Zambian Wedding

As in all cultures, there are rituals surrounding birth, marriage, and death that make Zambia unique.  In America we have wedding showers, engagement parties, bachelor/bachelorette parties, etc., all designed to bring families and friends together.  Zambia is no different!  When Mom was visiting, Ms. Hilda invited us to a sort of modified engagement party.  The bride and groom had actually already been married for 10 years but because the bride was an orphan, she had never gone through the traditional engagement/meeting of the families.  Now 10 years later, the Mother’s Union at her church (sort of like the women’s league) wanted to take her through the ritual as her “adopted” parents.  Mom and I weren’t sure what to bring so we brought money and half a case of wine.  I think the ladies thought that was fine.

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It started on a Saturday as these events usually do.  Most Saturdays we watch Ms. Hilda climb into the back of a pick-up wearing her chitenge (that’s what the African fabric is called) along with 15 or 20 other people, and they rumble down the road with the sun on their faces in the open breeze.  It makes me feel jealous of countries that still allow people to ride in the open back of a pick-up!  They sing and laugh together and sound so happy.

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Today though, I drove, because I had a car.  That was an adventure in itself, me navigating our big SUV through the narrow alleys of the compound, trying not to hit people or chickens or drive us into a ditch.  We had a few close calls, but that’s the nice thing about Africa.  A close call is not an accident or even something to worry about.  Drive on!  We also picked up a few of Ms. Hilda’s elderly friends from the Mother’s Union on the way.  It is a nice thing here, to know an ex-pat with a car.  I feel relieved that I’m at least useful for something.

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We parked on a narrow street a block away from the bride’s home.  I briefly worried that the car wouldn’t be there when we came back, but then remembered I was the transport for several well-respected elderly ladies who also wanted a ride home again.  They said something in the local language to the group gathered around to watch us disembark, and I felt sure the car would be safe.  Another thing to love about Zambia!  Crime is an issue all over Africa but for some reason, not so much here.

Most of Lusaka’s population lives in densely packed areas called Compounds, grids of small dwellings sharing walls and dirt floors, with rare electricity or running water.  To me they appear a lot like mazes with a family living at every turn.  They are dusty but clean, the walls are made of mud bricks, and the roofs of corrugated tin.  The nicer homes have a concrete floor, with possibly a fence surrounding a small yard.  Always, the compounds are flooded with people.  Walking, sitting, selling tomatoes, fixing shoes.  Laundry is flapping in the sun and usually music is coming from somewhere.  Kids are kicking soccer balls.  This is where Real Life happens.

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We made our way to the bride’s gate where a crowd was already gathered and the drums were already playing.  It was hot in the sun but a fire was burning in the yard, with a huge iron pot of boiling water set on top.  Everyone present was chanting, whooping, singing, shouting, praying, pressing in against the fire.  Mom and I were invited to the front where we could “see” the nshima ceremony taking place.

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Nshima is the staple food of Zambia.  It’s a ground cornmeal porridge that is a lot like polenta, cooked in huge quantities for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  When a woman gets married, she has to prove to her husband’s family that she will be able to feed him by preparing a HUGE pot of nshima.  Slowly, a 10kg bag of cornmeal is poured into the boiling pot.

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All the ladies present go up to take a turn stirring.  Everyone else was laughing and cheering them on!

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Mom got a turn too!!

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Wow, that stuff is thick.

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After the nshima was made, it was packed into a big tub that is just like the kind my grandma used to use.  It was then taken inside, where the floor was literally covered with dishes of beans, greens, vegetables, and ground nuts that had been prepared by the bride’s family and friends. Also in cooking pots that remind me of grandma’s church potlucks!

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One by one, with drums playing and the guests whooping, each dish was opened to be “inspected” by the father to make sure it was good enough to present to the groom’s parents.  It was more ceremony that actual inspecting, and everyone thought it was so funny!  The drummer’s were fantastic.  And loud in that little room!

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Then it was time to take the nshima to the groom and his family.  It was wrapped up in big a piece of chitenge and carried out, on their heads of course.

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Then we all went back outside and piled ourselves back into pick-ups (and our Isuzu) to drive across the compound to the groom’s house.  Another driving adventure, and fortunately I didn’t hit anything!  Once we got to the groom’s house, everyone got out of the pick-ups carrying the food.

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Here we are all standing around with our pots.  Mom and I had a pot too, and were surprised to find that it takes some arm muscle to hold your arms up like that for so long!

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The drummers started playing and the singing began again, and we ladies with our pots slowly walked in a mob toward the mob of the groom’s family that was waiting at the door of their house.  We were led inside where all the pots were placed on the floor at the feet of the groom and his parents.  With music playing, the pots were all once again opened, this time by the “mother” which in this case was a lady from the Mother’s Union.

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There was much laughter and shouting, and eventually the huge bowl of nshima was brought in, still wrapped in the chitenge.  The tradition is that she then has to put her arms behind her back and open the nshima with her teeth.  Everyone thought it was hysterical!  I think the lady was also having fun.

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Somebody is going to have a lot of dishes to do!

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Then the Mother went through a ceremonial washing of the groom’s hands.

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And finally it was time to dance!  Well, as much as anybody could even move stuffed in there amidst the couches, babies, food… I guess you could call it dancing.  The best part was seeing Mom out there.  I’m so lucky, to have Mom around… when she’s there she gets all the “elder” respect and everyone ignores me!  That’s kind of nice, so I can just sit back and watch :).

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The wedding was finally over, after the dancing and drumming and music stopped.  The bride’s family then left to let the groom’s family eat.  They did not eat together, since this was a “test” to see if she passed.  In truth, this is probably more ceremonial than anything, but I hear stories that in the villages it is not just ceremony.  That Evil Mother-In-Law thing is apparently very hard on young brides who are forced into servitude to their new husband’s families, not so surprising considering that the U.S., with all it’s shortcomings, is still one of the most advanced in the world for women’s rights.  But today was fun; warm and happy, celebrating a union between two people who obviously love and take care of each other.  Thank you Ms. Hilda, for such a wonderful cultural experience :).

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