Remember that time you were a guest in a room of 150 Tanzanian strangers and during the course of ceremonies only spoken in Swahili, you were introduced as the “American sister” in the room and asked to stand for acknowledgement? That actually happened to me…TWICE.
My coworker, Martha*, graciously invited my other coworker, Christie, and I to her 25 year old son’s wedding. Super nice, right? She said she wanted Christie and me to experience some of the Tanzanian wedding culture. She even took us to Kariakoo Market to buy kitenge (read about that here) in the colors of the wedding, which is a tradition that Tanzanians try follow if they have the wedding colors in their closet. Because I didn’t pack an appropriate wedding dress for my 2-month stay (Seriously, next time I come to Africa, I will definitely be bringing at least one fancy dress…I’ve needed one TWICE since I’ve been here!), we happily bought lavender and white kitenge and took it to our local tailor to have custom dresses made. As a side note, buying fabric and designing my own dress was fantastic. Why don’t I do that more at home?
Before the wedding, Martha said it was customary to give a gift of 50,000 tshs (about $30) before the wedding, if you were able. I think it’s interesting gifts are given before instead of after the wedding. The week of the wedding, Martha invited us to a “send off” ceremony for the bride. What is a send off, you ask? In a nutshell, a send off is a party thrown by the bride’s family to give her away to the soon-to-be husband’s family. The husband’s family comes, bearing gifts to give to the bride’s family in exchange for the bride. Martha explained that in the olden days when a woman was to be married, her husband’s family lived in a far away village most times. After the wedding, the bride would most likely never see her family again. This party is a way to say goodbye and send her off in style. Since advanced technology and transportation have allowed people to remain more closely connected, that isn’t necessarily the case anymore, but the tradition still remains.
Martha picked us up for the send off ceremony wearing a fancy banquet dresses that I just knew was the fanciest dress she owned. In that moment, I didn’t want to go anymore. Who likes showing up to a party in the wrong attire?! Feeling underdressed in my maxi dress, I reluctantly continued on to the party, kicking myself for not bringing a fancier dress to Tanzania. Once we arrived at the banquet hall, we learned that the groom’s family had to wait outside to be invited in by the bride’s family. We stood outside for about an hour waiting for the party to start, and then to be invited in. Once they were ready for us, the family gathered up the gifts and danced into the banquet hall. They (and us) shook the hand of each of the bride’s family members waiting in the reception line. We sat our things down and were shown the way back to the dance floor. We (the groom’s family) danced in a circle to an upbeat Swahili wedding song and then sat down. Following us, the bride and her bridesmaids entered the hall, dancing to Pharrell’s acclaimed song, “Happy”. The bride took to the mic and introduced her family, bridesmaids, friends and other important guests. Then it was the groom’s family’s turn to make introductions. Keep in mind, all of this is happening in Swahili, so I really had no idea what’s being said. Luckily, a woman who spoke great English ended up sitting next to us and told us what was happening at each juncture. A complete Godsend. Otherwise, I would have been clapping on cue like a circus monkey when I heard the room erupt in applause.
A spokesman from the groom’s family began making introductions. He introduced the groom’s parents, his siblings, extended family members, friends, and neighbors (yes, even the neighbors). The next thing I see is Martha’s husband getting up to talk to the family spokesman. He looks at us and starts pointing in our direction. All I could think was “NOOOOO!” The spokesman began speaking in Swahili and then our translator says, “He’s talking about you; he’s telling you to stand up.” I wanted to faint. By all accounts, people believed we were fellow Tanzanians. Before the ceremony started, some people actually tried talking to us, but we had to kindly let them know that we didn’t speak Swahili. Darn. We stood up and received the room’s applause. I felt outed. It’s not that anyone made me feel uncomfortable, but I definitely didn’t feel like we were able to blend in anymore (as much as our Western clothing allowed us to). Maybe I was being self-conscious, but I felt like people were studying our clothes, our hair, and our actions. It’s such a strange feeling being in a room full of people who look like you, but you don’t speak the same language
After our introduction, the bridesmaids got up again to pop the champagne bottles and went around the room pouring it into each guest’s glass. The bride gave a small cake to her family, another cake to the groom’s family, a third to her extended family and a final cake to her bridesmaids. The bride’s guests then got up to dance. Imagine my surprise when they do what looks like the Electric Slide. Finally…something I recognized! My neighbor translator actually said the dance was called the “Kwaito” but I didn’t care what she said, it was the Electric Slide to me. Who knew it was known by Black people worldwide? Ha. After dancing, the bride went to her parents and asked for permission to marry her groom. In Tanzanian culture however, it is up to the bride’s brother to grant permission. The bride and her brother had an intimate, tearful moment as he agreed to allow her to marry her groom. By this time it was 10 p.m., 3 hours after we arrived. Talk about long! My attention span was waning…and they still hadn’t served the food! I had to go. With the next work day looming, and no end to festivities in sight, we decided to exit as they began food service. We later learned that the food is served near the end so people will stay…oh the trickery.
Because the actual wedding was in a town far from the reception hall and where we live, we decided to forgo the wedding and only attend the reception. Much of the reception followed the same format as the send off ceremony. Tons of respect is given to extended family, neighbors and friends. There’s even a committee for the wedding reception, which is comprised of family and friends who help to organize the event. One notable tradition is that each table had their own individual cake. Before dinner is served, someone at the table is chosen to cut the cake. Christie was our table’s cake rep and she cut it like a pro! The cake is then passed around the table for small pieces to be eaten. There were many more toasts, introductions and lengthy pomp and circumstance. We were introduced as “American sisters” AGAIN, and it was less mortifying this time but still a little intimidating. After dinner, we thanked Martha for the invite, called our taxi driver and made our exit.
It was such a great experience to witness the wedding (reception) in a different country and culture. I should also mention that in addition to the wedding and send off party, the bride has a ‘kitchen party’ where she receives gifts for the home, and the groom has a party to receive ‘manly’ gifts. All of these parties sounds like getting married can be expensive for the families! But one thing that remains the same across cultures is that the couple seemed happy and the families looked proud. Thanks for the invite, Martha! Check out more pictures below.
*Name changed to protect her anonymity
Photo Credit: Ashlee Tuck