A word of caution for non-Swahili speakers, the Swahili-English translations used in this writing are as primitive as they could get, both for comic reasons and because Swahili is awesome. Learn it so I wont have to translate next time.
It’s supposed to be the wedding of the decade. The daughter of a chief marrying the son of a respected doctor. She’s an accountant and he’s a secondary school history teacher. She’s good with numbers, he’s good with dates and today’s is a date that’s been long time coming. She being a pedantic realist and he being a nostalgic dreamer means that they will complete the proverbial ying yang loop, form the perfect couple, and half the stars in the sky will go supernova and turn night into day. At the moment, however, heavy clouds crease the night sky which beams down with malcontent.
For the third time tonight it threatens to pour as the groom and his flock of minions walk into the mosque and make a beeline for the front, where the imam and the bride’s father await, the expressions on their faces radiating an unimpressed mien. Between him and his destination, a crazed sea of white and black and green and blue kanzus stretches the mosque’s capacity to its choking point. Kofia-donned heads literally turn as the man of the day passes by, dragging his wedding gear, from the over-size black robe laced with gold trimmings and the blunt ceremonial wooden sword tucked in his belt, to the massive turban on his head that precariously flirts with the physical principles of balance and gravity.
He deposits himself immediately opposite the imam and nods to his future father-in-law who is either too distracted by the groom’s excessive decorations or unhappy at his wanton disregard for punctuality, since he doesn’t nod back. The imam begins the ceremony with a short lecture about the highs and lows of marriage and quotes a few verses from the Quran.
Then he holds the groom’s right hand and asks him to repeat what seems, to the groom at least, like the recitation of a full twenty-page chapter of the Quran in a single breath. The groom’s heart does the tachycardia thing, a hamster racing a hamster wheel off its hinges. He mumbles and stutters. The imam sighs and repeats, enunciating each word carefully like a nursery school teacher. The groom does better this time, but only just.
“I…Matano bin Mashaka…accept…” a year-long pause, “…to marry…” a decade flits by, “…Zubeda.”
“Zulekha.” The imam corrects.
“Bint!” The imam corrects again.
“Bint…uh…” What was the father’s name again? He can’t for the love of everything lovable remember it and the fuming dragon that sits where future father-in-law was a minute ago doesn’t make matters easier either. A century has passed by, by the time the groom finishes his vow. The relieved imam does the Islamic rendition of the “By the powers vested in me…” bit and prays for everlasting blessings to be bestowed on the budding marriage. The father-in-law is now smiling broadly. It’s a smile that could mean anything, “I’ll kill you the next time you forget my name” or “Thank you for reducing the number of stubborn bubbleheads living in my house to fifteen. Now scram both of you, and don’t bring her back!”
Then its cheers all round as plates of halwa arrive. After that, the crowd of a thousand or so bludgeon the poor groom with affectionate embraces. His family is big. Half the city’s population is surely crammed within this tiny mosque and since his memory serves him well when recalling names of people who began revolutions or destroyed civilizations ages ago but fails him dramatically when trying the same with the people he called friends and family, the groom is meeting his extended relatives and friends for the first time all over again. Cousin Muhammad is actually cousin Mahmoud and uncle Ali is in fact uncle Alwi. In the end the groom resorts to the only nomenclature he’s always been comfortable with as he thanks Cousin 453 and his father, Uncle 78 as they smother him with musty-odor-sheathed bear hugs.
A motorcade outside whisks the groom and his entourage away to his bride’s home. They arrive to what can only be described as a razzle dazzle peacock fashion show. It’s almost dizzying how many different colors the bride’s relatives have managed to cram into their dresses individually. But now the groom faces a tougher challenge than acclimatizing his eyes to the bewildering scene.
The tradition at this point goes so: the bride, having recited her own vow earlier that night, is ‘locked away’ in a room somewhere within the house and one of her relatives stands guard. The groom is presented with two options. He and his lackeys can either try to force their way in, or if he is of a more diplomatic persuasion the groom can bride the guard.
Today’s is the case where the groom’s only option is surely diplomacy, for the simple reason that his entourage is locked outside and that the bride’s aunt who has taken up guard duty makes the room’s door look small in comparison. She grins widely as he slips two thousand-shilling notes into her welcoming hand. The deal is officially sealed. He is allowed admission.
Inside, the bride sits at the edge of the room’s only bed, white dress pouring out all around her, her face and arms buried under layers of make-up and hinna tattoos, but if you are to believe the groom’s account, she is actually “bathed in delicate radiant light that would shame the sun on any summer’s day and an ethereal fragrance that would push roses and carnations into fits of suicidal fantasies”. He whispers a dua to her as per the norm, their first intimate moment, and wishes they could jump out the window if only to escape the photo session that awaits them outside the door.
An hour or a day or a week later, they escape the incessant paparazzi and the motorcade whisks them away to the groom’s residence. It’s drizzling again outside. Well, no it’s actually pouring dreadfully now. Their driver, the groom’s older brother, focused on the now increasingly treacherous road, accountant and history teacher turn to each other. The groom had prepared a ton of poems for this moment, until the rose-shaming fragrance had wiped his memory clean, but twenty or so years of watching the occasional chick-flick movie have him covered…maybe. He blurts out, “I love you…sweet pump…kin”
She’s calm despite the excitement of the occasion as she stifles a laugh and replies in a cool voice, “Well, sweet potato, I love you more.”
The groom’s found his courage and confidence again but not the rehearsed poems, so he chides, “Really? How much more?”
Then the conversation picks up and they’re soon gone. They’re lost in their own world. The real world around them dissolves away and if the bus and truck ahead of them collided and burst into a million pieces in a shower of burning flames and human screams, they won’t be able to recount it to anyone tomorrow or ever. They’re so lost, they don’t even notice when the car finally pulls up to the groom’s home.
“Well I love you a gazillion multiplied by a gatrillion times more.” The groom smirks, impressed by his own ability to remember a very big number, fake or not.
She replies with the same calm voice, “And I love you Mugabellion to the power of Musevenillion times more.” In other words, infinity to the power of immortal forever. She really is good with numbers. The groom is stumped and sulks for a second after losing his first contest with his wife.
“And I would love it if this awkward conversation continued another time.” Their driver, an unwilling passive third-party to the exchange interrupts.“We’re here.” He announces unceremoniously.
Outside stands the groom’s family’s home. Two massive tents on either side, one for the men, the other for the ladies. And people. People everywhere you turn. The couple notice them for the first time and feel dizzy. Hundreds, maybe thousands have come to the wedding, to marvel at and envy the newlyweds.
The bride is chauffeured away to a temporary wooden stage under the ladies’ tent, where a thousand phosphorent lights and garlands of flowers festoon across the face of the makeshift stage. Then the ululations pick up and morph into a wedding song as the groom’s mother and aunts serenade their newest family member. There’s a phrase around this part of the world, “Bibi harusi wetu.” Our bride. She’s married a family, not just a husband.
The forgotten groom is paraded into the house by his brother who shouts to no one in particular, “Someone feed this oaf, he needs his energy up to prepare for his big performance.” The older men and teenagers hanging around laugh like maniacs.
With the groom inside and the bride on the other pole of the house, calm falls on the men’s tent. The topics of conversations that follow dart from football and politics and at some point the death of the groom’s younger brother a few months ago comes up. It’s inherently taboo to talk about funerals at weddings but for these people today, having been shocked by the nature and timing of the groom’s brother’s death, talking about it here is almost therapeutic.
The teenagers in attendance joke about marriage and other weddings they’ve attended. One of them waxes nostalgic to the click around him about a different wedding he went to where state-of-the-art amplifiers and 20-feet high speakers blasted the music of Ali Kiba and Diamond into the night sky. “What a dump of a wedding this is.” He complains. That it had stopped drizzling minutes ago doesn’t seem to improve the teenager’s mood.
The saving grace of any Swahili wedding, however, no matter how dislikeable to those invited, is of course the feast, or feasts.Tonight’s feast even has a name, Kombe la Bwanaharusi, the groom’s cup or something like that. You know Swahili people love food when they give fancy names to feasts. When the sinias (big plates) arrive and the guests behold their contents, all inhibitions and doubts and ill-will simply melt away.
Tonight, the guests are treated to a surprise. Upon inspection of the plates, they discover they’ve been served six different types of foods, from viazi vya nazi (potatoes of coconut), samaki wa kupaka(painted fish), nyama ya kukaanga (fried meat…?),mahamri (I doubt there’s an English equivalent word), kaimati (some round pastry thingy coated in sugar), mitai (another pastry thingy coated in sugar) and tambi (sugary noodles). Seven types it turns out, not six! But wait, upon further inspection, the guests realize the plates come in pairs. There are seven other different types of food in the accompanying plates, mikate ya tambi(sugary-noodle bread), katlesi (cut-less with each bite), viazi vitamu (sweet potatoes!), sambusa(samosas), mkate wa mayai (bread of the egg),mkate wa sinia (bread of the plate) and viazi karai(fried potatoes) You could call it the centenary gladiator match of the calories, a cholesterol and sugars bloodbath. The Swahili people won’t heed you, they’ll continue calling it Kombe La Bwanaharusi.
It’s growing late, the tell-tale signs of the approaching morning begin to show. The groom is tired and sleepy and growing increasingly irritated. He chucks modesty down the drain, rushes up the makeshift stage while the songs and ululations crescendo to a climax, and before anyone can realize what’s happening scoops up the bride, who looks equal parts amused and relieved but not necessarily shocked, and takes off at a canter like a deranged kangaroo, the turban falling off his head. His mother finally jumps to her feet and gives chase shouting, ‘Bring our bride back,’ her singing partners flocking her sides and ululating without let-up.
“My bride, mine…” the groom shouts back, head growing giddy from his defiant shenanigans. He makes for one of the parked cars whose passenger door is thankfully held open by his brother, gently sets his wife down on the seat, jumps over the bonnet american-movie-cops-like, fishtails the car out of the parking spot and zooms off, executing a perfect drift around the corner that would send James Bond running for the bank. Cheers and whoops from the men’s side and ululations from women’s side and the groom’s mother’s child-like tantrum sing them off into the night.
“Wow,” the accountant laughs, “I didn’t know your family was so…”
“Clingy?” The history teacher says.
“Affectionate.” She completes her sentence.
“They’re clingy. My family’s clingy. I should have warned you.” The dreamer reflects. There’s a long pause and then he adds, “We have might have to relocate to Russia or China or Antarctica where they can’t find us and shove chocolate cakes down your throat every morning and dress you up like Disney princesses every weekend.”
The realist wraps her arms around her husband’s free hand and rests her head on his shoulder as she thinks of the long tiring hours she spends at work every day.
“I don’t know,” she whispers with a broad smile, “I think am actually looking forward to being treated like a queen.”