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Nanna Schneidermann

Meet Nanna Schneidermann

Doing Fieldwork with Wedding Videographers and Wedding Singers in Uganda

By Anja Kjærgaard

In this month’s “Meet a Researcher”, we have asked anthropologist Nanna Schneidermann why she has been doing fieldwork with wedding videographers and wedding singers in a region that is mostly known for a brutal civil war.

It is said that “as an anthropologist, the world is your workplace” – that holds true for anthropologist Nanna Schneidermann who has been doing fieldwork in the metropolis Gulu in the northern Uganda.

“I deliberately chose to come at the end of the year because I know that is the peak season for weddings in Uganda. You see, my research project is about wedding videos and wedding songs and those who make them,” the returned researcher says, who is currently processing the data from her fieldwork.

“There was a terrible civil war in the northern Uganda in the years 1986-2006. The rebel army LRA recruited by taking children from the villages they attacked, but civilians were also assaulted by the government army. In the wake of the war, research focus has been on the effects of the conflict and the work of peace and reconciliation going on. Today, however, Gulu experiences economic growth, and the share of the population that is poor has declined since the end of the conflict. That creates new dreams and opportunities for the ways people live together, and what they live on. These are some of the things I am interested in,” Nanna Schneidermann tells.

Drastic Decrease in Number of New Marriages

She has observed from personal experience how the bloody civil war has left its mark on the area in a number of ways – also in terms of family circumstances and marriage.

“Among other things, there has been a drastic decrease in the number of marriages entered into. One of the reasons is that it has become very expensive. Both because of bridal gifts – the gifts the man is expected to give to the woman’s family – and because of the party you are expected to throw. My research project is somewhat upside down by trying to follow some of them for whom things have worked out, and those who tell stories about weddings in sound and pictures.”

What significance do the often very big weddings have – both for those getting married and those working in a growing industry?

These are central questions in Nanna Schneidermann’s project. A project that does not stand alone; it is a part of larger collaborative project called Imagining Gender Futures in Uganda (IMAGENU) – a collaboration between the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and Gulu University in Uganda financed by Danida. Since the 90s, a group of anthropologists has had partnership projects with universities in Uganda.

“In this project, we are 14 colleagues in Denmark and Uganda who jointly examine what happens when fewer people get married. In that collaboration, I am third generation of the research family, which at Aarhus University has been led by Lotte Meinert.”

The interesting aspect of the collaborative project is, according to Nanna Schneidermann, that it is development research.

  “It is about development and social change in Uganda and wider questions in connection with Africa. I find it very cool that we are seeing how a peaceful future is not all about infrastructure and health systems, but also gender and partnerships. What is it, in fact, that drives people’s everyday life and future dreams, and how is it connected to the larger picture?”

From Private Wedding to National Hit

One of the methods for enhanced understanding of the world or a part of the world – in this case a land locked state in the eastern Africa – consists in creating knowledge based on participation in people’s everyday life. The ethnographic fieldwork is therefore central to the study of anthropology. To understand people and their culture, it is necessary to do fieldwork – to go out into the world and experience as well as observe the reality people live in.

“Since 2003, I have been doing fieldwork among musicians in Uganda – I have spent 3-4 years in the country. This time around, I have followed wedding videographers and wedding singers in northern Uganda, because they, on the one side, describe and document weddings and partnerships and, on the other side, represent a new economic niche around weddings. In the last 5-6 years, it has become popular to get a local popstar to write an occasional song for your wedding, which said popstar then performs at the wedding. Those making the wedding video also edit a music video which is then posted to social media and placed in local music stores where everybody who was not a part of the wedding can see for themselves. In this way, wedding music is a distinct genre in Gulu,” Nanna Schneidermann explains.

If you are lucky, your wedding can end up as an earworm being played at every corner of the city.

An example of the popular videos and music productions in connection with weddings in northern Uganda.
Another example of the music videos that have become immensely popular in northern Uganda. Nanna Schneidermann is postdoc in IMAGENU and examines wedding videos in northern Uganda, where traditional and digital sounds blend.

A Wedding Is Not Just a Wedding

There are not just one type of wedding in Uganda, but several different established weddings. There are civil marriages and religious marriages, as we know them from our part of the world. Then there are traditional marriages, the most frequent type, where the marriage is the result of negotiations and exchanges between the two families of the bride and groom. In this case, the clan or the families acknowledge the wedding, and an exchange of gifts and the bridal price certifies the relationship.

“In Uganda, a certain sequence of weddings takes place. Typically, a traditional wedding is entered into firstly, in which the families give their confirmation. Later, the couple might throw a church wedding, if they can afford to. Therefore, many of those getting married in church are in their 40s and 50s with children and careers. At both events, it has become important to document and show what the couple and the families have achieved, for instance by the use of the wedding music videos,” Nanna Schneidermann tells. She attended several weddings during her fieldwork. A fieldwork that consists of more than one perspective. On the one side, a focus on those who make the wedding videos and songs. On the other side, a focus on those for whom it is made – the married couple, their families and the wedding committees.

Friendship, Love and Resources Become Interwoven

The latter, the wedding committees, is a special ordinance that, according to the anthropologist, exists several places in Africa and “probably also other places around the world”. In the traditional wedding, ideally the families defray the expenses, while a church wedding is a completely different set-up in northern Uganda.

“You establish a fundraising committee for the wedding – preferably a year ahead of the party. The committee typically consists of colleagues, schoolmates, friends and family, and everyone is assigned a role as either chairperson, cashier, head of catering etc. After an initial kick-off event, the committee meets once a month, and more than that leading up to the wedding, to raise money and arrange a giant wedding party that may see up to 1000 guests. The amounts raised are massive,” Nanna Schneidermann tells. She also got the chance to join a committee during her fieldwork where she experienced how the weddings make up a cultural nerve in the area formerly characterised by conflict. Also in terms of re-establishing the local Acholi culture whilst involving new phenomena as wedding videos and songs.

“What is interesting is that my interviewees talked a lot about loving your friends and supporting them in a good life. Even though I am just starting to look at the material, I can see that in these wedding committees, which also co-finance the professional video and music productions, friendship, love and resources become interwoven in this time of non-conflict. Maybe we should rethink what actually constitutes love in a relationship.”