the groom to our family.

During this negotiation, the Umaranga, elders from each family, exchanged riddles and pranks in a battle of wits in which the bride’s family initially denies the groom’s family request for the union, offering other brides in her place, but eventually approving the request with a drink.

Before the ceremony ended, I was brought to a separate location and given two wooden chalices filled with milk which I then gave to the couple to symbolize my ability to care for them. In the final religious wedding which would occur weeks later, the couple repeats this gesture to children in their village to symbolize their own ability to become parents.

Being part of this very rich, beautiful, and exotic culture was a surreal privilege and I couldn’t help but reflect on what had led to experience. Having grown up in a blue collar family whose furthest childhood trip outside of upstate New York was a day spent at a truck rodeo in New Jersey, I had only dreamed about adventures countries and their customs.

Evenings growing up had been a predictable schedule of dinner and TV. It wasn’t until I was the first in my family to attend college that I realized how attainable exposure to other cultures and travel could be.

When people consider going to college, it is often with the goal of obtaining training and education for better pay and fulfilling employment, but college can offer much more. Colleges like FM can be the door to study abroad opportunities, learning foreign languages, and courses such as non-western art and world history but perhaps the most understated benefit of higher education is the chance to meet others from diverse backgrounds.

Students from all over the world come to FM to obtain a great education and this provides our community with an opportunity to meet interesting people and learn about their unique cultures, including domestic students from the deaf community. FM is committed to celebrating diversity and will soon open a new multi-cultural center where students can gather and expand their world view.

Robin DeVito is coordinator of accessibility services at FM.