Weddings and road trips

This weekend, I attended my first Malawian wedding reception.  My housemate’s colleague was getting married in Nkhata Bay, about 6 hours north of Lilongwe, and invited him to bring a few guests to the event.  Since I haven’t yet had the opportunity to attend a wedding, I was eager to check it out.

Now, in Malawi, there is no such thing as wedding crashers.  All are welcome – particularly if you bring stacks of kwacha!  (But we’ll get to that in a minute.)  We didn’t attend the wedding ceremony, at the suggestion of another Malawian colleague who traveled with us, but got to the reception right as things were getting started (a few hours later than scheduled).  I found it a strange mix of Western and Malawian traditions.

Wedding guests await the arrival of the bride and groom

Wedding guests await the arrival of the bride and groom

The wedding LOOKED a lot like weddings with which I am familiar.  It took place outside at a (loosely defined) conference center along the beach, with lots of metal folding chairs and tents to shield guests from the sun.  There was seating space for “invited guests” and many more people – presumably the “uninvited guests” – gathered as the reception wore on, including about a billion kids from the nearby villages.

The bride and groom arrived in the back of a pickup, after several drives through the nearby town and neighborhood, horn blaring.  It was reminiscent of a parade, but with a “just married” poster instead of a “Adams County Pork Queen” one.

The happy couple arrives

The happy couple arrives

The radiant bride looked like any bride in the US, with a fancy and fabulous white dress and shellacked hairdo.  Though I don’t know anything about this dress in particular, there are several “wedding dress rental” businesses in Lilongwe, so I suspect the dress may have been a one-day rental rather than a permanent investment.  Sounds better than paying $2000 for a dress to me!  The bridesmaids had dresses of the same color, but vastly different styles – one looked like Belle in Beauty and the Beast and the other was a little cocktail number.  This wasn’t traditional Malawian dress, though:  this was thoroughly Western!

The cakes looked surprisingly like US wedding cakes, decorated with white fondant and piped icing.  The guests didn’t eat the decorated cakes, but rather bid on tiny triangles of cake wrapped in tin foil.  The triangles were some sort of spice cake; I’m not sure about the decorated cakes.  I was reassured, however, that these cakes WERE cake, not just decorated styrofoam.

Wedding cake (apologies for photo quality)

Wedding cake (apologies for photo quality)

Despite looking like an American wedding, the reception activities were quite different.  Though the reception program listed a number of activities (ranging from “flower time” to “organizing committee presents its gift”), the main event was “perekani perekani,” during which guests are urged by the MC to dance to the middle of the reception “floor” and shower the newlyweds with gifts – in this case, stacks of kwacha.  This went on for several hours, as friends of the bride, friends of the groom, family, etc. were called up, sometimes in turn and sometimes simultaneously, to toss money for the bride and groom.  There were designated money collectors who trailed the money-tossing guests, picking up the bills and putting them into a big wash tub.  The whole thing was a little surreal, and made the kwacha seem even more like monopoly money to me!

The brides colleagues shower her with cash

The bride's colleagues shower her with cash

My housemate and I agreed that it was a strange custom to us, particularly the performance of wealth (or an illusion of wealth).  Sure, we give gifts at American weddings, but your best wishes for the couple are not directly correlated with an amount of money spent, and the guests largely don’t know how they compare with each other.  Still, though it was a display that made me vaguely uncomfortable, the Malawians present seemed to be enjoying it very much.  I am curious, though, what a tradition wedding reception is, if there is such a thing.  In an economy that is still not entirely monetized, cash (of any denomination) is a status symbol, but how else do people demonstrate their affection?

In addition to the wedding, we spent some time exploring the village and beaches of Nkhata Bay.  I experienced the gross-but-interesting phenomenon of lake flies; they rise out of the lake to mate and appear over the water in swarms that look like smoke or funnel clouds.  They eventually come ashore to die, and though they don’t bite, a fine film of lake flies covers everything (including morning coffee – ugh).   Malawians reportedly make them into cakes and fry them, though I did not witness this.  Despite the grossness factor, the swarms are a sight to behold.

We started back to Lilongwe a little  after noon on Sunday, and had a somewhat eventful trip back.  Shortly after we encountered the tobacco truck that had lost its tobacco bales (below), we had a flat tire.  Actually, a “flat tire” is not really an accurate description –  the belt and tread separated from the tire, but it remained inflated.  Fortunately, we had a spare and were able to change the tire with relative speed (and an entire village of Malawian children looking on).   You know, just another weekend in Malawi!




7 Responses to “Weddings and road trips”

  1. LoveLetters2anAmericanSoldier Says:

    Rented dress, delicious cakes, and showers of cash…. hey, not bad, not bad at all.

    And holy crap, who had to clean up all that mess? Did you help? hahaha.
    And fly cakes? Well…. I got nothin’!
    Except, I love your stories 🙂

  2. kimsamui Says:

    Beach weddings are unforgettably magical moments.
    Mine was themed Weddings Thailand
    and until now it still brings meaningful happy tears tears…
    The beach setting is guaranteed to leave you starry-eyed.

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  4. Sara Gondwe Says:

    I lived in malawi from 1972–74 and again in 2000. I also live in Adams County in PA. Is this the same county you referred to in your blog?
    May you be well, peaceful and happy.

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