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.