Our hosts here in Kenya were excited when they were able to obtain tickets for us for the two nights of a Swahili wedding. We were excited, too, but had no idea what would happen. This was nothing like an American celebration. Hank and Bill were not invited to the woman only party. I had to buy a couple of dresses to fit in, dresses with lots of sparkles and ribbons, things I wouldn’t have worn at home. Catherine was loaned some dresses that fit her perfectly. We discovered when we got to the wedding dressing up was de rigeur.
The wedding was in the courtyard of the old fort here on Lamu. Unfortunately, as outsiders we weren’t allowed to take pictures so I’ll try to paint the scene with my words. A man guarded the front door taking the tickets as we entered. He was the last man we saw for the next couple of hours each night. We were greeted with incense wafting to our faces and rose water sprayed on our hands. We were given a small plastic bag of food, one night meatballs and some gelled dessert, then next night cookies and soda. One of the first times on the trip we decided to forego eating.
On the first night as we entered the courtyard arabic pop was blaring from the speakers. As more women came in they sat down in an ever increasing semicircle in front of a stage. Satin cloth of varying of white, gold and green was draped on the wall behind. Some of the women danced. They danced with partners swaying their hips and arms while walking forward and backwards at times turning around each other always smiling. There were people finding friends and talking. Finally, after a couple of hours everyone sat down. An aisle was formed as women squeezed closer to each other to allow the bride to come in. Her dress was green with crinoline beneath the skirt so that it stuck out two feet on all sides. Sequins glittered on every surface of the cloth. She waddled forward through the crowd. It was an odd walk. It looked as if the skirt was getting trapped beneath her feet, yet when she got up on stage she continued this back and forth swaying as if it was the traditional way for a the bride to walk the aisle. Once she was on the stage all the women in the courtyard got up to take pictures and the party was over. The bride was left on the stage posing for photos while we headed for the door.
The next night the party started again. The women were again seated on the floor in front of the stage. But this night there was a singer, a woman who had entered veiled was now in front facing the party singing Islamic songs in a high pitched nasal voice. Girls sat around her beating drums and tamborines and singing along. Women began bringing money up to the front, some they tucked into the singer’s scarf for her pay, some they threw to friends of the bride’s mother. This money was folded into belts, crowns, sashes all to accessorize the bride’s mother. As the night wore on the singing was more feverish and more penetrating. As the excitement grew women began with ululations, also high pitched and feverish. Finally the singing stopped, the crowd parted, and the bride entered. On this second night of her wedding she wore a cream colored gown, again decorated with sequins and crinoline. Again she waddled slowing as she approached the stage, turning a couple of times so the crowd could admire her beauty. She climbed up the stairs to the stage. And again this was the cue for everyone to get ready to leave.
Throughout the event women in black veils encircled the courtyard. They only watched from the perimeter, never joining in. According to our friend, Thuweba, some were probably unwed, some were probably just unwilling to show what poor clothes they wore underneath. They gave me the sense of ghosts silently watching the festivities. Yet it was one of these women on the second, more religious night who helped Catherine fix her scarf as it continued to fall off her head. It was a tender, woman-to-woman gesture that meant the most to me during these two nights celebrating a rite of womanhood.