With so many woman keen to marry me off to their sons, it was only a matter of time before there would be talk of a wedding. Not mine, though. Last weekend, I had an opportunity to experience my first traditional Swazi wedding, thanks to the sister of my work colleague, Dazi.
Intending to get the full experience, I decided to follow the Swazi lead and kit myself out in the full traditional wedding attire. Each guest is asked to wear a specific meheya (sarong) chosen by the bride, which covers the top half. A brown piece of shweshwe cloth, known as a Sidvwashi, is tied around your waist to cover the bottom half. This is then accessorised by a ligcebesha (Swazi necklace).
If you’re married, you also get to wear a hair net of sorts, and tie a second Sidvwashi around your waist for modesty, or wear the traditional pleated cow-skin skirt. If you’re unmarried, and still eligible – meaning you’re not too old, like me – then you get to “wear” the maiden’s outfit. I highlight “wear” because the outfit consists of no more than a 20cm wide, beautifully decorated band around your waist (indlamu), and some woollen tassles tied like a sash (umgaco). Note, too, that underwear is not mentioned anywhere here, primarily because underwear is not part of Swazi wedding attire. So, how traditional did I really go? I will leave you guessing.
Unsurprisingly, weddings in Swaziland are not a simple one-day affair. The process usually starts with the official marriage, called “Tega”, whereby an unsuspecting maiden is woken from her sleep in the middle of the night and lured into the kraal (cow pen) where the husband-to-be stands waiting. How romantic. Weeks, months or years later, comes “Lobola” (Dowry), where around 15 cows, depending on the level of love and wealth, are presented by the husband’s family and subsequently sold by the bride’s family to pay for wedding gifts for the husband’s family. Those gifts are then presented at the wedding ceremony.
The evening before the ceremony, the bride and her family will camp by the river, regardless of the outside temperature. Then, if no-one has suffered hypothermia by morning, they will spend the morning washing by the river, dancing and singing. This is where I came in.
Before the wedding, I decided to set two simple goals for myself:
1. Don’t outshine the bride with my shiny white skin.
2. Don’t end up married myself (by mistake or otherwise).
I think I succeeded in both….just.
Before I could even step out of the car, I had one toothless old man profess his love for me, and another chase me as I made a bee-line for the dancers. I quickly blended into the dancing line and learnt the steps thanks to the guidance of the lady next to me (left, left, right, right, left, right, left, right). Then it was time for the first of the wedding feasts – a vegetarian’s delight. I joined the queue for my polystyrene container-full of pap (maize porridge), a chunk of boiled beef, and a scoop of innards. Yum. Desserts comprised chocolate bars that could be purchased from family members for E3 a piece.
Next, it was time to make our way to the husband’s homestead. Dancing and singing all the way, the parade is led by the bride’s unmarried youngest sister, who carries a mat and bedding on her head. She is followed by a brother carrying two wooden basins stuffed with BBQ meat, and another brother carrying a metal washing bowl and dried, hollowed-out pumpkin used to carry water. The remaining female family members follow behind. Trailing in the rear are the men, all the time surrounding and shielding the bride, who’s adorned with a head full of feathers and a fur shawl.
The parade waits for the husband’s family’s approval to enter the homestead, then makes it way around the kraal and to a performance area. Here, the bride and her family perform for her male in-laws, who watch from their front-row seats. Occasionally, male members of the husband’s family will get up and run around crazily, smacking their shields on the ground in front of any maidens they approve of. Guests also wander into the performance space to place money in the bride’s headwear or give oranges to dancers of which they approve. I got a taste of both. When I entered the dancing space to make my contribution to the bride, I was confronted with a number of men hitting their shields on the ground in front of me, and had to, literally, escape the clutches of one man trying to kiss me. No-one can call Swazi men shy.
As the afternoon wears on, the bride will eventually lose the fur shawl, and her sisters will follow suit by removing their meheyas. They will continue dancing bare-breasted and fancy free, until dinnertime.
Of the (almost) four months that I have lived in Swaziland, this wedding was one of the most African-feeling experiences I’ve had so far. The rawness of men and women stripped down to nothing except a few animal skins, and the femininity and pride that they exhibited in doing so, really makes you wonder why we have become so inhibited by our bodies. All women have breasts, all men have seen breasts, and breasts provide a functional and beautiful purpose, so why do we attach a feeling of shame about exposing them? I may not have convinced you, but I, and probably every man reading this, am now a fan of partial nudity. I guess that answers the question to what I wore under my meheya.