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Missing brides and dancing beds: tales of a Kenyan wedding

Missing brides and dancing beds: tales of a Kenyan wedding

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have attended weddings in Kenya. It’s not that I’ve never received invitations, it’s just that those few were already enough to last a lifetime. 

Weddings at 10AM

The first Kenyan wedding I attended was scheduled at 10AM on a Saturday. It was going to be held at a multipurpose hall of the complex where I was living in at that time, a 300-metre walk from my apartment to be on-time. Except that the ceremony itself did not start at the appointed hour.

All the invited foreigners were there on the dot, including the students at the language school living in the same complex. There was a scattering of Kenyan guests around, but I wondered where the others were.

As we entered the second hour, early guests started fanning ourselves to distraction as the noonday heat rose and our patience wore thin. When the temperature became unbearable, I stepped out and waited in the garden along with other guests who were also cooling off outdoors.

The wedding didn’t start until past 2PM. Some foreign visitors had already left to do their weekend errands. I stayed because I didn’t have a family to care for and I was very much intrigued by how the ceremony was going to unfold.

As it turned out, a Christian wedding between two Kenyans hardly differs from a Filipino Christian wedding. It also included biblical admonitions from the pastor and the wedding vows of “’til death do us part” vows. I didn’t have any chance to ask anybody why it was four hours late. I only found the answer when I attended my second Kenyan wedding.

Kidnapped bride

The bride was getting married to a mzungu (foreigner in Swahili), a British citizen who had been living in Kenya for many years. Because the bride was a close friend of mine, I made a point of being at the location at least two hours before the start of the ceremony, again at 10AM on Saturday. The bride had asked me to hang around in case she needed me to run errands or to drive her relatives to and from the wedding venue.

I found her having her hair and makeup done in a cosy inn-type accommodations just down a dirt road from a tiny rural church built sometime in the early 20th century during the British colonial period. True enough, I ended up driving to the nearest shopping mall, 30 minutes away, to buy new lipstick because she didn’t like any of the ones available from the makeup artist’s kit or from any of the women around. The shopping mall didn’t open until 9:30 a.m. By the time I got back to the bride, she was nowhere in sight, but I left the new lipstick in the hands of the makeup artist.

Fast forward to 2:30PM. and the ceremony still hadn’t started. I was beginning to wilt in my all-white dress suit, so I asked around for the reason of the delay. 

A Filipina expat as a guest in a Kenyan wedding.

That was when I found out that the bride had been “abducted” by her male relatives and kept behind a locked compound nearby. They wanted more dowry payment in cash and in kind from the groom-to-be, and weren’t about to release her until the guy agreed to their terms.

That blew my mind and annoyed the hell out of the foreign guests. The groom´s friends and family had flown all the way from Great Britain to attend the wedding. As they fumed, I ended up with a silly grin on my face when I realized that that was the same reason for the delay in the first Kenyan wedding that I had attended. 

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It was frequent practice for new dowry negotiations to happen just before the ceremony if the male relatives felt that there was still more to squeeze out of the groom than agreed upon in earlier negotiations. They padlocked the gate of the premises where they had hidden the bride. No amount of cajoling or crying was going to open it to anyone, without the prerequisite additional dowry.

Lunch reception at 5PM

The wedding finally started after 3PM, first the Christian ceremony and then the traditional practices afterwards. Akin to a variety show, groups of the bride’s relatives came forward to render a song, a dance, and a combo of both to celebrate the newlyweds. Finally, at 5PM, it was time for the wedding reception, and I drove the bride’s relatives and myself to the venue where I found the bride that morning. Surprisingly, despite the very late lunch reception, the food on the buffet tables were still warm and delicious. I suppose the local caterer knew to expect the very long delay and kept things on warmers.

The variety show was repeated during the reception. New groups of relatives and individuals spontaneously volunteered to offer entertainment. While there was an emcee, it was clear that the programme was “anything goes”. Towards the end of the show, a group of my friend’s relatives entered the reception area carrying a wooden bed on their shoulders, dancing and warbling to an acapella tune, complete with ululations.

A Kenyan tablemate must have seen my confusion, so she leaned over to explain that the bed symbolized something about the new marriage. I could barely hear her above the vocals. I did discover that Kenyans still included that rite despite the urbanity of their Nairobi lives. The clan elders usually insist or request its continuance. 

After that, I attended just one or two more weddings and then said goodbye to further appearances at such events. Although invitations kept coming, they were too time-intensive and culturally specific for me to cope with. One thing I did appreciate from my Kenyan wedding experiences: traditional culture and the elders still had a powerful sway over how the occasion would unfold. In that regard, I had to give props to Kenyans for accommodating long-held customs essential to the preservation of their age-old values.

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