The Journey (25-27 October)
I had been looking forward to this for months: a 3 week sojourn to Africa. However, nothing in my life comes without some drama. With an hour to spare until I had to be at the airport, I went outside to organise a taxi and was bitten by a dog. A very mangy, unhealthy looking dog. Typical. A quick phone call to my mate, “Dr Coffin”, and I was back on track with a couple of puncture wounds, an emergency box of antibiotics, and fears only slightly allayed.
35 hours, four flights, and no leg infection later, I arrived in Lusaka.
First stop was to catch up with my mate Aka and her beautiful son, who seemed to get along with me. Bonus! Except that this then convinced Aka that I must have children immediately. Then it was to Alex’s place for dinner in the dark, thanks to Zambia’s extensive daily load shedding. I even managed a few hours of shut eye, before being up at 3am to catch the bus to Chipata.
This was my first time back to Zambia since I lived here for just 9 months. I was interested, to see if it still liked it as much as before. I was also anxious, as this time, I came knowing that Zambia and I would be inextricably linked for the rest of my life.
The bus stop was a hive of activity. I was a bit disturbed, at first, by all the people hassling me to buy things – from solar lights to packets of chips and chitenge. I also watched in horror as bus conductors surrounded potential passengers, and almost started fights, in order to win that person’s custom. But then I realised that this is what determination to make an income looks like – a far cry from the frustrating apathy I see every day in Solomons. What I liked best, though, was that between the potential customers, the bus boys would dance to African house blaring from the stalls in such seemingly personal joy.
Once on the road, the image of Zambia became somewhat different. The long drought had left behind little except heat, dust and an arid landscape that made me wonder how people survive here. The mighty Luangwa River was but a trickle, and made me lament the plight of the poor wildlife that relied on it.
While the new highway certainly made for a much smoother ride, it also gave the bus drivers licence to go faster, thereby posing an even greater threat to the bikes, children, goats and cattle that straddled the road.
Once I reached Chipata, there were highs and lows. In the name of progress, every single beautiful shady tree had been removed for the new tarmac, making the city somewhat inhospitable. However, I was impressed that there were now Copenhagen bike lanes and footpaths that stretched the entire main road (although the pedestrians and cyclists were still working out which was which). The plethora of fresh, brightly coloured vegetables was also a sight for sore Honiara eyes.
Alangezi (29 October – 2 November)
One of the main reasons I wanted to return to Zambia this time, was to partake in Alangezi, a traditional practice that girls and women do to prepare them for womanhood and life as a Zambian wife. Manyoni’s extended family had kindly arranged for me to do a condensed version of this training in a village half way between Chipata and Katete.
On my first day in Chipata, I went out to the village to meet everyone and get to know my surroundings. Kazimule Post Office is as typical a Zambian village as you could get – mud or brick houses, no electricity, ox carts for ploughing. I was given a seat on a bamboo mat and became the scene of attraction for the villagers to greet as they passed by, and the topic of conversation conducted in a language I still could not understand.
Despite being so far out of my comfort zone, everyone was so welcoming and the phrase “This is your home” was said by so many that I felt ashamed coming from a country where Manyoni is not always welcomed by strangers in the same way.
The following day, I returned to the village for the start of my training. Clearly, this was not going to be a normal Alangezi.
As mentioned, Alangezi is much like an initiation for girls to prepare them for womanhood and marriage. Most girls undertake this after they reach puberty and/or when they are about to get married. Being 36 years old, I was probably about 2-3 times older than most Alangezi students.
The process normally takes 2-3 weeks, during which time the girl is “in the house”, meaning they cannot go outside except to bath – much like a caterpillar going into a cocoon and emerging only when it is a fully grown butterfly. “In the house” also means that they are not allowed to talk to others, or financial compensation must be given.
In contrast, my Alangezi lasted 3 days. There was a constant flow of people coming in to check out the stranger, and I would spend my evening on the verandah watching the cattle being brought back from the fields and the young children making trouble, as the sun set over the thorn trees and thatched rooves.
Throughout my stay, I was given the royal treatment by my hostesses, Amai Tembo, and Amai Tembo (Justine). In the morning, they warmed water for my bath. As I returned from my bath, they had breakfast waiting. They cooked me up a delicious hot lunch and dinner each day, which they insisted I eat from the couch while they sat on the floor. They even put cushions under my feet wherever I sat / stood, lest the bamboo mat hurt my precious foreign skin. It was ridiculous, but also a symbol of their genuine concern and kindness.
Back: My teachers Amai Tembo & Amai Mwanza.
Front: Amai Julu and my hostess, Amai Tembo
For three days, I was under the tutelage of Amai Tembo (Esnath) and Amai Mwanza (Alice Phiri), with translations by Amai Chulu – an ex-teacher from the neighbouring village. Traditionally, Alangezi is not done with your immediate family. Once you discover what is taught you will understand why. The teachers, however, may be from extended family or completely separate. Usually, young married women are chosen to be teachers, as they still have the youthfulness and strength to practice what is taught.
So what is taught? Well, that is a well-kept secret for married women only – perhaps not something to detail on the world wide web. However, to give you an idea, each day, my mornings would be spent learning “Mwambo” (custom). My teachers would demonstrate, then it was my turn to try.
In the afternoons, we were joined by a group of women who would dance, sing, drum and do theatre. These dances were not just for fun (although plenty of fun was had!), but are actually designed as a teaching tool of how you should behave once you become a wife. Of course, to demonstrate that I had learned these messages, I also needed to join in the dancing. The good thing about coming from another culture, is that no matter how bad you are, they appreciate your effort.
The whole training culminates in a big final day, where the girl must demonstrate all that she has learned to a group of elderly women and her mother-in-law. If they approve, then she is free to marry. It has been a long time since I have done an exam, and there was a lot of pressure on me to do well. Fortunately, I passed, and some even exclaimed: “Amazing! Your hips are so soft after just 2 days. You are already better than some of us. Imagine if you were here the whole two weeks!”
After a celebratory lunch of Zambian nsima, I was then released into the outside world. With a chitenge* over my head, and eyes down, I was led to a bamboo mat under the trees, where people came to give money and well wishes. I was now wife material.
*Chitenge is a 2m piece of coloured material, like a sarong, worn around the waist and used for absolutely everything.
Manyoni was running around like a headless chicken preparing for the party to celebrate the end of Alangezi – known as a “Kitchen Party”. This is much like a bridal shower, where female friends celebrate the woman’s upcoming transition to wife, and bring gifts of kitchenware to help her set up her new home.
Except that somewhere along the line, the “Kitchen Party” transformed into a “Coming Together Party”, which, in other words, equates to a wedding.
After we realised, and happily accepted, that we were getting married, Manyoni really had his work cut out for him. Not speaking much chiNyanja, I was pretty useless at this point, so he had to go it alone. Plus, he had a few extra challenges thrown in for good measure.
The first was no cash. Even before I had arrived, the ATM in Chipata had swallowed our bank card. Despite numerous attempts to retrieve it, and countless different stories from the bank, they would not return it to us (Barclays!). So Manyoni had to operate without cash for two weeks, and then we had to rely on credit after that – it certainly made for interesting times.
Then, the night before the wedding, as my friend Alex and I were enjoying a beer at Wildlife, Manyoni was busy transporting chairs to the village in a borrowed ute / bakkie. Unfortunately, on the way back, late at night and well off the main road, the car stopped. He tried his phone but there was no signal. Eventually, one person passed and together they tried to push start but with no luck. He waited some more. Another two boys came past, and he asked if they had phone signal. They did, but no airtime. As extraordinary luck would have it, Manyoni fished around in his bag and came up with a voucher for airtime for MTN, which is not even his phone provider. They were able to call the owner of the vehicle, who came to collect him. He reached home at 1am.
The Wedding – 5 November
The day of the party had arrived. Manyoni was up at 5am with a million jobs to do – finding a new transport option for all the guests, buying the final pieces of our wedding outfits, and answering calls from everywhere. I slept in.
Needless to say, our planned 7am departure for the village stretched to 9:30am, but finally we were on our way. There was no turning back.
On arrival, I was swept off to the main house, while Manyoni was taken elsewhere. I dressed, and then watched from the bedroom window while the crowd of villagers gathered outside and the dancers entertained. Eventually, the time came.
I was led outside. Beside me was my sister-in-law’s sister, and Amai Chulu to translate and tell me what to do. In front of me and behind me were dancers. I could see Manyoni off to the distance at my left, standing alone with one other man.
Manyoni and me – ready, set, go
At snail’s pace, and to the beat of the drum, I inched forward, with the dancers leading my way, and the small flower girl throwing bougainvillea petals at regular intervals. At the same time, Manyoni also edged forward until we met in the middle, and he handed me a bunch of pink plastic flowers (TIA). Together, we continued moving toward the waiting couch, continuously surrounded by the ladies with amazing hip gyrations.
Once seated on the couch, which had been set up on a raised verandah, I finally got an idea of the situation I was in. To the left of me was a newly-built shelter for friends and family, with some gratefully recognisable faces and many not. In front of me, on the opposite side of the grounds, were the caterers set up with bain-maries, and adorned in the stereotypical chef hats. To the right of me was the giant drum, and the drummers and dancers doing their amazing work. Around all of this were decorations – toilet paper (yes, you read right) strung from the beams like streamers. It was so perfectly apt and African that I could not have planned it better myself!
Our vantage point. Note the decorations.
The rest of the panorama was made up with people from the nearby villages – hundreds coming to check out the spectacle of the white woman marrying a rasta man – both quite foreign to this rural village. It was amazing, and humbling, to see how much effort people had gone to for this event – everyone was dressed up with men wearing suits, women wearing weaves in their hair, and crisp, new chitenge around their waists (it almost looked like a PF party thanks to the Patriotic Front party’s recent widespread pre-election chitenge distribution).
A view across the event
Our MC opened the event, and then we were straight into speeches. First it was Manyoni’s father, who was quick and to the point – “Never pack up and leave”. Then it was on to my fill-in Italian father, Enrico, who had been given 24 hours’ notice and managed to detail our entire love story in deep chiNyanja. Everyone was very impressed, including me!
Up next was more dancing and drumming from the “professionals”. They were shaking it standing, shaking it on their knees, and even shaking it on all fours – hips so supple it didn’t seem possible. As if the moment couldn’t get any more quintessentially African, the wedding was then crashed by a goat who ran into the middle after being chased by Manyoni’s nephew. Perfect.
Then it was time for the cake cutting. However, before this could start, we needed the knife. For the next 20 minutes, we watched as four small girls danced their way spectacularly across the grounds with decorated knife in hand. Forget about what I managed to do with my hips in 2 days – I couldn’t believe what these girls could do with their hips in the first four years of their life! I was blown away, and clearly the crowd was too, as the girls were occasionally joined in their dancing by excited cooks and relatives.
When the knife was delivered, Manyoni and I stood up to cut the cake. Now, as many of you know, Manyoni is vegan, and Chipata Spar doesn’t exactly stock a variety of vegan cakes. So, just to make this whole wedding a little more off-beat, we instead cut Chikanda. Chikanda is sometimes known as African polony, but is really made from tubers and is savoury – not a cake at all. Never-the-less, we fed each other, as is the custom, and sealed the deal with a…..hug. We had officially “Come Together”.
With three cakes still in front of us, we then had to deliver two to our parents. Together, we held a cake and slowly, slowly moved toward Manyoni’s parents, before delivering it to them on our knees. The same was then done for my fill-in parents. The final cake was taken away and distributed to the crowds.
After more dancing entertainment, we were then on to the final activity of the day – the gift giving. People were asked to come up and bring their gifts or money to put in a bucket / on the table in front of us, before shaking our hands and wishing us well. Presumably this is so everyone can see who is giving what, which to me was a little awkward, but we got through it without incident.
The Pastor of the Reformed Church of Zambia then arrived just in time to give the final closing prayer, before Manyoni and I were led back to the house surrounded once again by the dancing women and flower girl.
This was, perhaps, the first time that Manyoni had managed to relax in a month. We ate lunch, alone, in the room and then waited until all several hundred spectators had also eaten. Then we snuck outside to take some photos with friends and family before they left.
With Manyoni’s parents (in the matching outfits) and our Italian family
Normally, this is where the story of the wedding ends. However, over the next couple of days, Manyoni, his family were being bombarded by people wishing to congratulate us on what we had done. The Pastor even stated several times that we had presented them all “with a challenge”. It seems that traditional weddings are now a thing of the past, having been usurped by white weddings and all their fanfare. It took the white woman and the rasta man to show Eastern Zambia how beautiful their traditions can be, and to help revive them.
Obscene amounts of thanks…..
While I blissfully waltzed through this chapter in my life with barely a care in the world, I was only able to do that because of the efforts of so many amazing people.
This whole trip really relied on the kindness of friends and family – especially the Carrettas and Tembos – for the use of their cars, accommodation, cash advances, networks and, of course, their time. Without them, none of this would have happened. We are blessed, and we thank you a million times over.
The ultimate thanks, however, must be given to Manyoni, who did everything from designing invitations to buying dress material, meeting Chiefs and negotiating payments (never easy!). Needless-to-say, this isn’t a typical role for a Zambian man, and simply demonstrates why he is so special.