The weekend just past has seen the husband and I experience our first traditional African wedding. It may sound harsh to say, but weddings can be fairly generic. Back in Melbourne I saw my share of Western cookie-cutter weddings when I worked weekends at a function centre over a couple of summers, and frankly they were all pretty much the same. A certain format is always followed, and then you have the list of items you are apparently meant to “tick off” (vows, speeches, bouquet toss) which ensures the event is in fact categorised as a “wedding.”
So, attending a wedding which has any differences to what is considered “normal” always livens things up a bit – even more so when you toss in an entirely different culture.
It was a large group of us from the compound that was invited – one of the engineers was marrying one of the accounting girls. I know the engineer, although not particularly well, we work on the same floor in the office. The husband has worked with him from time to time, and a couple of our other compatriots have been his direct supervisor over the past few years.
The first thing of note about the traditional wedding is that formal invitations are not mandatory. We did receive printed invitations last year to another wedding we were invited to, but were unable to attend. This one, there was nothing. The groom literally approached the husband at his desk a few weeks ago and told him we were invited.
Fair enough. Paper invites can be bloody expensive anyway. It was one of the things the husband and I did not want to drop money on when we got married a few years back, so we ended up printing our own from the computer. In fact, the lack of formality is quite nice, and means that there’s not really a need to RSVP. If you come, you come, if not, never mind. And it also means that even though the wedding officially “starts” at a certain time it doesn’t really matter when you show up, or when you leave. It was not unusual for guests to be attending two different weddings on the same day.
The biggest question for me was what do you wear to a traditional wedding? At a traditional wedding, the bride and the groom (or their families) each choose a particular fabric. The guests (depending on whether you are from the groom’s side or the bride’s) are then supposed to have a dress/shirt/item of clothing made using that chosen fabric. So you all show up in a sea of the same colour material and are then easily segregated based on who is there for the bride and who is there for the groom. For us stupid Expats, the groom made it simple for us. One week ago, he arranged for a tailor to come to compound, measure us all and have us choose the style of dress/shirt we wanted. A couple of days later the clothing was delivered. Job done.
On the day of the wedding we showed up under the heat of the African sun not really knowing what to expect. The wedding venue was down a dirt road, and as we approached we could see a bunch of people, many wearing the bride’s fabric standing in the middle of the road, singing and holding large metal bowls along with lengths of string. As we approached they would form barriers where we (as the groom’s guests) were required to pay a toll in order to enter the wedding. The tolls weren’t expensive – but we did have to ensure we had enough small bills in order to pay to cross all the barriers.
On finally gaining access to the place where the wedding was to be held, we were shepherded to seats arranged under a white canopy – which although affording a little relief from the sun’s rays, could not prevent the copious sweating that was inevitable under the stiff African fabric of our wedding attire. We were all drenched, particularly the guys, who had perhaps with insufficient forethought, chosen a long-sleeved shirt. And so we sat and waited, the sweat oozing out of us, inhaling the scent of what we could only speculate was fresh fish baking in the sun. Occasionally a guy would come out and speak into the microphone in the tribal language; there might be some audience participation and some brief singing. No sign of the bride or groom however.
One of the key parts to the traditional wedding is that the negotiations between the two families still have to take place. They have to come to an agreement as to how much the groom and his family have to pay in order for the bride to marry him.
We watched as cases of beer were brought in, followed by a shit tonne of green plantains, then whole fish (perhaps the culprit of the smell?), electrical appliances and finally goats. All part of the groom’s payment towards his chosen bride. Meanwhile, the bride is apparently holed up in the house, while the groom waits in a thankfully air-conditioned car, for the families to finally reach agreement. We’ve been there three and a half hours and it’s getting late; if the couple don’t marry before dark this is considered bad luck.
Entertainment is ongoing while the families continue their negotiations. A woman dressed in camouflage with a fake gun and a mask made from a beer box, plays the role of a clown, trying to make the guests laugh – your penalty, if you do laugh, is to pay another toll to the bride’s family. Some family members also join in the fun – a pregnant lady pretends she is about to go into labour, also in an attempt to get money from the laughing guests. All the while cans of semi-cool beer are being handed around to keep us hydrated.
It’s 6.30pm and there is still no sign of the bride and groom. We’ve been there for over four hours and dehydration is starting to set it, probably not helped by the beer. The bus shows up to take us back to compound and heat-weary and hungry, we leave the party. I’m a little sad we don’t see the marriage made official, but it’s been fabulous to see something different, something real as the hot sun transforms to a full moon, after the sanitization of Western, compound life.