Monthly Archives: April 2012

Dance Dance Wedding

The promised description of the wedding is late for several reasons. One is that the internet has been down for three days. It was back briefly this afternoon, but then the power went out this evening, and while ZESCO is back, the internet still seems to be grumpy. Another is that the bee infestation of The Wooden House 3 got abruptly worse, to the extent that the buzzing kept me awake most of Tuesday night. It’s been fumigated, but now the main room (my room less so, thankfully) stinks of vile chemicals. But for one reason or another, I’ve been somewhat avoiding the house, lately.

But I did go to my boss’s wedding on Saturday — both the ceremony itself, in the church, and the reception that afternoon.

The actual ceremony was not terribly different from weddings in the States, except with extra dancing. I’m told that the wedding party (but not the bride; she’s still not supposed to smile) danced into the church, but I missed that part, because I was escorting the new MCC family, who’d just moved in the day before, and I’d forgotten the amount of time a family of four who have not yet settled into a new house requires to get going in the morning. We had the distinction of being late even by Zambian standards, and could hear the strains of “Here Comes the Bride” as we arrived. We snuck into the church just ahead of Patience and (I assume) her father.

For those who care about clothing things, I will mention that Patience’s dress was very nice: it had a nice quantity of fabric without putting her at risk of being confused with the wedding cake, classy, tasteful embroidery, and none of this strapless business that’s so popular in US wedding dresses these days. I found myself wondering how one keeps such a dress clean in an area with as much prevailing dust as Macha, and what Zambians do with wedding dresses after the wedding, but someone mentioned later that she thinks they’re usually rented.

The ceremony and the vows mostly followed my impression of how such things often go, although the version was slightly different than the one I’m used to (for example, the question about impediments to the match was worded something like ‘be silent from now on,’ and there were other bits where the sense was the same but the wording was not what I expected. On the topic of objections, they read the banns in Zambia. I was really surprised the first time it happened, but it’s become something of an expected oddity. This time, the pastor didn’t specify that it’s necessary to speak to the pastor in person, not just send him a text message, but that’s happened in the past, and makes me wonder if pastors frequently get text messages in response to wedding announcements). The vows didn’t say anything about obedience, which surprised me, considering that this is Zambia, but I’m not sure if that is typical, or if Elton and Patience chose to exclude it. There wasn’t any kissing of the bride, either — and do weddings in the US usually have the involved parties announce their intention to wed (“Do you intend to vow-clause-one, vow-clause-two, etc?” “I will.”) and then in fact say the vows later in the service? I think this was the first wedding I’ve been to since I was eight or so, so my memories are a bit foggy for proper comparison.

And then, of course, the wedding party danced out of the church. Patience still didn’t get to dance — she and Elton merely processed out in a slightly more rhythmic manner, and she was finally allowed to smile — but the bridesmaids, the best man, and the . . . second- and third-best men did a fun little partner thing the whole way back up the aisle, and the matron danced, too. But cutest of all were the flower girls and the ringbearers (I assume. The two little girls in white dresses and little boys in black suits), who danced up the aisle following the matron, in a very clearly memorized and measured walk together, turn out, walk to the edge, walk back in, kick together, kick together . . . No one threw rice — instead the entire party was surrounded by a semi-constant haze of camera flashes (when the internet comes back, I should look to see if someone else’s pictures made it online). And then the attendees half-walked, half-danced out of the church, too.

Of course there was the reception, too. I could hear the music as I walked back to my house to sit down for a bit and eat some bananas (I was sure that there would be plenty of food at the reception. I just wasn’t sure when it would materialize), and by the time I showed up perhaps an hour later, the hall was probably 5/6 full, and it was a BIG place. Children weren’t allowed at the reception, I think just for space concerns. Even without kids, I don’t think there was an empty seat in the place.

And — that was like no wedding reception I’ve ever seen or heard of. The matron danced in, the kids danced in (still adorable), the bridesmaids and groomsmen danced in — much more elaborately this time — Elton and Patience danced in — the bridesmaids and groomsmen danced in again (I guess they slipped out the side and came in the back again?), even more elaborately . . . It felt like a talent show/dance party. Elton and Patience were wearing their wedding clothes, but the bridesmaids were all in little green dresses, the groomsmen were in suits with green shirts, and the matron had changed to a lovely green chitenge-thing.

There were speeches, including one from Patience’s father that hit all of the “Wife obey your husband in everything and learn to apologize even when you’re right” points that I’d expected that morning, and one from the guest of honor (I would have thought that the guests of honor for a wedding reception would be the happy couple, but it seems not) that was a recap of that morning’s “Communication is essential to a good marriage” sermon. There was food, not as good, as plentiful, or as elaborate as the kitchen party, but still enough that I stuffed some in a ziplock bag to take home with me, and ate it the next day. I once again managed to sit at the very end of the line for food, but I’d had bananas to tide me over, so that was all right.

After the food, there was more dance party/presentation of gifts, and people got up and formed a line-cum-dance-mob. I’d brought my present to the kitchen party, so wasn’t sure if I shouldn’t get up, but one of the ladies sitting near me said that it was okay to get up and dance, so I did, to the usual crowd of thrilled onlookers. I have decided that Zambian weddings are like Christian youth camps: there comes a point where you get up and dance around the room and get hugged by random strangers. It’s not how you’d behave in real life, but it can be fun every now and again. Nobody tied chitenges around my waist at the Mennonite youth conference, though.

And presently everyone sat down again (rather less everyone than previously; a number of people had walked out during the dance mob), and then the wedding party danced out, followed/surrounded by a mob of people. I got dragged out by the lady in while who had hugged me, and left after disentangling myself, in order to get home while there was still a decent amount of light.


I got the care package from church yesterday. Thanks to all of you, even the ones I can’t identify because your signatures are illegible!

And on the topic of parcels, if you were intending to send something, you should probably send it in the next week or so, to be sure it gets here. Letters are probably okay until the first week of May, since they don’t take quite as long as packages. After that, send letters to my mom’s address, and I’ll read and appreciate them when I get home.



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I’ve been in Zambia for nearly eight months now, and have not yet managed to get to a Zambian wedding. Twenty-four hours ago, I had not gone to a kitchen party, either. Kitchen parties are the Zambian equivalent of bridal showers, and Alison has been telling me since October or so that I really ought to go to one, but the few that were held in Macha, rather than various locations out of town, were for one reason or another inconvenient to go to.

But my boss is getting married. And his future wife’s kitchen party was today. And, since I am not currently in Tanzania (this was a possibility. The other SALTers are in Tanzania right now), I found it perfectly convenient to go.

The party was scheduled to start at 13 hours, but the new MCC family was moving in today, and I was supposed to feed everyone lunch, and Macha Girls is a bit of a trek from here, so what with one thing and another it was close to three by the time I showed up.

Nothing had really started yet. The party was held in a big empty classroom (I mean BIG. Longer than the sanctuary at Germantown Mennonite, and probably 3/4 as wide, with five rows of benches on the long sides.) in, I assume, the home ec wing. There was a sort of dais at one end with a few pieces of kitchen furniture and a lot of plates and whatnot, which I never did decide whether it belonged to the kitchen party or the classroom (There were an awful lot of plates. And nobody needs 20 of the same size of pan, do they? But everything seemed shiny-new, with original stickers and packing materials . . .). When I got there, there was a music system set up and blaring the usual blend of Zambian (Tonga?) non-religious dance-y music, a number of people working industriously in the industrial-size kitchen one room over, and a few women sitting in clumps on the benches.

I was the only person in the room not wearing a chitenge or chitenge suit (outfit made from chitenge fabric. A really nice chitenge suit is the fanciest outfit most Zambian women own) — I’d known that I would want my chitenge for the wedding, but hadn’t realized I should bring it for the kitchen party, too — so I pulled my chitenge-fabric headscarf out of my purse and put it on, which had the dual benefits of keeping my hair off the back of my neck and making me feel marginally less underdressed.

After I’d been there a bit, a mattress and a bamboo mat were spread out on the floor just in front of the dais, and people seemed to be leaving gifts there, so I added mine (a small short but very wide shawl) to the collection and found myself a spot. A few more women arrived, and a woman I’d taken a minibus with one time demanded that I sit next to her, which I did not particularly object to (and it turned out to be a good thing. If I’d stayed back where I could use the wall as back support, I wouldn’t’ve been able to see anything). Before too long a bunch more people trickled in, among them the team of drummers, distinctive for their matching blue, orange, and yellow chitenge skirts, and heralded by ululation and jubilation.

After the drummers had set up — these drummers were unique, in that I think they’re the only female drummers I’ve seen here — there was another fuss and more ululation, and the woman who’d demanded that I sit next to her informed me, “The girl is coming! Let’s go!” So we all crowded to the door and formed a clump outside it, around, I realized after a bit, a woman with a double- or triple-length of the really high-quality chitenge fabric, the stuff they make the good chitenge suits out of, draped over her head and shoulders, and over another person behind her, and spreading out behind them as a train. By process of elimination, I decided that the person completely hidden by the fabric must be Patience, the bride-to-be.

Everyone tromped inside, cheering and clapping and ululating, and the group half-danced, half-walked over to the mattress, which was cleared of gifts so that Patience, still swaddled in fabric, and her guide could sit on it. Most people reclaimed their seats at this point, but there was enough of a crowd still standing that I couldn’t always see what was going on. Eventually people dispersed to reveal Patience, the guide sitting next to her, and the Mistress of Ceremonies.

Zambian weddings have a Matron, an older married woman or widow who’s in charge of everything, and also of properly instructing the bride in her duties and how she ought to behave to her husband. I’m pretty sure that the Matron was either the guide or the MC, but I’m not sure which.

I’m not managing to convey the sheer organized chaos of this event. Any group in chitenges or chitenge suits is a riot of color. The ceremony switched randomly between English and Tonga, with the crowd heckling or ululating as the mood took them. Either the music or the drums were going whenever no one was actively speaking, and sometimes over and behind whatever speech was happening. I didn’t take pictures, because my camera is shot, but I found a youtube video that conveys the scene on a much smaller scale, and a photograph that conveys a bit of the color of the occasion.

There was a prayer, then some talking, alternating with dancing. And, yes, Patience is still sitting on the mattress on the floor, covered in fabric. I should make a point about the dancing. To western eyes, Zambian dancing is EXTREMELY sexual. A good Zambian dancer can articulate muscles and ranges of motion that most American women don’t even know they have, almost all of them in the hip/abdomen region. And it’s not just perception: Zambian dancing is very sexual (also, I’m told, a preparation for childbirth). Hip bumps and circles and pelvic thrusts may not be as inherently sexual to a Zambian as they look to us dirty-minded westerners, but when dancers get close and the crowd whoops as those pelvic thrusts turn into crotch bumps, there’s no way you’re telling me that’s not sexual (and, I think, inherently heterosexual, never mind that both of the dancers are women). Use #14 of a chitenge: phallic object. #15, triangular sash. #16, long-ways sash, to emphasize the hips while dancing (the sashes are also a convenient place for someone to stick money while you’re dancing, if they feel so called). While I’m listing, #17, picnic blanket, #18, elaborate knotted headdress that I think used the entire 2 meters of fabric and didn’t look sewn. #19, to wave in the air if ululating does not sufficiently express your emotions.

But at the same time, it’s completely okay, by Zambian standards. Sex may be less taboo in Zambian society than in American, but it’s still somewhat taboo, and yet these extremely explicit dances are completely family-friendly, and it doesn’t even occur to anyone that this could be problematic in any way. Girls will dance like this in school (though I haven’t seen it in church); young girls will copy their elders while bathing naked in front of the house. It’s like the way a Zambian woman is completely unselfconscious about showing her breasts, but a proper Zambian woman would never show her legs, or even go about in trousers (at least for the older generation). And also, I think, like flirting in western society: flirting may sometimes get quite raunchy, but as long as it’s only flirting, it’s okay, and you may flirt extensively with someone you won’t have sex with.

After some more talking and dancing, my boss Elton showed up, accompanied by five or six guys, and they slowly danced their way towards the dais-and-mattress, surrounded by a whooping crowd of women. There was a good bit of stuff I couldn’t see, but somebody, presumably Elton, removed the fabric from Patience, and then he pulled her to her feet and led her to a row of chairs, where they sat for the next bit of the ceremony. This whole time she had her face expressionless, or even sad, and her gaze downcast, according to custom (something about offending the future mother-in-law, I think), and moved in an slow, oddly fluid way (this was clearly stylized, but may also have been just that her dress was so closely tailored as to be very difficult to move in). To my eye, the overall effect of the downcast face, fancy dress (which matched Elton’s outfit) and elaborate hairdo made her seem almost more like a wax doll than a person.

More speeches, more dancing, periodic rolling about on the floor, usually to great applause, a sermon that turned out to be more of a cutsey recipe for ‘how to cook a husband,’ featuring ingredients like ‘a handful of generosity’ and ‘a dash of laughter,’ ritual gift-giving to both Elton and two women (the mothers? Or perhaps her grandmothers? Or other signifiant members of the community?), and then the couple was danced back to the doorway, where he gave her a quick kiss before being spirited away by his attendants, leaving the room occupied only by women and children too small to be left at home.

The next while was occupied by dancing, either a few people dancing in the center, or large numbers of people getting up and milling about in the center of the room. At once point the lead dancer pulled me out onto the floor (I don’t know if my neighbor ladies tipped her off to the fact that I am capable of Zambian-style dancing, or if she just grabbed me because I’m white), and while I was very aware that I had nowhere near the skill of basically everyone else on the floor, the crowd loved it. I don’t think Zambians see bakuwa dancing very often, and even less frequently Zambian-style dancing. Patience was sitting on the mattress again for this part, eyes dutifully downcast.

After a while, a portion of “ba committee” came forward and started sorting through and opening the gifts. The MC would then call out the name of the giver, who would come forward and show the gift to Patience, still calm and downcast, and then dance a bit. It took me a bit to work this out, since the instructions where a hodgepodge of Tonga, English, and nonexistent, but I eventually figured out that this was what was going on, and that if you didn’t dance you could pay 5 pin (the cost of a butternut squash, if you buy it from a vendor in town) to not dance. I had not been aware that giving a gift signed me up to dance, but I have no shame, which is lucky, since at that point the lead dancer was manhandling a chitenge around my hips, and I don’t think she would’ve taken no for an answer. Conclusion: Zambians like bakuwa dancing even better than bakuwa speaking Tonga.

While the gifts were being gone through, eight or ten people at a time were given plates to go get food. I was at the end to be very last for food, which I did not mind, because this was supper, rather than lunch, and it meant that I didn’t have to juggle food in order to get up and do my obligatory gift-giving dance.

There was an enormous quantity of food. The rice was cooked in a pot — a cauldron — big enough to hide a body (I have no idea how they got it onto the table), and they probably dumped close to two cups of rice onto every plate. And chicken. And beef. And cabbage. And ‘soup’ (gravy-ish), chicken or beef. And potato. And potato salad. And cake. It was enough that even the ladies sitting next to me were wrapping plates in plastic bags to take home (and Zambians can put away a prodigious amount of food. I think eating nshima all the time really does stretch your stomach or something).

After the gifts and the food, there was more dancing while a group of ladies led Patience up onto the dais and showed her all the kitchen equipment, explaining what it was and how to use it, never mind that she’s been using all of this stuff for at least ten or fifteen years. That completed, there was another prayer, a bit more talking, and then people went home or danced more, as they wished. I could hear distant music and ululations for half my walk home.

And the wedding is tomorrow.


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True Adventures on 1st April

Friday night it rained. And rained. And rained. We’re nearly at the end of the rainy season, and things have been slacking off, but Friday night was like walking into a shower.

I spent the evening with the pilot’s family, Gemmeke (one of the Dutch students working at the hospital) and Marvin (German guy teaching at Macha Girls for a year), playing The Construction Game. There were tasty treats, as per usual, and the half-expected power outage didn’t last any longer than fifteen minutes. And then it started raining. It didn’t rain continually, but by golly it rained, and before too long we realized that a small army of inswa were battling their way through the mosquito net curtains so that they could fly all over the house.

(Probably at this point you can tell where this post is going. If that somewhere is a place that distresses you, you might want to stop reading right now.)

We closed the windows, but there were already a lot of inswa milling around in a confused sort of fashion. Once inswa are inside, really the only thing to do with them is catch them. (Possibly you could lure them outside again by turning off inside lights, turning on outside lights, and waiting. But that would let mosquitoes in, and usually one doesn’t feel like sitting in the dark until all the inswa have bumbled their way outside.) Luckily, inswa are slow, and, so far as I can tell, stupid, and they have large wings that are easy to grab, especially if they’ve gotten tired of flying and are crawling around on the floor. I’m told that they are capable of biting, but I’ve never been bitten by one, and I’ve caught lots. (My theory is that so many portions of the Zambian landscape, flora, and fauna are harsh, prickly, poisonous, ferocious, or some combination thereof, that there needs to be something that’s slow, loaded with nutrients, and easy to catch.)

This batch of inswa was small, bigger than some I’ve seen, but nothing like the zepplin-sized ones at the beginning of rainy season. Still, I figured, I definitely won’t get a chance again this year . . . so I filled a bowl with water so we could collect the ones we caught. (If their wings get wet, they can’t fly.) By the time we’d caught all (unless it was most) of the inswa inside, my bowl was so full that new additions needed to be poked with a finger to make sure that they actually got wet, and didn’t just land on top of the wings of their kinfolk.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this with white people,” commented Gemmeke. Clearly she hasn’t spent enough time with me.

After some excellent die rolls ensured my victory, I packed up my collection of damp insects in a Parmalat Salted Choice Butter container and walked waded home. After brief consideration, I stuck them in the fridge, because I wasn’t sure how well they would last outside it, and I didn’t want my last chance to eat inswa spoiled by spoilage.

Yesterday we didn’t have power for most of the day, so early afternoon, after I’d finished a number of other puttering tasks, I fished out my inswa and spread them out to dry on a washcloth, before heading over to measure Gemmeke’s windows (long story, not particularly interesting). ZESCO came back, and there was cake, and what with one thing and another, I stayed until bedtime.

Before brushing my teeth and climbing into bed, I checked the washcloth to see if the drowned insects were drying out, and discovered that they were — but they weren’t. Drowned, that is. Several of them were wiggling feebly, and a few had even wiggled themselves off of the washcloth and onto the floor. This was an ISSUE. They didn’t look terribly lively, but most of them still had all of their wings, and I didn’t feel like catching the lot of them again if they decided to perk up enough to start flying around. Especially since I’d probably never get the disembodied wings out of the carpet, not to mention the ones that might crawl off under things.

Having just dried them, I didn’t want to put them back in water. Some of them were stuck to the washcloth, too. So I de-winged them, a task that needed to happen presently, but which I’d hoped would occur to a greater extent naturally, just from the soaking and drying. (Possibly if I’d used a bigger bowl, they would’ve been dead the first time and fewer of them would have retained their wings. Or maybe the big ones aren’t as firmly attached to their wings.)

I have to say that of food preparation tasks I have participated in, pulling wings off of small insects that are wiggling feebly is only surpassed in unpleasantness by accidentally pulling said insects in half while attempting to de-wing them. Definitely worse than killing the chicken, which at least, after I’d killed it, was then dead, and stopped thrashing relatively quickly. The inswa remained alive, and I was suspicious that having your wings pulled off probably hurt.

But I finished the lot and stuck them back in the fridge. It seemed the kindest thing to do.

At any rate, they weren’t wiggling when I took them out this evening to fry them up.

I’ve been told that inswa taste like groundnuts, and the first few I tried (the well-done ones) did taste a great deal like fresh-roasted groundnuts. Also like fried food. After I tried a few more, I decided that no, it wasn’t exactly groundnuts: they tasted like the little crispy bits of scrambled egg along the edge of the skillet, the ones that are very thin and soaked in oil. Mostly, yes, they tasted like oil. There wasn’t much to them, really: one crunch and they were gone, though you might find yourself fishing a bit of exoskeleton out from between your teeth later. Possibly the bigger ones have a little more substance, but maybe not.

I ate several, but didn’t finish them: they were SO oily that I didn’t want very many, even though they tasted nice. But Martha et al. are Nyanja, not Tonga, and were happy to eat the rest.

I did take pictures, but not on my camera (which unfortunately seems to have gone entirely kaput). Check back later.


On the subject of eating insects, on last weekend’s excursion to Livingstone (the one that killed my camera), I had the occasion to eat mopane worms (caterpillars). I’ve seen them in the market in Choma, but was always leery of buying them, because how do you prepare caterpillars? but none of the Tongas I’ve talked to eat them.

However, Chris and I went to Zambezi Cafe our last night in Livingstone, after everyone else had left, and it served caterpillars. I was strongly tempted to order some, but was also trying not to entirely exhaust the funds Alison had brought me from Lusaka, and fifteen pin seemed like a lot to try one and decide that they were interesting, and Chris had already spent enough that he didn’t want to split an order. So I didn’t order them, but kind of regretted the decision even as I made it.

BUT, after we finished our meal and before we left, a woman came around with a plate of them that she’d ordered and wasn’t going to finish. So Chris and I each had a chance to try one. They were interesting, and, I have to say, only marginally more attractive cooked and arranged artfully on lettuce than they are in the market.

“How do caterpillars taste?” I’d asked my roommate Nobubele, back in orientation.
“Like . . . like . . . like caterpillars.”

And I have to say that she’s right. They didn’t taste quite like anything else I’ve eaten. The closest thing I can think of is kalamari, but that’s texture, not taste: the mopane worms are rubbery in a similar sort of way, only they’re a little bit more substantial/chewy. Chris said the taste would be pretty good, if not for the texture. Me, I didn’t find them objectionable, per se, but I wouldn’t have felt the need for a second one even if the texture hadn’t been weird. But I could eat them again to be polite, if necessary.

And you find yourself picking bits of leg or shell or something out of your teeth as you walk home afterwards.


Also on the topic of insects, but not on the topic of eating them, this morning’s excitement was the swarm of bees that descended on The Wooden House 3 today. I first noticed them while ironing clothes before church, when there was a collection of them buzzing angrily at the closed windows, and a swirling cloud of them next to the house/on the roof. By the time I came back from church, they’d settled down a bit, which was good, only they seemed to have settled into the hole right next to the front door, and were furthermore scattered across the floor inside.

Things did calm down enough that I was willing to make bread this afternoon, and by this evening I didn’t see them flying around anymore, but I still spent most of the day either away from the house or hiding in my room with the door shut. And I’m not sure if they’ve left, or just chill out in the evenings. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.

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