Field Notes From Rural Africa: Does A Wedding Connect Two People Or A Whole Community?

Field Notes From Rural Africa: Does A Wedding Connect Two People Or A Whole Community?
Photo Credit:William Murphy@Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Rural Africa is an unusually youthful place by global standards. It is common for a family to have half a dozen kids and for elders to pass on by their 50s. This results in a society where, visually speaking, the average age easily plunges into the mid-20s.

Unsurprisingly, in a place where people are young and have many children, marriages happen quite often. During my work on the field, I often hear of fieldwork being suspended because people are attending the weddings of their neighbors.

I often get embarrassed hearing about just how frequent these village weddings happen. In fact, before I arrived in Tanzania, I have never been to a proper wedding in my now 27 years of existence.

Part of the reason is just how I despise the spectacle I imagine a wedding to be in America or Asia.

The pompous ceremony is cringe-worthy in its underlying meaning beyond all the obvious pomp. The cheesiness of exchanging vows to be side-by-side forever always has that fearful element of a permanent contract between two people, one that requires enforcement through changes in circumstances and personalities.

A wedding is, by this logic, a real symbolism of newly required maturity; one that I am no means ready to accept.

In other words, I fear weddings because I think that marriage, or even a step before that, a committed relationship that is bound to end up in marriage, has a distinct and inescapable sense of sacredness. And a wedding is supposed to be the confirmation of just how sacred the publicly acknowledged, religiously affirmed and legally bound tie-up of two people can be. It can be the community’s stamp-of-approval for two loving people who seem so happy together, or a seal of alliance between two families, whose children are given no personal choice in being designated as tools of diplomacy.

It was not surprising then, when I was informed of the wedding reception of a local Tanzanian coworker, I hesitated to answer “yes.” But in retrospect, the Tanzanian wedding proved to be contrary to everything I knew and believed about what a wedding, and indeed, the meaning of marriage itself, would be like.

Just how casual and relaxed a wedding can be is made clear from the very moment of arrival at the location of the ceremony.

Instead of a church or a religious ceremonial hall, I found myself at the event hall of a local university, specially rented out for the occasion.

Thumping music reminiscent of a dance club playlist was being blasted into the otherwise quiet school campus on a chilly night.

My group was late to the event, and the wedding party reminded us of our tardiness in its own way. We were compelled to dance into the hall as we entered, straight into the open space in the middle where chairs were removed to create a makeshift dance floor. Local guests, in their tuxedos, bow ties, and colorful gowns, quickly left their chairs, joining us in a heaving mass of moving people. It is a sight that I have not seen since special events of earlier school days.

This “opening dance” proved to be one of many that would occupy the majority of the night. Dance music blared between speeches made by the newlyweds and friends (of which a significant percentage is coworkers of this small organization. Upon hearing the music, attendees punctually, but casually, left their neatly lined-up seats, and danced their way to the front of the dance floor, where the newlyweds are supposed to sit. The newlyweds, in their shyness, were surrounded every few minutes by masses of smartly dressed but progressively tipsy dancers.

Photo Credit:dorothy.voorhees@Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo Credit:dorothy.voorhees@Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

In the few moments the music was not blaring and people were actually sitting (somewhat) still, the newlyweds were busy introducing the attendees in turn rather than speaking of themselves. There were no flashbacks of how they met, no talks of budding romance and definitely no “aww”-inducing comments of “forever love.”

Indeed, the atmosphere, as the clothes themselves, was more fitting in a dance party than the sacred ceremony that I expected weddings to be. The whole event was never about the newlyweds themselves, but about the people who were brought together at the event.

It is as if the day belonged not to the married couple, but the community. The community’s members, with their dances in response to the newlyweds’ introduction, made no efforts to conceal their happiness with the night’s arrangements. Like the newlyweds, not one guest made emotionally gushing speeches; endless dancing was enough.

Of course, the expat attendees (me included) were not spared the indignity of not participating. Every five minutes or so, we left our seats for the dance floor, prompted by the crowds eager to see foreign guests take part actively in the unique due process for tying the knot.

The wedding of pulsating dances should not be taken as just a case of a local population capable of having fun under any circumstance. Instead, it says more about the local society’s attitude towards marriage as an arrangement for the community, and not for just two people.

A marriage is understood as the community’s forward progress, either by welcoming a new member or increasing an internal bond with the tie-up of two existing members. The wedding, then, would be understood first and foremost as an achievement for the community, and not for the bride, groom, or their family members.

To put same phenomenon in slightly more morbid terms, this “community-first" attitude towards marriage may also reflect a sort of social contract between the newlywed couple and the community, where the community takes responsibility in case something unfortunate happens to the newlyweds. In a society where misfortunes to individuals happen in a shockingly high frequency, and financial resources are often less than desirable, even when aggregated across extended families, being able to depend on the larger community’s support may be indispensable for the newlyweds and their future descendants’ very survival.

In contrast, the same concern for the community is largely absent in Western and Asian weddings. There, family members make the most important guests and friends only bear witness, so friends have little obligation to care for the newlyweds as more than just friends (unless god-parenting is involved later on). It is in this context that those scary formalities of romantic rituals emerge.

But if community members are the VIPs, then it is a completely different story.

The sweaty moves I saw in the university event hall are not just a one-time display of happiness, but also an outward expression of community reaffirmation, sticking together individuals to form a responsible social safety net for not just the newlyweds, but also everyone in attendance.

Edited by Olivia Yang

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original piece was published on the author’s blog here: The “Frivolity" of “Forever"


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