Monday, July 12, 2010

A Traditional Namibian Wedding!

This weekend was truly a once in a lifetime experience! I attended my first traditional Namibian wedding. It was incredible in every way and I will do my best to describe the event in detail, but it is hard to put into words.

The wedding was of a former teacher from my school who is now an Inspector for the Ministry of Education. In Namibia, everyone is invited to your wedding. They send out invitations, but there is no RSVP, no headcount - if you want to join in the festivities, you are welcome. I love this approach....it is truly the more the merrier!

Jen, Rachel and I geared up for the celebration by wearing traditional Oshiwambo skirts. They are long, flowing skirts with lines of black, red, and hot pink. This is the traditional pattern of many of the traditional dresses women here wear. They are loud and colourful and helped us to fit in a little better (but not much!).

We arrived at the church in town for the ceremony with many others. The ceremony itself was not too out of the ordinary - bride in white dress, groom in suit, and a typical wedding party. The wedding ceremony was all in Oshiwambo, so we didn't catch much of it. What was different was that at one point everyone filed up to give congratulations and place a monetary gift in the basket at the front. I had met the groom once briefly, and he was welcoming and excited to see me there.

In the States we have a very limited wedding party, but here, there are tiers of women in the wedding. By the time photos came around, it seemed like everyone there was in the wedding! The photographer even asked us to come up to be photographed with the bride and groom. We thought it was funny that they would want to be photographed with almost complete strangers, but that is just the Namibian way - everyone is somehow a friend or family member.

My favorite part of the day as a whole was the presence of the kukus in the celebration. Kuku is a word for "grandmother", and is really just a term of respect. A kuku is a woman who is maybe in their 40's or 50's and older. These women wear traditional dresses in bright patterns, headdresses, and carry around horsetail whips. They wave around the horsetail whips in the air and make a high-pitched, loud, celebratory call throughout the ceremony and day. It was funny, endearing, alarming and more. I would grow to be used to this sound as it was heard throughout the day about every few minutes!

Everyone was ecstatic to see us in traditional attire. A little goes a long way here....if you show interest in or love for Namibian traditions, they will embrace you with open arms. Many, many people stopped to take photos of us, to tell us how beautiful we looked, and just loved it. I have felt like a celebrity since coming here, but especially so at the wedding! You would have thought by the reactions that I was walking the red carpet in a Vera Wang gown.

We left the ceremony and headed to the bride's homestead, the village of Omuthitu. This was not too far from our town, but much more rural. We hopped in the back of a bakki (pick-up truck) with about six others squished in the back. It was then that I had a real "Africa moment". I was riding in the back of a pick-up truck with kukus, nothing but dirt, donkeys, and the occasional cluster of straw huts in my view.

We arrived at Omuthitu and that was where the real party began! Kukus greeted us, excited to welcome us. We were rushed around and introduced to many people, and given a tour. It was hard not to notice the pathway lined with about seven cattle heads on each side. Just the heads....nothing else. We were then shown the room that held the missing parts....their bodies. There was an entire room full of about 20 cows that had been slaughtered. The smell and the sight of the blood and feasting flies were unsettling. We were told that this is a tradition when someone is married. The more cows that are slaughtered the bigger and more extravagant the wedding. We soon found this to be a valid reflection on the rest of the afternoon and evening!

We continued on our tour and were greeted by kukus who loved to have us take their whips and mimic their celebratory calls and cackles. They truly got a kick out of us participating in their traditions and it was so special. We were taken into a straw hut and made to continue with the calls, jump up and down dancing, and given some traditionally brewed beer, called omalovu. The beer was chunky, sour and all around pretty foul....but I pretended to really like it, which made them happy. The few moments in the hut were indescribable....the excitement and warmth from these women was all-encompassing and overwhelming! It was a moment in time I won't soon forget.

Soon we were ushered back to the entrance of the village to wait and greet the bride and groom as they arrived. We were looking in the direction of their arrival, and soon figured out that there was much more to see coming our way from the opposite direction. There was a massive parade of kukus, kulus (elder men), and all the rest of the wedding guests marching toward the couple. There was singing, chanting, celebratory calls, and dancing. It was so loud and exciting! It's hard to even explain and I'm glad I took some videos of the spectacle.

After a good while of this festivity, the bride and groom and wedding party were ushered toward a special seating area. There were some speeches, and then it was time for gifts. A long line of women carried gifts on their heads (no hands!) to the couple. First were the baskets with traditional gifts, and then came more modern, boxed and wrapped gifts.

When gift-giving was finished, it was time for the meal. Up until this point, I felt like I was truly in Africa. When we walked into the tent for the meal, I could have just as easily been at a wedding in America. The tables were beautifully decorated and set, and there were cool drinks, champagne, liquor, and beer at each table. It was surreal to see the modern set-up and experience the juxtaposition of the experience we just had with a very fancy party.

We enjoyed our meals of meat (beef, goat, pig head, whole chickens), pasta and potato salad, vegetables (beets, carrots, beans), and as is traditional at any wedding, free booze.

You would assume the wedding celebration would stop here, after 6 hours of already entertaining wedding guests. However, then it was time to head back to the groom's homestead for the next party. We hopped in the back of another bakki and got a ride to Ongonzi Lodge for the groom's party.

This party was very nice as well - not quite as large and elaborate as the first, but still very classy. There was another entire meal served, toasts, and music. Oddly enough, the music was not traditional music, but a strange play list of power ballads from the 90's, to include Rod Stewart and other random artists. Of course we were excited to hear some familiar tunes! The only disappointment was the lack of dancing at the party, but overall it was a great ending to an amazing day.

I feel blessed to have experienced this special part of Namibian culture. It really emphasized for me the true point of weddings - to celebrate, to love, to have fun, to give thanks to God and to those who care about you and want to share in your special day.

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