Remember in high school when one of the teachers got married and you got the whole day off of school so that all the other teachers could go to the wedding? Neither do I. But here in Africa, this is what happens.
Last Saturday one of the teachers from Aiti got married. Since I am also a teacher from Aiti I was invited by default (I actually have never met this man and don’t even know his name, but I was at his wedding). The church ceremony took place at 6:30 am, sadly I slept through mass that day, so I did not get to see it. The reception was at the more civilized hour of 1:30 in the afternoon, although this being Africa it did not actually start until 3:00. Luckily, I had shown up fashionably late (and yet at the same time unreasonably early) at 2:00 so I only had to wait around for an hour. But let me start at the beginning.
As I mentioned, I slept through mass last Saturday morning, but my early rising community members informed me that the marriage of an Aiti teacher had taken place. Even though my class had been cancelled several weeks earlier for another wedding, I naively assumed that my afternoon class would go off as usual. I set off to school at the regular time only to be intercepted by the other English teacher who informed me that there was no class because ALL the teachers were going to the wedding. He invited me to come along, a suggestion to which I readily agreed. So off we went over hill and dale to another part of town to join in the wedding festivities. We arrived and were seated with the other Aiti teachers. I quickly noticed that all the teachers were wearing the same shirt, or a dress from the same material for the lady teachers. Apparently, Aiti teachers have some kind of wedding uniform that I knew nothing about. By pure luck I was wearing the correct color scheme. However, the lack of the Aiti uniform did not make me feel like I stuck out so much as being the only white person there did. So anyway, as I have mentioned the bride and groom were about an hour and half late so we sat and chatted and waited for them to show up at 3. The reception was held in a tent made out of branches and tarp with flowers and greenery decorating it. The bride, groom, and family sat in the middle on couches and the rest of the guests were arranged around the center, facing inward on plastic chairs. When the bride and groom arrived they were greeted with singing and danced their way into the center of the tent. The reception began with prayer and then the cake cutting. Just as in America, the bride and groom cut the cake together and feed each other the first bite. Then everyone else gets a small piece. After the cake it was time for the feast. Gigantic bowls of the African staple food foo foo were brought out along with rice, beans, and bitter green stuff that is kind of like but not nearly as tasty as spinach. And here is where I ran into my first social difficulty. It is, of course, impolite to decline food. However, foo foo is, shall we say, not my favorite food. In addition, I was not feeling so good with what I eventually found out to be a second case of Typhoid/Malaria. So I really did not want to eat. What to do? I worried about this for some minutes and finally decided to go up to the buffet line, but only take a drink. This strategy only sort of worked as several people asked me why I didn’t eat. I gave the excuse I wasn’t feeling very well, but I fear they saw through this façade and know that I do not like their beloved foo foo. Well anyway, after the feast it was time for gifts. And here is my second social difficulty, and this was a major blunder. What kind of person goes to a wedding without a gift?! I mean, come on, what was I thinking?! The gift giving is actually a really fun part of the reception because everyone dances up to the table, gives the gift, and dances away. Everyone else is dancing and singing along and it makes for a jovial atmosphere. The guests are called up by groups: the bride’s family, the groom’s family, the teachers, and so on until every one is called. So when the teachers were called, I was in a bit of a pickle, not having a gift and all. I was saved by the kindness of the other English teacher (the one who had stopped me along the road and asked me to come along to the wedding with him); he palmed me a 500 shilling coin (something like 25 cents) and I joined in with the teachers in the gift dance. 25 cents may seem a paltry sum (and in fact, it is), but here the thought is truly what counts. Many people are not able to give more than a tiny coin, but the important thing is to give something. Rest assure I was not the only one to give a small coin. The gifts were quite typical of weddings: money and household items and such. After all the guests had danced up to the gift table the festivities were over and I made my way home.
It was great fun to participate in a wedding and I hope I have a chance to go to another one someday…I wills surely not forget a gift a second time. Much of the wedding was very similar to American traditions with the cake cutting and feast. But a more important similarity, as in any culture, is that weddings are a time for communities to be together, enjoying each other’s company and celebrating a joyous occasion. Sure, I had my awkward moments with being the only white person in sight, not knowing the name of the bride or groom, not eating, and not bringing a gift, but still I am so happy I was able to share in the occasion and I feel like I am a little bit more a part of the community here in Aru.