Sunday, November 7, 2010

White Wedding in Lesotho

I get attached. So when I heard that my host sister from the village I did my training in was getting married, I knew I had to go back there on the wedding day to help her celebrate. I didn't matter that I had only met her on one occasion on a single chilly evening, I was determined to see how Basotho tie the knot.

My sister and I had formed our sibling bond during that one chilly evening talking about life, love and work in Lesotho as she made box after box of Jello in the glow of our lantern-lit dining room. Her husband-to-be was coming the next day with an entourage to present our family with the lebola, or bride price, traditionally paid in cows, the oldest form of wealth in Lesotho. The money goes to financing the wedding ceremony and purchasing items with which to furnish the new household the couple would be staying in. The lebola was paid the next day, though it took the form of cash since both the bride and the groom are urban city dwellers. I suppose it could be easier that way for those more connected to the commercialized world, though I wonder what the ancestor would think.

I eventually had to leave the village to start work at my site in the capital, but I remained committed to experiencing the wedding of my urban sister back in the rural village. After numerous text messages from another, younger host sister attending high school in the village and a few awkward phone calls in which I had to decipher my proud and energetic host mother's rapidfire Sesotho, I had the details of the program.

When the exalted day arrived, I assembled a Peace Corps crew of volunteers that also did the their training in the same village and we set off for the taxi rank (as the open lot with all the buses is called) to try and catch a ride to our rustic destination. On the way over, we took a short detour so I could get a gift for my host family. I knew just the thing. When I was in the village, my host mother was not shy about sharing her love for “Kentucky”, which was her way of referring to the fried chicken from the several KFC franchises in the country. Forget what KFC stands for in America, in Lesotho KFC is the ultimate expression of elite indulgence, as the hip marketing and high prices give customers a sense of cosmopolitanism. Of course you can find better chicken in larger portions for half the price at local restaurants, but that's irrelevant. A KFC bag here is roughly equal to walking down the street with a Loius Vittoun handbag. And on this particular morning, we arrived to the store shortly before it had opened and there was already a sizable line. Before long, the doors were open. The line moved rapidly with American style efficiency and soon the gilded chicken was in my possession. Were were off to catch a bus.

When we reached the place where our bus to the village was supposed to be, we found that it had already gone. It was still morning and we were assured another bus was on the way so we braved the beaming sun and waited. I tried balancing the KFC bag on my head to pass the time. I was remarkably successful and a few passersby gave quizzical looks. No bus. A hawker came by selling cassette tapes of local accordion musicians, heroes of the popular Famo genre. He seemed surprised when was I actually interested, not knowing I'm on an endless quest to bolster my African music collection, the more obscure the better. I utilized my seasoned bargaining skills and ended up with two cassettes for a rather reasonable price. Still no bus. We started asking around and realized that there would indeed be another bus, but that it wouldn't be leaving until late in the afternoon.

Attending the wedding was a must so we explored our options by chatting with some girls seeking out their own bus. Through them we discovered we could take another route that would drop us a few kilometers from our destination. We jumped at the opportunity and after a quick bus ride outside of town we found ourselves walking down a dirt road headed to our village and the wedding celebration.

I could feel my skin burning under the sun as we walked, but the journey moved quickly as the surroundings became more and more familiar. Around that same hilly bend and across the that same shallow stream and we were there.

We said a quick “lumela” to the crowd of young guys at the shop amid handshakes and hugs. The guys were passing around bottles of beer in the late morning and jamming to house music on the radio. It seemed in the weeks since we had left the village not much had changed. We continued on to my former abode. There was a strange calm in the village considering a wedding was supposed to be happening. And from my experience with village celebrations I know that if there's going to be a party it might as well be huge.

Upon arrival to my old house we saw that indeed it had the potential to be a massive affair with two mammoth circus-looking tents in the yard. We greeted familiar faces enthusiastically, though we were informed that most of the family and guests were at a church in a nearby village for the ceremony and that that the celebration would be happening at home when everyone had returned. In the meantime I took the chance to explore the compound to see what kinds of preparations were being made. A collection of huge pots smoked from wood-burning fires outside of the kitchen, indicating this was to be a feast of epic proportions. All the classic dishes were to be making appearances. Inside the smoking kitchen itself were the old men, crowded around a tall blue barrel. After the appropriate greetings I quickly put it together that these gents were sampling a fresh batch of home-brewed millet beer. One man pushed his cup in my direction and I took a healthy pull in solidarity. Back outside, I closely examined a cowhide, stretched taut with wooden stakes on the lawn. Aha, I thought, so there was a cow involved in the ceremony after all, the ancestors have been appeased. Likhomo!!! Cows!!!

I suddenly began to hear automobile horns honking in the distance. It was time. There was growing excitement in the air as a caravan of vehicles made its way towards us. The intensity of the honking increased as the first of the cars came to a stop in the yard, festively adorned with with streamers of white and pink. An entire brass band emerged from one of the cars and began to blow furiously and melodically on their horns. Finally, one car came to a rest in front of the others, yet the passengers hesitated to get out. I soon understood why, as, to my amazement, a giant red carpet was produced from nowhere and unfurled, leading from the car up to the house. When the carpet was ready for action, the car doors opened, the newlyweds stepped out and the ululations began as the couple made their grand dance along the carpet. Arms flailed, leaf-filled branches were torn from trees for shaking and the horns wailed even louder.

It was quite the spectacle to witness. The village was filled with joy in seeing one of their daughters in a white wedding dress holding hands with her man, smiling ear to ear. I couldn't help but think back to the weddings I attended in my beloved Gambian village. In The Gambia, most of the weddings were arranged with the girls having little or no say in the matter. On the day of the wedding the girl would be dressed in a dark dark blue and when the time came for her to travel to her husband's house she would wail, eyes filled with tears. There was certainly an accompanying celebration with song and dance, but not everyone was usually thrilled by the girl's departure. (This is by no means representative of all Gambian weddings, but was characteristic of many of the ones I saw in my isolated village including that of my Gambian host sister.) This wedding in Lesotho, on the contrary, was a completely jovial affair. This sister was in her late 20's, quite ready for married life and had previously told me that she did love and choose her husband. Oh, how marriage is a different beast in different parts of the world.

The dancing continued as an expression of the celebratory mood for quite awhile before things calmed down a bit and the bride and groom took a seat behind a three-tiered wedding cake. While relatives and friends gave testimonies to the love of bride and groom, I fetched my bag of KFC and triumphantly presented it to host mother. As if she wasn't already excited enough, she took the special bag in delight and began to glow as she meandered around the crowd, mingling, bag prominently featured. Soon after the speeches, the band resumed and food was served. I devoured all the local favorites. Samp, maize meal, cooked chard, beets and chicken legs. Just as most people had their food, clouds and gusts of wind invaded the party bringing dust and fresh raindrops as their gifts. People ran for shelter under the tents, but the band played on, an essential organ of the party. The storm was short-lived however, as sunlight fought back and people drifted outside again. I wondered if the three-tiered cake would be a bit crunchy now with all that dust.

As the sky turned to gold we said our goodbyes and scrambled to catch a bus back to town at the edge of the village. We made our way past the shop where the young guys were still passing time with the magic B's of beer and billiards. Farewells were exchanged as we ascended the bus. I sat back and relaxed in my seat, comfortable despite the bumping and shaking caused by the rocky road.

A day well spent with family and friends. Here's to another of many great opportunities to see local culture manifest itself, enriching my experiences and my knowledge of Lesotho and the world.


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