African wedding

Trip Start Mar 02, 2006
Trip End Apr 28, 2006

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Saturday, April 1, 2006

April 1, 2006
Guguletu, South Africa

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I had the pleasure today of going to an African wedding for Patricia, one of the HIV-positive mothers who work for the organization I'm volunteering with. It was in the township of Guguletu, just outside of Cape Town. I felt awkward about going to a wedding for someone I really don't know, but my colleagues made it clear that in Africa, weddings are events for entire communities. The meals following the wedding itself are for family and close friends only-especially in light of how poor these people are-but the wedding is for all to take part in.

I went with Steve, Eliza, Meg, and Farzaneh, four other Americans I work with, and yes, we were the only white people there. You know, there's nothing like being around a bunch of stunningly beautiful African women, dressed to the nines in colorful, spirited outfits, singing and dancing their hearts out to show you how BORING we can be in our own culture. How many times have you had the urge to sing or dance, but stayed still because that's simply not what we do in our culture? (Not that most of us really have a "culture," anymore.) It's refreshing to be among people who LET OUT their inner colors and vibrancy in such an open way.

The wedding took place in a church built specifically for the township's "unwanted" people (meaning people open about their HIV status) who were being shunned from other churches. This church has come to be known as the HIV church. Inside, the walls are covered by painted murals donated by a Dutch couple and inspirational phrases (see photo), such as "Don't Give Up," sketched onto the ceiling beams and walls. The colors are warm and welcoming.

The invitation said the wedding would start at 11, but like everything else, it started on "African time," which means it actually started a couple of hours later. While waiting, some women sang in their seats. When Patricia showed up in the back of the church, most of the seated women ran to the back of the church, circling her until we couldn't see her, and continued singing in their native language of Xhosa and dancing around Patricia. This community of women stayed back there for quite some time, until they finally left Patricia, dancing up the aisle and taking their seats while continuing to sing.

The processional was not unlike our own typical weddings, with a young boy and girl similar to a ring-bearer and a flower girl, and a bridesmaid in a typical bridesmaid dress and groomsman wearing a tux. The only difference here was that the girl walked up on her own and the man, standing at the front, danced his way toward her, meeting her about half-way down the aisle and then walking with her the rest of the way to the front. When Patricia appeared, in a white wedding dress, veil, and 7-months pregnant, she was accompanied by a man walking her down the aisle. He was not her father, but I'm not sure who he was. She kept her head down while walking toward her groom, and throughout the entire ceremony. No one has been able to answer for sure why this is, though I suspect it is a form of submission. After the ceremony, she held her head high, and was vivacious and happy. I've seen Patricia since the wedding and learned from her that Xhosa tradition demands that she change her first name after marriage, live with her in-laws and her husband, that she is responsible for cleaning their house, that she may never question where her husband is at any hour, and for two weeks post-wedding wears heavy blankets around her body and covers her hair with a wrap. It is the end of summer here and still quite hot-she was sweating profusely because of those blankets. As some of us in the office were surprised to learn that such male-dominated traditions still existed, even after she'd just had what many considered to be a "modern" wedding, Patricia said her new husband has been a rare gentleman in the last three years while they were dating and that she hoped he won't change simply because of the new "rules" that she submit to him in marriage.

During the ceremony-which was almost entirely in Xhosa-the bridal party, including the bride and groom, are seated. The bride and groom are in front, seated in front of a table where the minister stands. Behind them were a young boy and girl (equivalent to flower girl/ring bearer probably), and behind them were the bridesmaid and groomsman.

One woman in the family carried a small broom made of cow tail throughout the whole day. It is supposed to keep evil spirits away (by sweeping them out) from the new marriage.

One of the loveliest signs of affection I keep seeing over and over is women holding hands. Women friends, women sisters, women cousins-they frequently walk simply holding hands. There were two old women at the wedding, walking proud and slow, and I don't think I ever saw them walking without holding hands with each other.
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