The last week has involved a few interesting adventures. Not the least of these has been the procurement of a gomesi, a traditional Ugandan dress worn at weddings and other important events, and by some ladies as everyday wear. You are probably not familiar with this particular garment. Neither was I before coming here. The best description would be a cross between a kimono, sari and a polygamous Mormon’s wife outfit with an oversized belt. Big, puffy sleeves with pointy shoulders are the distinguishing feature. They are usually a bright colourful shiny satin with a floral or other pattern. It first its a bit to get used to but after a while seeing people wearing this on a regular basis becomes the norm. Little did I know that I would soon be the one wearing one. I should explain…
We were invited to the wedding of Damali, who runs Sonrise baby home where I have been volunteering once a week (aka holding and playing with adorable babies). Since we arrived I had heard about Damali but it wasn’t until about a month into our stay that I finally met her in person. I was arriving at the home and I recognized her immediately from pictures I had seen. She knew me as well since the ladies (“aunties”) who take care of the babies on a daily basis had told her I have been coming by to help out. We chatted for a bit and she mentioned her wedding and that Curtis and I should come. Having only met her that one time, I didn’t really take it as a serious invitation and didn’t think much of it. Then as I met more people here who work or are connected to Sonrise, they would comment on Damali’s wedding, as though I was invited. The next time I saw Damali, she commented that I must wear Ugandan attire to her wedding, and that she would take me shopping. After asking around a bit, I came to realize that weddings here are organized slightly differently then Canadian weddings. Here is my (limited) understanding:
Boy and girl are dating/have been together a while. Family/friends begin to sense that they may decide to get married soon. They begin to save/put away money. Boy and girl announce their intention to marry. Friends/ family are gathered and called and asked to contribute to the costs of the wedding. Everyone is invited and there is a subtle expectation that you give as much as you can towards the costs of the celebrations, dowry, gifts, etc. Everyone pools their resources and has a big party. Couple is married.
I think. Not crystal clear to me yet.
Also, there are two events, the “introduction”, the traditional ceremony where the bride and groom’s families meet, and the actual western-style church wedding a week or so after. So as promised, Damali took me to buy a gomesi, the aforementioned dress. I had naively asked, “Do the shoulders have to be pointy?”, which amused her immensely. Apparently, this is not optional.
We went to one of the many fabric-sellers on a side street in Jinja. “She will give us a good deal” promised Damali. Most of the fabrics were quite “loud” and not wanting to stand out more than a muzungu in a ill-fitting gomesi already will, I was hoping for something of a more subtle variety. I spotted a night-blue fabric with a silver spotted pattern and asked the shop lady to bring it of the shelf. Both Curtis and Damali liked it (she thought it matched my wedding ring) and she immediately leaped into bargaining mode. Bartering in Uganda is something I have attemped, but with only modest success generally. I don’t have the proper mix of “Ah! That’s very expensive!”/ “You are not giving me your best price!” to really sell the performance. It’s important to act shocked, offended and indignant until the final price is settled on and everyone is friends again. So with the fabric, buttons and sash obtained, the woman who was actually going to sew the gomesi was brought into the shop. “She will not measure you, only look at you” Domali had told me advance. True to word, she gave be the once over, I turned, she nodded and that was it. “You can pick it up tomorrow”, I was told.
The next day I was with another volunteer, Ashley and Dacia who lives at our guesthouse. They were keen to come to the shop with me to see my new gomesi. We walked down to the area that I had been to yesterday, and suddenly, all the streets looked the same. “I swear its right around here”, I promised. I scanned the identical looking fabric stalls and suddenly wasn’t so sure. I called Damali- she was in a wind tunnel or guiding jet planes or something and the phone call was mostly inaudible. “Call Daniel!!”, she exclaimed. Daniel her brother had driven us to the shop yesterday. I called him, and got the direction to walk toward the taxi park. Looking around and seeing taxi’s everywhere, I could have sworn we were already in it. Still no sign of the place. We wandered around a few more streets until Dacia (smart girl) says she is going to go as its getting late and hops on a boda. “Don’t stay in this part of town too much later” she warns as she speeds away, leaving us to our fate. I called Daniel again and deduct that we need to keep walking further from Main street. By now we are in the auto parts/ garage section of town, female population: 2 white girls. There are no available exit routes, except shady alleys I have no intention of walking through. As we walk by groups of men, we are getting stares and the occasional comment or “Musungu, how are you?”. I do not want to know what was said in Luganda. Finally we escape onto another cross street and hightail our way back to Main Street, me apologizing to Ashley for the wild goose chase. Back at the guest house, I ask Curtis if he remembers how to get to the shop, and he says “of course”. Awesome.
The next day, we headed down to the exact location I was before, only a half block to the left, stood the fabric shop in its glory. The woman who made the dress was next door and she had it all packed up and ready to go. Excited to see my new purchase, I unpacked it as soon as we got to the guesthouse. Out of a smallish plastic bag came a pandora’s box of fabric. I took it downstairs to show Curtis and Dacia my new look. I realized then I have no idea how to put it on. There is a hole where presumably the head is supposed to go, and the pointy shoulders of course. Then there are buttons at the neck and folds of fabric that appear to be extra. I quickly went to ask the girl who works at the front desk of the guesthouse for guidence and she enlists another staff member. Laughing gleeflly they fold the excess draping accordion-style to my side and then go to work tying the elaborate sash. This is when I learn that I do not have the proportions necessary to fill out this outfit (think: hips and butt). I had heard that there is special undergarment worn with the gomesi to give the illusion of bigger hips so I will hopefully be procuring one of these pronto. It’s actually quite a beautiful dress- the shimmering blue and silver look quite nice with the cream sash and buttons. It looks really well made and will remind me of my time in Uganda. I’m not sure if I will keep it, alter it to something more wearable, or give it away before I leave, but I am excited to wear in on Saturday and experience Ugandan tradition.
p.s. Curtis will be wearing a kanzu. He also bought a suit here for $40!
p.p.s. All said and done, my gomesi cost 64,000 shillings, about $25
Update: Since i wrote this, I have worn the gomesi and attended the introduction. More on that later, but here it is!
The finished product