Monday, August 30, 2010

At Last, The Wedding

Back to a cheerier topic: the wedding.

So I had arrived---very late---on Thursday. Malawians take great pride in their reputation for friendliness and hospitality; no one should have to stay at a hotel unless by choice. Instead, everyone crams together in the homes of friends and family. Such was the case with the wedding. I was put up at the house of one of Jean’s friends, along with various nieces, nephews, friends, and others. We piled into beds and onto floor mats, even though few of us got much sleep.

The house itself was rather comfortable. Jean’s friend teaches at the nursing college in Mzuzu, and her home is a typical middle-class Malawian house: concrete walls (nicely painted) and floors (covered in area rugs), with a tile roof. It had three bedrooms, two and half baths (with hot water!), a comfortable living room, a dining room, and a small kitchen. She has most of the markers of middle-class life: nicely made, matching furniture; satellite television and DVD player; microwave; fridge/freezer. All in all, a very nice place to stay for a few days (and what I hope to find for my field site stay).

The next morning, after somehow managing to get everyone bathed and dressed despite limited facilities, we had a breakfast of sweet potatoes (the breakfast of Malawian champions!) and headed into town. Mzuzu, in the northern region, is actually quite large---larger than Zomba, although Zomba recently achieved “city” status and Mzuzu is still considered a town. The downtown area was crowded with cars and stores and people. I think the number of cars has trebled again from when I was here last---and then I was shocked by how many more cars there had been since I was first here in 2003. But used cars are increasingly available, the government is investing in road development, and the growing middle class increasingly wants cars for both mobility and status. (As an aside, Toyotas are the most popular because the spare parts are the easiest to obtain, but Mercedes Benz---or Mercs---are the most desired for status.)

But I digress---again. Joshua picked up Jean and I in his car (a Toyota), and then we picked up the flower girl and her mother, and we all dropped in town at the salon. I’m learning way more than I ever thought I would about African hair. Jean was getting a new weave for the wedding, while her flower girl was getting her hair steamed and a hair piece attached. Shortly after we got into town, Jean’s bridesmaid---Gloria---arrived from Lilongwe and joined us at the salon to get her current weave steamed and curled.

Jean’s weave would be an all day event, so in the meantime, I went with Gloria and two of her friends to run errands in town---going to the pharmacy, getting a new chitenji for me, picking up gifts, changing money into small bills for the reception (I’ll explain in a bit), and so on.

We wound up spending the whole day in town, with various friends and family circling through the salon and meeting up in the market. I spent the day mostly lost in translation; unless they were directly addressing me, everyone spoke Chichewa. So I went where I was told, with whom I was told to go, with very little idea of what was going on.

After a whole day in town, we went straight to the rehearsal. I was then supposed to go with Jean and Gloria to stay at Gloria’s sister-in-law’s mother’s house so that I could go with them to the traditional presentation to the groom’s family and be around for the pre-wedding preparations in the morning. At some point, either someone decided or someone misunderstood---but I wound up back as Ellemes’ house for the night. I was disappointed that I missed the presentation, although I will admit that I was also relieved to be able to stay at home that night. I still hadn’t really gotten over jetlag and now was exhausted from running around all day and trying to keep up with the conversation in a language I barely know.

Not that I got much rest. People were coming and going all through the night---turning on lights, having loud conversations, and generally interfering with any attempts at sleep.

The morning of the wedding came very early.

Perhaps guessing that many of the guests would be operating on “African time,” the wedding committee had told everyone to be at the church by 8:00 a.m. The service, however, was not set to begin until 9:00 a.m. So after another rushed morning and many concerns about transportation (none of us at the house had a car), we arrived at the church via Jean’s brother, Moses, with almost an hour to spare. Fortunately, we had two choirs to entertain us, and I was kept busy with greeting even more people whom I had met during my last stay, as well as meeting new family and friends.

The church service is very similar to Western weddings, with a little more music and dancing. The wedding parties enter and exit with well-choreographed routines. One major difference is that the services usually include more than one wedding party; individual services are available but can be expensive. We had one other wedding party at our service.

In some ways, Jean’s wedding departed from the Malawian norm. She had a small wedding party---just one bridesmaid and one flower girl, with a best man and a “stick boy” (about the equivalent of a ring bearer). Often, Malawian weddings are large affairs, with multiple bridesmaids, junior brides, and flower girls, along with their male counterparts. A wedding party can easily approach two dozen people.

Jean also had her wedding in the middle of the month. For reasons that will become apparent when I describe the reception, weddings are usually held at the beginning or end of the month---when people have money.

In any case, Jean was a beautiful bride and the ceremony was lovely---even if I couldn’t understand most of it---and I took loads of pictures with which to bore you when I return. For those who care about such things (like me), her gown was sleeveless---with just simple lace straps, a beaded bodice, and a modest train, worn with a short-sleeve, cropped jacket and elbow-length gloves for the church service. Her colors were green and white.

After the service, the wedding party went off in a decorated car to a house near the reception site for an arranged lunch, while the rest of us returned to various homes for our own lunches and some rest (or attempted rest---impossible, again, due to the number of people coming and going).

Then we went to the reception---and this is where the Malawian wedding is very different. Jean’s reception was held in a tent on the grounds of the Hotel Mzuzu, a rather upscale and expensive hotel. The bridal party once again performed a choreographed dance routine to enter the tent and process up to a raised stage at the front. The attendees then sit in rows of chairs, like an audience, facing the stage. The master of ceremonies then calls up various parts of the audience---bride’s side, groom’s side, friends of the bride, people who came from Zomba, and so forth. Those who are called then go up in front of the stage to dance while throwing money at the couple, into baskets, into the air, and onto the floor. Cashiers then follow behind to pick up the money and count it. To maximize one’s time “dancing,” people use 20-kwacha notes (the smallest paper bill; hence stopping for change the day before). They also take part in various games and events designed to elicit more money. For example, the bride and groom hand out apples to their friends, who are then called up to the front to “buy” their apples for 500 kwacha. The wedding cakes (they have a series of small ones) are auctioned off for more money. The whole point of the reception is to raise funds to pay for the wedding. And for my fellow anthropologists, it has the feeling of a potlatch to it, with its public displays of wealth and the way in which the money was carelessly, almost destructively, thrown on the floor.

At the end of the reception, some drinks and a small treat were handed out to guests (although somehow my section was overlooked; because you don’t need to RSVP to a Malawian reception, getting a guest count can be difficult). Then it was back to Ellemes’ house for dinner and sleep.

The next day was supposed to be a lazy day at home, but after lunch, Jean came by to get me for an impromptu trip to the lake with her, Joshua, some of her relatives, including her brother Moses, who lives in Zambia and hadn’t been back to Malawi in ten years (Jean hadn’t even met two of her nieces!). We drank beers on the beach, talked, laughed a lot, ate dinner, and generally had a wonderful time, sharing pictures and family stories.

From there, it was back to Lilongwe for two days’ rest and some unfinished business at the embassy, then off to Zomba.

Next up: Fear and Loathing in Zomba


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