Getting Married

I was thinking about my options. Three trucks were parked outside the party, all of them full of gifts to be delivered to the fiancée’s family. The refrigerator, wrapped in gold, looked heavy. So did the stove. The bags of rice and floor seemed a little more manageable, but they were dusty and I was in a black suit coat I had borrowed from the fiancé. I grabbed one of the dozens of crates of soda and beer, and I took my place in the queue.

***

Before you get married, you have to get engaged. Some rushed or unfussy couples might eschew the pomp of a formal engagement but insofar as there is necessarily some period of time between the moment they decide to get married and the moment they actually do, they were engaged. We think of an engagement as a private decision, however anticipated it may be by others, that is later communicated publicly, ideally to cheers and congratulations. Among the Buganda though, an engagement is a family affair, a ceremony just as elaborate and meaningful as the wedding itself.

In the local language, the engagement ceremony is called an introduction. Traditionally, it is the day when the two families meet to negotiate a dowry. We, those of us on the man’s side, had met earlier in the afternoon at a hotel not far from the house where, in more conservative times, the young woman would still be living with her family.

There is a uniform costume that all guests are expected to wear to an introduction. For the women, it is a colorful wrap reminiscent of an Indian sari. For the men, it is a long white robe called a kanzu and, on top, a black suit coat, a local twist on the lore which advises something old and something new. I had borrowed my outfit; my girlfriend had rented hers.

We entered in procession, men and women in two parallel lines. It was a lawn party, with two large tents facing each other across a short court of grass. Her extended family, about one hundred delegates, was already seated under one of the tents. He and his guests, an envoy of another one hundred emissaries, were ushered to the seats under the other tent. It looked like a scene of medieval battlefield negotiation. A third, equally large tent for unrelated guests had been erected on the slightly elevated driveway, like stadium seating for the jousting competition. Immediately when we sat down, friends of the bride delivered cold drinks and snacks from baskets on their heads, part flight attendant, part circus trick, part chorus line.

Negotiations began promptly, and it seemed like they would never end. In Africa, endless insipid speechmaking is the feeble child of the oral tradition and historiography of preliterate elders. Every gathering, no matter how small and informal, begins with a succession of hollow speeches, most of them no more than platitudes. An introduction, at least, is a little livelier because it is a negotiation, however stylized.

The deliberations were conducted in the Buganda language, but the friendly flow of banter and theatrics was easy enough to follow. The fiancée’s family enumerated the many reasons why their daughter merited her high sticker price: her beauty, her education, her connections, her lineage, her job. The fiancé’s family haggled, pretending with a smile to look under the hood for manufacturing defects. The fiancée was kept in hiding until the deliberations stalled, at which point she made a dramatic musical entrance. Immediately, the fiancé and everyone else exclaimed that she is indeed worth everything her family had demanded, which, by convenient prior arrangement, was exactly what we had brought with us to give them.

We, the fiancé’s entourage, went to fetch the gifts. We were a small army of movers in formal wear, like the opening scene of an orgiastic pornographic film. On our first trip, the women carried towering baskets of party foods on their heads, the foreigners discretely using one hand to balance their loads; the men made a chain and carried crates of beer and soda, looking like elephants walking trunk to tail. On our second trip we carried more practical foodstuffs: eggs, sugar, flour, and boxes of water. On our third trip we each carried a small wrapped gift, labeled explicitly for a particular member of the fiancée’s family. There were a few exceptional gifts too: the refrigerator, the stove, the carcasses of one goat and one cow, and several live chickens. Most of the presents were obviously intended to help offset the cost of the party; but others, like whatever was inside the dozens of handwrapped boxes, were clearly meant to begin forging a bond between the extended branches of the two families. Ironically, by the time we finished our delivery a wall of gifts had been built in the small grassy court between the two families. Sometimes generosity just gets in the way.

We were hoping that the program would relax once the deal had been sealed with a kiss, but the formalities continued. On the equator, direct sun feels like a red science fiction laserbeam that incinerates any human it hits. You can almost smell your hair burning. What is rarer on the elevated plains of east Africa is hot air temperature. On a glaringly bright afternoon, the tent trapped the warming air, and we sweltered in our layers of borrowed and rented polyester clothing. As the sun dropped from its zenith its rays angled into the side of the tent where we were seated, and our exposed skin withered and cracked like old autumn leaves. By the time the party ended in the late afternoon we felt like leftover beans that had been simultaneously baked and fried for hours; we were crusty on the outside and mushy on the inside.

Back at our cheap hotel, the air conditioner was broken. But thankfully the shower water was cold.

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