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Mariage (Sunday, 2010 Dec 5)

December 5th, 2010

Exam week. Still have report cards to fill out, but I thought for the moment I’d write up the wedding I was at last week. It was the marriage of J-C’s daughter Solange and some guy I didn’t know. I later found out that the couple had been affianced for five years, and that they’d met at school.

After I got to the wedding, I was seated with the family of the bride. J-C said to be there at 19 o’clock, by which time it was already dark, and I was surprised that things started at almost exactly 19 o’clock. I was seated next to some kindly gentlemen who translated all the local-dialect into French for me, which I have consequently translated into English for you. So, accuracy may not be terribly great. But the first speeches were in French: first, the patriarch of the family (of the bride, I think) gave a short speech welcoming everyone, then J-C gave a speech thanking everyone for coming and because of how important today was, let’s not waste time.

Then, a relatively aged woman on the groom’s side of the family stood up and said, in the local language, "I don’t know what you’re talking about with today being special. I came here because I heard there was food." And two women from the bride’s side of the family went over to this lady and talked to her, and with a clear air of humoring this old lady, agreed that they would look for some food. So then they went off for a while and everyone just kind of hung out and chatted.

Apparently in the Bamileke tradition, weddings take place between families of brides, who provide foods, and families of grooms, who provide drinks. Also apparently, even though the "negotiations" for the wedding had been settled between the two families, in the interests of suspense and "theater" weddings include a little bit of dramatic re-enactment. Everyone knows this coming in, and expects and appreciates it.

Eventually the women came back with some serving pots and placed them on the table in front of the woman who had complained. But instead of being grateful, she stood up and said "This food isn’t cooked! You need to find a woman to cook it for me!" So off the women went again, and everybody hung out for a while. Eventually the women came back with a fairly old lady, to which the response was: "She’s too old! I want food that’s been cooked by a nice young woman!" And a dude from the groom’s family stood up and said "For the best possible food, we want a beautiful young woman who comes from the country of Barack Obama!" So off the ladies go again, nonplussed, but hospitable to the end. At this point it became clear that the pretense, looking for a woman of high quality in order to get food of high quality, is sort of a proxy for looking for a woman of high quality to marry a man of the family.

They come back pretty quickly with two women, both of whom are covered almost head-to-toe. They present these women to the groom’s family and ask them to pick which one is the one they’re looking for. The idea is that if they can’t figure out without seeing the woman face-to-face, they don’t really know what they want. But after a few minutes of poking and prodding and fervent discussion, the groom’s family decides: neither of these women is the one we are looking for. So they send them both back and the women go off to try again to find a woman that meets the high standards set by these people.

After a few minutes they come back and say things like "The planes aren’t flying to the US any more," and "We need to get visas". The groom’s family responds by shaking the ladies’ hands, saying things like "Oh, thank you maman", but this expression of gratitude is really cover for putting money into the ladies’ hands. (Whether this offers a cultural precedent for bribery and corruption is an exercise for the reader.) So it goes back and forth a few more times, including amusing theatrics from one of the ladies who is pretending to be a taxi driver, with the other claiming that they’re out of gas, or that they got stopped at a roadblock, and each time more money coming from the groom’s family to pay for these unexpected eventualities. And after a few more dog-and-pony shows, the groom’s family picks the right bride. My gentlemen friend observers noted that they went around a few times too many, which means they had to pay more in the end than they really ought to, and that this is poor form on the part of the groom’s family. But out came the bride and she sat down with the groom’s family.

Then the reverse discussion began, with the bride’s family seeking a suitable man for their little girl. Out came first an old man, followed by a kid (probably a student at the lycee), and then finally the real groom (and possibly another?), covered and veiled the way the brides were. The bride’s family picked the groom correctly, and out he popped wearing a shirt that I swear to god looked like the NES cartridge for Legend of Zelda. I’d post a picture but I don’t have the memory card reader right now. With the happy couple united, the bride went off to change into an outfit of the same fabric. They were quite brilliant.

Then was the actual wedding ceremony. This involved reading some stuff from the Bible (P.S. J-C’s family is very Christian), saying some vows, and notably after the bride had finished her vows, she poured some soda into a cup, and after the groom had finished his, he poured a different soda into the same cup. The idea being that, as these two drinks are no longer separable, so it is with this couple.

Then we ate a lot.

Other neat trivia: the groom’s family also decided to go home a little earlier than strictly called for, which was extremely poor form, since this meant they had to hurry the bride out of what is no longer her home and (among other things) wedding photos. My gentleman friend observer called them on this, but they just kind of rudely brushed him off.

Eventually it became 1 AM and I decided I was going to walk home, and my friend Celestin decided it would be prudent to walk me back. Then I had class the next day, but it was just giving tests so it wasn’t impossible.

I thought this wedding was so cool. Like Gus says, weddings tend to have a performance aspect to them, but it’s not often that you find weddings that have a narrative. I started to wonder a little bit what it would be like to have a wedding with an antagonist. How would that have to work? Would people pick up on it without ever having had the cultural background? Would a note like "With antagonist played by Paul Herbig" on the invitation or something like that suffice? Would people get legitimately upset with the people who were "holding up" the wedding, not realizing that what they were seeing actually was the wedding?

Side note, in these modern enlightened times, when you want a wife, you go to the bride-to-be’s grandmother first, and she’s likely to ask you, "So where’s my wood?" And it’s OK to just give money — in Bamileke tradition you pay essentially everyone in the family for the bride instead of being paid by the bride ("dowry"). But in some households it is still obligatory to carry wood on your head to the grandmother in order for her to grant her permission.

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