Picture It

A Malawian Wedding Under a Baobab Tree

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 29 June 2010

I once read that if you want to know and understand a people, you should look at how they deal with births, deaths, and weddings.  [Side note:  If you know who said that, please let me know!]  On Sunday, I had the chance to photograph my first Malawian wedding.

The wedding party celebrating under the shade of the trees in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

I hadn’t received an invitation, but the owners of the lodge at which I’m staying received one.  They couldn’t make it, but they assured me that I wouldn’t be turned away for gate crashing.  Actually, they told me that the wedding party would most likely be honored that a photographer wanted to document their celebration.

A woman dressed up for a wedding in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Nisar, the owner of the lodge I’m staying at, showed me the invitation.  It listed a day and a place, but there was no specific time.  On the morning of the wedding, I woke at my usual hour, showered, dressed, prepared my gear, and had breakfast.  It was still fairly early, but some of the staff had already left for the wedding.  Nisar was letting them borrow an oversized truck so they could drive people from nearby villages to the party.  I wanted to catch a ride with them, but they had left much earlier than I expected.

Nisar gave me a ride to where the party would be held.  Luckily, the truck was still there.  When I arrived, two of the staff from Nisar’s lodge greeted me and told me that I should sit in the vehicle.  No sooner had I climbed into the cab of the truck when they decided that it was time to begin picking up the party-goers from the other villages.

The truck roared to life, and we were off.  The driver honked the horn at nearly every pedestrian we passed, waving and sometimes sticking his head out the window to call out greetings.  A few minutes into the ride, he took a swig out of a brown bottle, which I easily recognized to be a bottle of beer.  Throughout the ride, he finished two full bottles.  I was not happy about this, but I wasn’t about to start preaching the dangers of drunk driving, especially before 9am!  (Drunk driving is illegal in Malawi, but I have often heard locals laughing and trading stories to see who had had the closest near-death experience due to driving while very intoxicated.)

A few minutes down the road, we stopped so one of the drivers could talk to the police.  The inspection and insurance stickers on the truck were long expired, but we were “only” transporting people to and from the wedding, so the guys wanted to let the police know in hopes of avoiding any trouble.  While we waited, Kenneth, one of the drivers, tried to teach me more Chichewa.  He taught me the words for body, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, shirt, jeans, and shoes.  The word for shoes, sapados, which is very close to the word in some latin languages, came in handy later on in the day.

A young girl at the wedding party. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

When the main driver climbed back into the truck, we continued on our way, driving for ten minutes on paved roads before turning off onto a dirt road and driving for another twenty minutes.  The dirt road seemed to go on and on forever!  It was terribly bumpy from having been washed out in many places by heavy rains and flash floods.  There were a lot of bicycles on the road, which was dangerous because the single lane was so narrow that plants hit both sides of our truck for most of the drive.  The bicyclists had to jump off and stand in the bushes while we passed.

We ended at a whitewashed mosque, stopping for a half hour to wait for the passengers.  It took only a few seconds before I heard shouts of “Mzungu!  Mzungu!” and the sound of bare feet running towards the truck.  Once the children got within a handful of yards from me, they hid behind trees and bushes to watch me.  Some of the older children boldly came up to the truck to inspect me, which quickly emboldened the younger kids as well.

Kenneth translated for me.  He said that many of the children had never seen a mzungu (white person) before, so they were trying to determine my gender.  That was very strange for me to hear, especially since I have a very feminine appearance and voice.

Finally, a group of people emerged from around the bend in the road.  They climbed into the back of the truck carrying their best shoes and special handmade flags decorated with verses from the quran.  Kenneth is a Christian, so he was quick to point out the differences he saw in the Muslims, particularly their singing.  Kenneth said he didn’t like their songs because he couldn’t understand the words, which were sung in Arabic.

Men discussing the marriage. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

The people in the back of the truck sang as we headed towards the wedding.  The children pressed their faces against the window that connected the back of the truck to the cab, where I was sitting.  When I would turn to look at them, they would hide behind the legs of the adults.

We made a few more stops in other villages along the road back to pick up more guests.  The singing got louder as more people filled the back and louder still as we approached the wedding party.

The party was taking place in a group of houses around where the bride lived.  When the truck pulled up, the passengers jumped off and separated themselves along their age and gender.  The men went to sit under a tree to talk with the religious leaders.  The women went to help prepare the feast of meat and nsima.  The children sat on the porches of the houses to wait for lunch.  I joined the kids.

I sat on an empty stretch of the clay porch with my camera.  Immediately, the children began creeping closer to me.  Soon, I was elbow to elbow with a group of ten kids.  They were still young, so they hadn’t learned much English, which meant that we communicated in pointing, smiling, and laughing.  They enjoyed looking at their reflection in the glass of my lens.

Children sitting in the shade while they wait for lunch. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Suddenly, the kids all got up and ran to the back of the house.  There had been lots of singing and shouting from all around, but one of the shouts must have been a call to eat.  Kenneth, who had quickly become my guide and bodyguard (he wanted to protect me and my camera, even though I had no problem with the children’s curiosity surrounding my gear), led me into the courtyard behind the house where the women and children were eating.  The men ate in an adjacent enclosure.

As soon as I entered the courtyard, I was bombarded by requests for photos, which I was more than happy to fulfill.  Since it was mid-day, the sun was bright and hot, so many of the people were sitting in the shade of the back porch.  This was perfect lighting for some portraits.  I couldn’t decide which was my favorite choice to put in this post, so I’ll give you a series of them:

A boy waiting for lunch. Money Bay, Malawi.

A woman at the wedding party. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A girl at the wedding feast. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A woman at the wedding party in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Kids eating lunch at the wedding party. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A teenager posing for the camera. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

One of the party-goers. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

This boy's mother asked me to photograph her son. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Kids posing for the camera. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A mother offering her son to be photographed. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A woman eating at the wedding feast. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A woman nursing her baby at the wedding party. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

My lunch of meat from the wedding feast. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

I was thoroughly enjoying photographing the people at the wedding party, but Kenneth told me it was time to go.  He led me to the truck and handed me a bowl of meat that the women had prepared for my lunch.  I’m not sure why, but they didn’t give me any nsima.  Nisar’s wife thinks it might have been because a lot of foreigners don’t eat it.  At first, I couldn’t tell what kind of meat it was.  It had the same texture and structure of beef, but it was light-colored like chicken.  Kenneth pointed to some goats on the side of the road when he asked me if I liked the meat.  Apparently, it was goat.  It was delicious.

The women followed me, singing loudly and dancing their way onto the truck.  When the back was full of singing partiers, we began the journey to the mosque, where we would pick up the bride and groom.  About two miles into the trip, the engine died.  We coasted to a stop on the side of the road.  The drivers told me they had run out of gas, but they took a screwdriver and tinkered under the hood before conceding defeat.  The gas gauge in the truck had been reading well below “E” since early in the morning.  I had assumed the gauge was broken, but I guess we were lucky we hadn’t gotten broken down much farther from a gas station.

Women singing as they help each other climb into the truck. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Luckily, someone had brought their bicycle along for the ride.  Both drivers and a third man with an old container all climbed onto the bicycle and began pedaling in the direction from which we had just come.  There was a gas station right across the street from where the party was being held, so it wouldn’t take them long to get back.  The women and children in the back of the truck climbed out so they could sit under a tree.  I opened my large reflector inside the cab of the truck to block the hot sun streaming in through the windshield.

Can you imagine what would happen during a wedding in a Western country if the car ran out of gas on the way to bring the bride and groom to the reception…or at any point during the day, for that matter!  I see screaming, heart attacks, and maybe a murder or ten.  But here, people just shrug and wait in the shade.  There wasn’t much else they could have done anyway.

Hawa, the bride, in the mosque. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Hawa's hands. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Fifteen minutes later, we were on our way again.  The singing recommenced along with someone beating the roof of the truck like a drum.

When we arrived at the mosque, I sent Kenneth to ask the religious leaders if I could photograph inside the mosque.  I originally thought I would be photographing the ceremony, but it turned out that had already happened.  It had been short and private.  I was given permission to photograph the bride, who was waiting inside the mosque.  As I started walking towards the building, people in the truck yelled at me.  I didn’t understand much, but I recognized a word Kenneth had taught me earlier: sapados.  They were telling me that I needed to take my shoes off before entering the mosque.  I already knew that, so I told them that I would remove my shoes and signed the motions to calm their worries.

The groom. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Hawa's Shoes. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Inside, I found three women, one of which was Hawa, the bride.  She was sitting barefoot on a woven reed mat with her shoes on a scarf next to her.  Her shoes were pure white, delicately detailed, and looked as if they had never been worn.  I asked her if I could take her picture and asked the other two women if they would hold my lights.  Hawa seemed very excited about being photographed; this was one of the few times I saw her smile during this otherwise serious occasion.  Outside, I photographed Hawa’s new husband and one of the religious leaders.  Her husband looked very solemn and didn’t make eye contact with me, preferring instead to look at the floor.

Then it was time to go back to the party.  Hawa walked to the truck with one her new shoes on her right foot, but nothing on her left.  She stayed like that for the rest of the afternoon.  The newly married couple took their seats in the front of the truck while I sat with everyone in back.  Again, singing and dancing ruled the truck until we got back to the party.

One of the Islamic leaders. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

When we arrived, a table and two chairs had been set up under the trees.  A group of women all dressed in the same outermost sarong led the couple to their seats.  One sarong was turned into a tablecloth.  Dancers, most of whom were dressed in matching outfits, lined up in front of the table.  The guests, which numbered nearly a hundred and fifty, crowed around the outside.  As soon as everyone took their places, the dancing began.  The men stomped their feet in unison, swung their arms, and yelled raspy whoops while a small group of men dressed in long, light-blue tunics sang.  Kenneth said that there were only a few words sung in Arabic and Chichewa; the rest was a series of repeated sounds, each unique to the singer, that were sung to make music just like one would do with instruments.

Partiers singing and dancing on the back of the truck. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

After the dancing, passages were read from the quran by uncles, chiefs, and other important members of the community.  Kenneth whispered short translations in my ear as four religious leaders gave speeches about the meaning of marriage and the importance of love and respect in a relationship.  Both the bride and the groom looked very solemn during the whole ceremony, sitting very still with their eyes downcast.  Kenneth told me that their marriage was arranged by their parents and the chiefs of the villages, but that had nothing to do with their moods; this was a serious occasion and they needed to act as such.

One of the Dancers. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Two men came into the circle left by the dancers and dumped water onto the ground.  The first dance had kicked up billows of dust that made it almost difficult to see across the circle.  The water was an attempt at controlling the dust, but between the kicking from the dancers and the hot sun, the water was soon gone and the next round of dancing fill the air with yellow dirt once more.

Men dancing at the wedding. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

The dancing was followed again by more speeches.  These speeches were aimed at the families and the community.  They were told that they must support the couple in their union and give help when it was needed.  A bowl on the couple’s table was then filled with money by a procession of guests, starting with the chiefs, the religious men, and the male family members.  When everyone sat back down, one of the boisterous religious leaders looked inside, then declared to the guests that they had not given enough.  The dancing started up again while more guests dropped coins into the collection bowl.

A religious leader giving a speech. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A man holding a quran while giving a speech at the wedding. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

This dance was slightly different from the others.  It began once again with the men arranged in many rows, stomping, whooping, and swinging their arms.  Then they danced their way into two columns facing each other.  The dance continued much as it had before until the men started dancing closer and closer to each other.  Finally, the two columns almost met.  The men all kicked up their legs at the same time, very nearly kicking the person opposite them in the face, then spun around, kicked out behind themselves to hit their opponent in the butt, then danced forward until the columns were back to where they started.  They repeated this a few times, and each time was greeted by raucous laughter, shouting, and the Arabic call from the women (similar to the staccato sound associated with Native Americans).

Nisar and his wife had bought a gift for the newly married couple, but since they did not attend the wedding, I brought the gift for them.  During one of the dancing sessions, Kenneth announced that I needed to present the gift to the couple.  One of the village elders was writing down the names of everyone who gave money or gifts.  He wrote me down as “Stefford.”  Kenneth, who calls me “Stefan,” told him that I have no last name.  I didn’t think I should correct either of them.

Guests watching the wedding rituals. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

The dust from the dancing made me sneeze.  Kenneth took this as a sign that I needed to leave, even though I told him I wanted to stay.  As the sun dipped behind the low hills, I said my goodbyes to the group of children who had been following me (often touching my camera or stroking my long hair) and followed Kenneth back to the truck.

From what I heard, the dancing and speeches lasted well into the night.

Advertisements

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Jonelle said, on 30 June 2010 at 2:40 am

    Love the portraits! Such an interesting day – the bride and groom look so young! If you can get any of the amazing patterned fabrics for me – I will send you money!

    miss you,
    Jonelle

    • stefaniegiglio said, on 30 June 2010 at 2:47 am

      Of course I can! What size do you want? Do you have any color preferences? Sometimes I can find the material already cut into shirts or skirts; do you want that or just a large piece of material?

  2. Deb said, on 09 July 2010 at 6:48 am

    Wonderful story! And the pictures are excellent. I’m quite envious of your adventures! The bride and groom are both beautiful – what lovely faces you’ve shared here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: