First, some quick updates. The infection continues to retreat. You may note a complete absence of it in the wedding photos. In my trip to the hospital today, the nurse also commented on how well my arm is healing.
While in the hospital, I was expecting some reference to the growing “Obama was born in Mombasa and here’s a fake certificate to prove it” movement, but no one brought it up.
Nairobi was good… very nice to see other volunteers. I kept commented on what a crazy coincidence it was that we were all there at the same time, but the response I got most often was, “We’re here all the time.” So I guess it’s just me.
I got back into town Saturday evening and immediately, as planned, visited the groom-to-be to check up on plans for the big day. The plan was, “Show up at 10. Or 11. 12 is OK too.”
The next morning, with only a vague notion of what to expect, I had only this plan:
- Leave the house with the nicely wrapped gift—a tea set.
- Walk to the nearest Bata and buy some nice sandals because I’ll probably need to take my shoes on and off a lot.
- Walk to the groom’s house and see what happens.
Things were pretty mellow at the house. “The house,” it’s worth noting, is more like a small apartment building where the tenants are all related. I was welcomed graciously, and then I relaxed for most of the morning, sitting on the floor and entertaining the children.
There was definitely a sense that it was an important day, as bottled waters and juices were loaded into a truck outside, but at the same time it was quite mellow. The groom aside (who had, after all, not yet met his wife-to-be), the general anxiety level was around what you’d expect if you were going to orchestrate a big family trip to the movies. In a short burst of preparation, everyone (myself included) donned their wedding attire in the last ten minutes or so before we left. As the Best Man, I was also the second-most-formally-dressed man. I also smelled quite nice, as many a perfume was applied. As you can see below, I wasn’t sure whether or not it was appropriate to smile for photos. My compromise looks more like a sneer.
Groom on the left, me on the right.
The ride in the car was short, and involved much horn-honking. By design the groom should be the last to arrive, so it was no surprise to see the parking lot packed as we pulled up. As we stepped out the car, the crowd outside pleaded for the groom’s attention. We filed quickly through the crowd and past the security barrier into the building. I found out later that hordes of people often try to crash weddings for the free food.
I left my sandals at the entrance, on top of a gigantic pile. I wondered how anyone would ever find their footwear again after such an event. The room was filled with men, not a woman in sight. All were seated, mostly cross-legged, on the floor, and there was not a free spot visible anywhere. We stepped around people to get to the front of the room, where there was a raised stage. The men on the stage reshuffled to make room, and we were seated, side-by-side, with out backs to nearly everyone. Short greeting were exchanged, and I observed that not only was I dressed quite formally in comparison, but also that a number of men were dressed quite informally. Shortly thereafter, the man seated facing us began reading from the handwritten Arabic text in his little notebook. The groom voiced in the affirmative when the man paused. The room was subdued for this duration, but far from silent. After these vows were affirmed, newspaper was set on the floor and water, juice, and large plates of Biryani (rice and meat) were set down and shared. As is customary, I ate with my hands. Napkins were passed around afterward for cleaning up. Ten minutes later, the room was clearing out. More greeting were exchanged, and men came up to the stage and took photos with the groom.
I left with the groom and was led with him (and with another mzungu—a German Peace Corps volunteer)—into a small changing room. The groom changed into more casual clothes and explained that he was going into the next room to meet the women. Hundreds of them. But he also explained that his wife would not be among them. We were instructed to stay behind, and he walked back outside and then into a neighboring room, which immediately burst out into “ai-yai-yai-ya-yai” screams and music. After waiting a few minutes, were were given the nod to go into the room ourselves, and we saw that it had the same layout as the previous room, with a raised stage, and the groom was on it, totally covered in henna ink. The reason for the casual shirt became clear. The women were dumping it on him and rubbing it into his hair, having a blast. Others watched in amusement from elsewhere in the room.
The henna application was followed by dancing on the stage, with people (myself included) taking turns shuffling back and forth with the groom. It’s a fun, messy event. After a few minutes of dancing, we few men left the room, cleaned up, put on our shoes, and not long after, returned to the house.
“But wait, the marriage is over, but where was the bride?” I asked myself.
I was instructed to go home and change my shirt before dinner, as others went home or into their rooms to do the same. Dinner at the house was with a smaller group—maybe 20 men and 20 women, eating separately. The chicken and chapati were delicious, and the gifted tea set was put to use, which made me happy. After dinner, there was much conversation and mingling, and finally, around ten o’clock, people began packing into vehicles.
I rode in the back of a pickup truck with about twenty-some people as we honked and zigzagged around the island, eventually crossing the Nyali Bridge to the north, and heading into Bamburi. It was a short drive, and we eventually stopped outside a hoteli (restaurant) with a nice Donald Duck painting outside, and we jumped out and followed the groom as he walked down a narrow hall that led to some rooms behind the storefront. Things got very loud, and the tradition became clear: the groom knocks on the door, and with the help of everyone, makes a big scene in demanding that the bridesmaids inside open it to allow the two to finally meet. Eventually the door opens, the music starts, and the cheering gets totally wild. It was nearly impossible to see inside at first, but I got enough glimpses to see the bridesmaids lined up on the sides of the room, and at the center, the groom seated next to the bride on a couch, from where he presents the ring. Photos were taken (one with me even, but not with my camera), and the groom and everyone else but the bride’s party filed out and danced in the hallway. Sodas were handed out, people laughed and danced and got silly, and after a few songs, everyone packed back into the cars and left.
Today—the day after the wedding—the families will spend more time together, and tonight the bride and groom will leave for their honeymoon. So my glimpse into the wedding process is just that—an outsider’s glimpse, as the process is far from over for the new couple. I am extremely indebted for the treatment I received during the wedding, and I am lucky to have had the honor of being the Best Man. I hope my perspective is enjoyable to read, and that I didn’t get too many details wrong. It was a blast. Congratulations to the new couple!