I woke up early, at the same time I always wake up in Africa. 6:15am, without an alarm. It's about the time the light in my East window intensifies as the sun rises up and out of the early morning fog. Because it was Saturday, though, I decided to lie in bed for an extra few minutes. At 6:30 on the dot, I heard footsteps coming from up the road.
Many Peace Corps Volunteers in Tanzania suffer from what we have unofficially termed "Hodi Anxiety." As I've described in past blogs, "hodi" is a called word used in lieu of the Western knock on the door. In our inevitable and often unintentionally-used Kiswanglish, "hodi" may be used as a verb (e.g. I heard him outside, and I was afraid he would hodi, so I crouched down on the floor so he wouldn't see me through the window and I could pretend I wasn't home.), a noun (e.g. I think 6:30am is a little early for hodies.), an adjective (e.g. And then I did a hodi dance because she didn't want to stay and talk; she just wanted to give me a cob of corn!), or pretty much any other part of speech you creatively want or circumstantially need. Anyway, Hodi Anxiety, as I'm sure you've begun to deduce, is a fretful apprehension induced by a suggestion (such as footsteps) that a person is on the point of hodiing at your house. Hodi Anxiety is, I'm sure, spawned from some deep insecurity we all developed growing up in modern America and learning the culture of never, ever knocking on someone's door unexpectedly, since that necessarily means you are a solicitor or a psycho.
So naturally, when I heard the approaching footsteps at 6:30am, I was seized by an attack of Hodi Anxiety. I lay very still in my bed, careful not to make a sound. I breathed shallowly, since the concrete walls conduct sound inordinately well through their gaps and apertures. At 6:30 on a Saturday morning, I wanted the hodier to think I was still sleeping and go away without too much effort (the longer they try, the guiltier you feel). And then it came.
I shut my eyes and waited.
"Hodi!" It was familiar voices. I groaned. It was the oldest two of the four little girls who live next door, Neema and Martha. They're absolutely adorable, not to mention two of my best Tanzanian friends. As if that wasn't guilt enough, Neema has recently been diagnosed with some unmentionable disease, about which I can get no information other than that it is "incurable."
"I'm coming!" I finally called as I threw back the covers and climbed out of the opening in my mosquito net. On my way to the front door, I stepped into some sweat pants, since I had been sleeping in shorts, which are entirely unacceptable attire, even when alone. I opened the door.
"Laula," they said in unison, with two L's and no R's. They like to say my name. I don't know why. Every time they see me, they say my name and wait, as if I'm suppsoed to respond in a certain way.
"Mambo?" I said.
"Marahaba." It was a quick greeting; after these simple exchanges, they jumped right in.
"Why aren't you dressed?" Neema asked.
"For what?" I said, as I suddenly noticed that they were wearing their best dresses and matching shoes.
"Teacher Mdeka's wedding."
"That's not til tomorrow."
"No, it's today."
"At school they told us Sunday." (People get married on all days of the week here, even Tuesdays.)
"They made a mistake. It's today."
"How do you know?"
"Baba and Mama are the wedding sponsors. They left yesterday. The wedding is today."
"Does everyone else know it's today?" I asked, suspicious that I hadn't been informed.
"They'll figure it out," said Martha.
At the girls' urging, I got ready. I tried to wear my best Tanzanian "suti" (suit), a matching "sketi na sheti" (skirt and shirt), which I wore for my Peace Corps Swearing-In Ceremony last year, but as I was opening the shirt to put it on, the zipper broke. I had to settle for my other "sketi na sheti," which is, from a Tanzanian perspective, not as pretty because it's white and "white people don't look good in white clothes."
By 7 o'clock, I was ready. "So, where do we get the bus?" I asked the girls. Mdeka's wedding was in a village about fifteen kilometers away.
"At school," they told me. "But it's not coming for us until 9 o'clock."
"9 o'clock? Why'd you wake me up so early?"
"We wanted to make sure you were ready. We're going to go make sure Teacher Kapinga is ready now!" And they ran out the door, leaving me with two Saturday morning hours to kill alone in my second-best Tanzanian clothes.
Anyway, that was a very long preface to what this blog is actually about, which is the village wedding of one of my fellow math teachers. When I at last arrived at school, at 9:20 (I try to keep a somewhat Tanzanian schedule of lateness or else I'd spend half of these two years just waiting for other people to show up or for meetings to start), I was the first one there. Since I had still been suspicious that a 7- and a 9-year-old were better informed than me (although, I am a foreigner, which, in terms of information and understanding of my surroundings, ranks me somewhere between newborns and my water pipe), I had called a few friends to verify the "leaving at 9 o'clock" rumor. They had confirmed it, so I knew that I was not early and that the wedding was in fact not on the day they had originally said it was on. The Tanzanians were just all later than me.
It ended up that I rode with Neema, Martha, two other female teachers, and the school nurse not in our rented bus, but in the LandCruiser of our school's patron, who is a bigshot but was a biggershot in the leading party of Tanzania's national government. During the course of the half-hour ride, our patron told me three times that I had broken a rule by wearing Tanzanian clothes to a Tanzanian wedding. Apparently, I should have worn American clothes to demonstrate my unique style and draw even more attention to myself than I do normally simply by being white. After driving, lost, down a few random bush roads, we arrived at the church.
Outside, a large group of people were - in my best Kiswanglish - chezaing ngoma, or dancing to traditional African drumbeats. Except the traditional African drums had been preempted by large, generator-powered speakers thumping the "ntz ntz" bass sound we Americans associate with dance clubs.
Around the church were parked several flat-bed lorries, which had brought several large groups to the wedding. We were the first to arrive in a private car, with the exception of the bride and groom, who were driven to the church by my headmaster, a rarity with his own car.
The bride and groom began processing into the church together, arm in arm, while the crowd of dancers continued to stomp and shake, periodically approaching the couple to wave hands and ululate in their faces. If it had been my wedding, I certainly would have burst into delirious laughter at such a happy sight (I did this anyway), but Tanzanian cultural precepts demand that the bride and groom abstain from laughter and merriness on their wedding day. Friends, relatives, and crashers are welcome and in fact expected to dance in a frenzy, laugh uproariously, and cheer hysterically, all to the point of mayhem and pandemonium, but through all this, the newlyweds must crack nary a smirk nor a simper. Moreover, they are not permitted to speak to or look at one another. And since the Christian ceremony in Tanzania does not call for a kiss, this is but a matter of iron will power and self-control.
As the ceremony progressed, a number of things occurred that visitors might find strange. First, there was the steady whurr of the generator, powering the "ntz ntz" of the oversized speakers, which played during every musical interlude, even the relgious ones. It also powered the microphone, which was necessary so the priest could be heard by the guests who arrived too late to find a pew to sit on in the small, rectangular church. (Although we arrived later than most, we were called by the priest to sit up front because we're teachers.) Next, there was the recognition of our school's patron as the guest of honor, and the relocation of his chair to a spot on the altar beside the priest. This was promptly followed by a district head's public plea into the microphone for money to buy textbooks; he even cited two other occasions on which our patron had donated to different schools. Finally, our attention was directed to the bride and groom, who were patiently and solemnly sitting in their chairs facing the altar. Periodically, the sweat on their faces was dabbed away by the handkerchiefs of my neighbors, the wedding sponsors, who sat behind them.
The content on the wedding ceremony was quite like those in America, with one notable exception. Immediately before the vows, the priest gave his speech about the expectations and roles of each - the husband and the wife - starting after the wedding. The roles of the husband were brief: to love his wife, to understand her, to care for her and provide for her financially. The roles of the wife, however, required a history. The priest recounted in detail how woman was made from a piece of man and therefore is not as whole as him. But that is ok, he said, because she was created only as a helper. Man is the head of the household, and a wife's duty is singular - to obey her husband. Like the husband must try to understand her, she must try to understand her husband - although, as the priest understood, it would be harder for her, given her naturally inferior intellect.
Then the couple vowed to meet these expectations, fulfill these roles, and be faithful to each other until death. The guests shouted and sang and danced, crowding the newlyweds. They blew whistles (yes, whistles, like referees' whistles) and ululated and generally brought the house down. After a time, order was restored so that a few short speeches could be made and a few irrelevant autobiographies recounted. And then we were whisked away to the reception on our own sets of two feet each.
The walk was about two miles in the beating equator sun, but when we arrived, we reclined restfully on hard, backless benches made out of bisected logs. The benches sat underneath makeshift canopies of straw and old burlap maize bags, which were balanced atop bamboo crossbeams held aloft by heavy branches, carefully chosen for the v-shaped forks at the tops and hammered into the ground.
The bride, groom, wedding sponsors, their families, and our patron the guest of honor sat up front on wooden couches that had been borrowed from living rooms. The wedding chairman, who was also the MC, made it his first order of business to announce that he was ready to return the flashlight he had borrowed the previous night, and he asked its owner to come forward to retrieve it. His second order of business was to say, in Swahili, "I might have to speak some broken language or some French today. We have a white person here." Everyone looked at me, laughing, and I waved both my hands with disguised consternation. We continued to celebrate, eating with out fingers for lack of utensils and listening to various choirs perform. Then we offered our gifts.
Giving gifts at a Tanzanian wedding is one of the most unambiguously, outrageously fun experiences available in our perplexing little world. A line of people forms at the entrance to the bamboo/straw/burlap canopy and dances toward the still unsmiling newlyweds. They approach the couple as a collective, stomping, screaming, and dancing the color out of the flattened grass under their feet. The gifts are passed above heads, backwards and forwards among the processing dancers until the celebrated couple is reached, at which point everyone continues to dance while everyone else is shaking hands with the wedding party. Eventually, one group clears out and allows another to offer their own gifts. When our group of teachers frolicked up with our offerings, we made such a hullabaloo of screaming and banging sticks against our gifts of kitchen pots and hoe blades that the MC was moved to accusations. "These teachers act like students," he said into the microphone. "We should hit them with sticks."
Everyone laughed, and we left. We wanted to get home to bathe before Zee Comedy Show, Tanzania's primetime version of SNL. On the way out, I was stopped three times by people wanting to tell me how funny they found my (apparently unsuccessful) efforts to "cheza ngoma." Tanzanians, by the way, are not shy about laughing at a person. They'll do it right to his or her face, and even unabashedly ask you to repeat your feat of humor. One woman even yelled, laughing, to her friends as I passed them, "Tell the white person to do her dance steps again so we can watch!" I went home with my colleagues and friends to watch Zee Comedy Show and laugh at someone else.