GULU, UGANDA—The last time my ears rung like this, I was a teenager sitting in front of the speakers at a Ted Nugent rock concert.
The culprit this time wasn’t amplified heavy metal, but instead ululations belted out by an enthused congregant at a Ugandan wedding we recently attended here in the northern part of the country. For the uninitiated, a ululation is a high-pitched sound (la-la-la) made with the tongue. It’s done to denote joy or sadness. A ululation has a trilling, up-and-down quality, and when done by experts, like the Acholi women of northern Uganda, it is louder than the loudest shout or scream.
The woman sitting next to me at the wedding had a black belt in ululation, expressing herself so loudly that she was probably heard in Sudan, about 50 miles away. Ted Nugent, eat your heart out.
The recipients of the many ululations of joy were the bride and groom Susan and Martin. Susan is the sister of my friend/project assistant Gloria, who requested our presence at the wedding.
The wedding, held in an Anglican church, was very western in most respects. One difference was the length—two hours. The biblically uncomfortable pews (they would’ve been a good test for Job) were really more like benches, and were apparently built to force parishioners to their knees. Also, there were no lights or electricity for most of the service. When the power did come on, I quipped to the ululating lady next to me, “Let there be light”. She was not amused. One other major difference was the ululating, sometimes substituted for “amens” and at other times broadcast seemingly at random.
The best part of the wedding service was the fantastic music. Unlike the crappy music at many American weddings (“The Carpenters”, for example), this music was uplifting and joyful. There were five musicians. One played a big drum while the other four played a magical string instrument called an ennanga. Four of the ennangas were small, held in the lap, while the other was huge, and produced a deep bass sound. The wonderful rhythms produced by the musicians were accompanied by the harmonies of a smiling, enthusiastic, professional choir. I could have listened to them all day. Indeed, the wedding ceremony felt like all day thanks to the uncomfortable seating, the escalating temperatures, and the ululating-induced blood trickling from my ear. (Not really, but I did poke my finger into my ear a couple of time to make sure that nothing was leaking).
The wedding was followed by the reception, which was held at a nearby primary school. Unlike American receptions, the Ugandans front-load their receptions with all the ceremony and tedium—cake cutting, speeches, more bridal processions, etc. This event was planned for the school’s courtyard. However, high winds brought down the reception tents and chairs, so the event was moved into a smaller, sweltering auditorium-like room. The most delightful part of this two-hour sequence was when some of the colorfully dressed ladies decided that they had to dance, so they sauntered down the aisle showing off all of their best moves—the bunny hop, the booty shake, and something resembling a move from an old Fred Astaire movie involving lots of arm-swinging. Of course, all this fun was accompanied by ululations that were heard in Cairo, Egypt.
My wife joined in the frivolity. I’m fearful that her “dancing” may require diplomatic intervention if an international incident is to be avoided. She also attempted to ululate, with emphasis on the word attempted.
Dinner (beef, chicken, rice, potatoes, greens, and some of the best cabbage I’ve ever eaten) followed all the ceremonial festivities, and was served buffet style. As the Ugandans say, the food was very nice.
While the dinner, dancing, and music were enchanting, the best part of the day was meeting all of Gloria’s warm, wonderful family. My wife, son, and I just loved them, and look forward to spending more time with them the next time we’re in Gulu. Maybe by that time, the ringing in my ears will have subsided, and we can engage in a conversation during which I can actually hear what’s being said, or what’s being ululated.