Weddings in Tanzania are big business, and had I not witnessed a part of it myself, I wouldn’t have believed it’s that big.
Firstly, usually parents of the two intending to get married live happily in the unkonown of the relationship until the very moment the couple decides to tie the knot. Both sides of the family then meet to start discussing the ‘bride price’ – how much the groom’s parents must pay the bride’s parents to let their son marry the daughter. The higher up in social classification the daughter is, the higher the price is, i.e. the more land, cows, money the groom’s parents have to cough up.
Secondly, the bride’s best friends organise a ‘kitchen party’. This used to mean a gathering of girls bringing gifts such as utensils, pots and pans and giving advice to the bride about how to be a good wife in the kitchen. Now there’s still a little bit of that left, but the gifts have changed along with the advice on how to be a good wife in the bedroom instead.
Thirdly, there’s a big wedding committee – made up of friends, relatives and involuntary family members who couldn’t care less about the colour of the napkins – in charge of planning the whole she-bang that follows. The whole she-bang is not just the wedding day, no, there’s also a wedding send-off party a week before the big day, and that’s where I had the privilege to attend.
The send-off party was for my friend’s sister. He was there already before the party started at 6.30pm on a Friday night to help set everything in order, since it is the bride’s family who pays for it all, to send off their daughter to start a new life/family with her fiancée. Me and three other friends came fashionably late at 9.30pm, yet in normal Tanzanian style not much had happened during the three first hours of the event.
The invitation card foreboded the theme of the party. The black and white cardboard complete with a pink ribbon was matched by huge black, pink and white silk curtains along the walls, white and pink roses, white table cloths and pink ribbons behind the chairs and almost all of the guests dressed in shades of pink and black, little party lights hanging from the ceiling, video cameras and screens making sure guests in the 200-headed crowd sitting further back could also follow the proceedings. The function room and the setting was fancier and flashier than any wedding I’ve seen in Finland, and this was just an appetiser for the actual day.
At the front end of the room was a scene, and on the scene was a big white armchair with space for two people. One of the spaces was of course occupied by the bride. The other? No, not by the groom, but by the bridesmaid. The two were competing for most beautiful girl in the room, both dressed in pink evening gowns, but the additional diamond sequins found on the bride’s dress took first prize.
When we arrived, half of the guests were up in front of the scene dancing to the DJ’s tunes. The whole event was in Swahili and though I understood every eight word my friends had a lot of explaining to do. As the bride’s mom is from the Pare region, apparently the people dancing were all representing the same tribe and were showing off their local dance. A man dressed in an all-white suit held a microphone and as the music stopped, he got to dictate the tempo and tell what’s next in line. The bride’s father is half-Maasai and half-Chagga, so everyone from the Moshi region by Mount Kilimanjaro got up and let their feet do some work to the DJ’s music. There were still some who hadn’t gotten up to dance, so in the end the presenter went through all kinds of music genres while the DJ kindly followed suit: first reggae, then country music (I’ve never quite understood why country music is so popular in Tanzania) and then some South African kwaito. One by one people went up to dance along to one song or two. Kwaito is quite popular in nightclubs too so I had mastered these steps, and since our friend group was one of the last not to have gone up, when they announced this familiar genre will play, of course we had to take part of the festivities. And there’s even a video on YouTube to prove it (the dance might not look so difficult but if you miss a step in that crowd, well, say ‘bye bye toe’).
When the dances were over, out came the champagne bottles. The presenter gave some speech while the bride and the bridesmaid were tying their arms around each other’s to have a sip of the sparkling drink. Waiters came to ask what drinks we would want, since we all had to get up to walk around and cheer with everyone in the vicinity. I asked for beer, which later turned out to be a bad choice. I hadn’t eaten much during the whole day, and the waiters seemed unusually attentive towards me. Everytime I looked up to the stage and then turned it back towards the table, a new, opened beer bottle was waiting in front of me. In the end I had about four opened and undrunk beer bottles in front of me plus the first one I was still trying to get down, so when I heard they’re bringing in the keki (‘Chagga cake’), I was very happy about the thought of food.
When the chefs rolled in the keki on a serving cart, it was not quite the sight you expected to see. Keki, is a whole roasted goat with it’s whole head and all body parts still in place, with some green vegetables sticking out from the mouth and rings of carrots stuck to the body with toothpicks. After some ceremonial rites, the chefs rolled out the masterpiece, and the show continued. This time the bride was to find her fiancée in the crowd, and escorted by some more country music, she found her hubby very quickly. I don’t know if it was planned or if it was the country music that helped.
The time came (finally) for food. It was a buffet with very typical Tanzanian dishes, rice, pilau rice, chips, fried chicken, banana/intestine stew… and the goat! Chopped into small pieces, it was probably the best goat I’ve ever had, tasty and tender. And that, you can’t say about goat too often. After food there was more dancing, more music, more performances (including a stand-up comedian) and a lot of gifts. None of them were wrapped, so you could see exactly what everyone brought – there were plastic buckets and pots, fabrics and even microwaves. And the way these were presented was that everyone had to dance in a line with the presents on their heads, bring them to the bride and groom and then shake their hands and congratulate. The father of the bride announced the parents’ gift: land and a cow.
I’m telling you, coming from a culture so foreign to these kinds of wedding practices, it’s safe to say this was an event and a half for me. All I can really say is “WOW”. Tanzanians all seem to have this natural performing artist in them – no one was scared to pick up the mic, young and old shaked their butts off in front of 200 hundred other people like it was nobody’s business while the bride and bridesmaid were sitting up on the scene in the spotlight for a good few hours doing whatever the presenter told them to do. The event finished around 12.30am, so 6 hours of pre-wedding partying. A week later the actual wedding took place in the groom’s home town Tanga. I can only imagine how that went = )