by Jody Tilbury
We recently attended a traditional Malawian wedding and enjoyed comparing the similarities and differences to our own wedding. It was also fun to try to figure out which aspects of this wedding were truly ancient traditions and which aspects have been modernized. I think it’s safe to assume that the generator and PA system that were brought into a rural community that does not have electricity or running water were modern additions, but I wonder if there was always an MC directing the rituals.
When we first arrived we were seated in a semicircle with a view of the MC. He introduced two smartly dressed men and one woman who would be the cashiers of the wedding. They danced for us and then put some money into a large basket before taking their places at a table next to the MC. A large portion of the wedding involved giving cash gifts to the bride and groom and the cashiers were responsible for making change for the guests and for keeping track of the cash received by the bridal couple. Next the brothers of the bride and groom were introduced. They played a large role in the festivities and will continue to support the marriage long after the ceremony is over.
Once everyone was in their places a group of women emerged from a nearby hut singing and dancing while escorting a man who was hidden under a chitenje to the center of the gathering. A chitenje is a brightly colored piece of cloth that is two meters long and has many uses including a wrap to wear over a skirt or a sling to carry a baby in. We assumed this man was the groom but then the bride’s brother lifted the chitenje and shook his head no. This man was an imposter and was sent back to the small hut he had emerged from. The women then ushered in another man under a chitenje, again singing and dancing. The bride’s brother took a look and assured us that this was indeed the groom and he took his place center stage.
The ladies then moved to another small hut in a different part of the village and escorted a woman, also hidden under a chitenje, to the groom. He looked under the cloth and refused the woman he found there. She was not going to be his bride and was sent back to the house. A second veiled woman was then brought to the groom by the group of singing ladies, this time he took a good look at her from all angles, giving nods of approval, before lifting the cloth which brought lots of laughter and cheering from the crowd. When he lifted the chitenje he assured us that this was in fact his bride-to-be and the festivities could continue.
The bride’s brother then told the groom’s brother that she was not dressed appropriately and could he give her some clothes to wear. At that point she was dressed in a lovely outfit given to her by her parents. She was escorted back to the small house by the same group of singing ladies and by the groom’s brother who gave her a new outfit. When she returned, preceded by a group of dancing bridesmaids, we saw that she and the groom were wearing matching clothes made out of chitenje fabric.
Now it was time for the cashiers to get to work. The groom held the basket and the bride’s parents danced up to it enthusiastically placing some money inside. This showed that they approved of the union. Then the bride held the basket and the groom’s family danced up also adding money to show their support. The bride and groom took turns holding the basket while the guests danced up to them and dropped money into it. The MC egged us on by calling out specific groups of people: family of the bride, family of the groom, work colleagues, friends, etc. Other people took turns helping the bride and groom fill their basket by inviting their own friends to contribute. At one point the bride’s mother and father stood up with her encouraging the crowd to make further contributions. The brothers took turns with the basket as well as some friends.
There was a lot of dancing and a lot of showing off. You could bring your large bills to the cashiers and they would cash them in for smaller bills so that you would have more opportunities to dance up to the basket. Guests enjoyed making a show of their gifts to the bride and groom and would often toss in a bill and then make like they were leaving only to turn and toss in another nonchalantly. This always brought laughter from the crowd. My girls didn’t miss out on the fun. They loved dancing up to the basket and adding their bills even when it was not their turn – no one seemed to mind, except my husband who was frantically cashing in his bills to keep them in change.
After the dancing and the filling of the baskets the brothers were back on stage. The brother of the groom gave the brother of the bride a live rooster to represent the groom, and the brother of the bride gave the brother of the groom a live chicken to represent his sister. Then the bride and groom exchanged rings and showed them off to the crowd.
The cooked chicken was brought back to the brothers and they linked arms and danced as they tasted the freshly cooked meat. This cemented the marriage and their role in it. They will continue to be involved in the marriage as mediators. If the bride has a problem with the groom she will go to his brother and he will work to help the couple solve the issue. If the groom has a problem with the bride, he will go to her brother for help in finding a resolution.
Snacks of bread, meat, and soft drinks were passed among the guests. The couple received other gifts of cooking pots, dishes, glasses, and assorted household items. The bride’s wedding party then sold baskets and fruit with the proceeds going to the bride and groom’s growing collection.
Traditionally this would be the only ceremony and would seal the marriage, however, this couple is Christian and so will also have a church wedding. In the eyes of many they are married, but they will not move in together until after they are married in the church.
It was a real honor to attend this wedding and learn more about local traditions. We brought a card with money tucked inside as our gift and soon realized that we needed to open the card ourselves and visit the cashier so that we could participate in the festivities. It also struck us that the bride rarely smiled and spoke only when the MC addressed her directly. We know her well and this seemed out of character so I asked her about it later. She explained that this was the first time she was meeting her groom’s family and to show them respect she remained quiet and serious throughout the ceremony. It was a beautiful day and we are now looking forward to attending the church wedding in September. I’ve even been enlisted to bake the cake!
I met today’s author “virtually” when I found her lovely blog- I am fascinated every time I read her adventures! Jody is a stay-at-home mom, raising two girls in a wildlife reserve in Malawi, Southern Africa. She is homeschooling her daughters and enjoys sharing her love of nature and conservation with them. She writes about her life at Mud Hut Mama.
Thank you so much Jody! What an incredible day! I think it is wonderful for children to participate in celebrations as a way to learn about the values and traditions of other cultures. Have you ever been to a special ceremony or celebration with your kids? Let us know in the comments how it was, and what you learned!