*A Guest Post from Blu*
On Friday, I went with Mulenga and a whole crew of representatives to negotiate the price for his bride to be, Miriam (more on her name later). For months now, Mulenga has been in talks with Miriam’s family about getting married. The whole family had to sit together, which meant everyone had to be there. After waiting several months, he brought his mother out to sit down and talk with the family to let them know that he was serious. This happened about 6 weeks ago. He woke early in the morning and left with his mother and Emmanuel, an older friend who is standing in as his uncle. The day before, he explained to me, “We have to be at their village before anyone is awake and we have to be the ones to wake them up and let them know our intentions.” I immediately protested, insisting that waking your future in-laws up at 4:30 in the morning was not the way to begin a relationship. He told me not to worry. In fact, he was going to stay in the car while his mother and Emmanuel went to discuss. Throughout the process Mulenga is not allowed to speak to the family. Zambian culture is very strict about how you relate to your in-laws. I remember introducing my mother-in-law to a church one Sunday and everyone gasped because I #1 looked her in the eye, #2 pointed to her, and #3 called her by name. Big no no.
I digress. A group of 9 of us went to meet the family. In preparation, they had sent a list containing prices as a starting point for negotiations. It included 10 kwacha for a big spear for the wedding ceremony, 10 kwacha for a little spear for the mother-in-law (remember waking her up early in the morning?!), 200 kwacha to open negotiations, 10 more kwacha for “prayers.” I asked why he had to pay for prayers and those on our side said, “Nobody really knows. It’s just a way for them to get more money.” Good tradition for the family of the bride!
We stopped about 200 yards outside the village and Emmanuel went ahead to inform them of our arrival. Miriam was placed in a bedroom by herself, then they called for us. Mulenga was prepared to not speak or smile, no matter what happened. I think it was to show he is serious about the wedding? Whatever the reason, he approached the village with the most depressed, forlorn look I’ve ever seen. Like his life was over or something. *Insert marriage joke here* Mulenga and Cornvent, another representative, were taken inside a house and told to wait by themselves. The rest of us were taken to the house where Miriam was hidden (we didn’t know she was there) and told to wait. They brought us sweet beer, which is a non-alcoholic, not so tasty, chunky corn drink. But at least it had sugar in it, so I managed to drink most of my cup.
After about 90 minutes, the entire family came in and sat down. Mulenga and Cornvent followed and sat in the corner, eyes down the entire time. They had about 15 on their side, and with our 9, it was a tight squeeze for everyone to sit in a 8’X10’ room. The meeting opened with a prayer and then everyone introduced themselves and gave their clan names and relation to either Mulenga or Miriam. On my turn I introduced myself as “Blu Mudeenda (My Tonga name). To my father’s side, I’m a Tidwell. To my mother’s side, I’m a Howell. Mulenga is my little brother.” Then we went around again and everyone spoke directly to Mulenga and Miriam. It was at this point that I realized that she was hiding in the other room. Everyone kept talking to her over the wall. Mulenga just kept looking at the ground as if he was about to cry. It was bizarre to say the least. But it was also a very special time of imparting wisdom to the to lovebirds as well as cracking jokes. One of the uncles was talking to Mulenga and told him in a very stern voice, “Look at me. The other day you were driving that truck and the way you were driving was crazy! You almost ran me over! If you’re going to be part of this family, you must always stop and greet me when you see me. Don’t drive crazy like that!” Everyone in the room was laughing, except for Mulenga and Cornvent. Mulenga held his beaten-down puppy dog look. The uncle continued, “Look. I know your teeth are clenched together right now and you’re trying not to laugh. I’m done.” Later on, Mulenga said that was a point where he almost started laughing, but held it in in order to show respect.
It was a very formal time, but it was evident that everyone was very relaxed and willing to have a good time. Although we try to be as culturally relevant as possible, most of the time our interaction with Zambians from the village is on our terms. They come to work and are very reserved and respectful. They come to church and are learning new things and most of the time unsure of themselves. Sometimes we speak through an interpreter or just use English, which naturally puts up barriers. It was nice to see everyone interact in a place and in a way in which they felt completely comfortable. The old ladies told Miriam how happy they were for her. They promised to buy her new chitengis, since all her clothes would be left with the family when she married. The men welcomed Mulenga into the family and talked about how his family was now their family. And how they will help one another and solve problems together. I was especially proud of the New Day representatives, Hildah, Abby, and Joyce. Their turns to speak centered around the Bible and God’s plan for marriage. It was not only good advice for Mulenga and Miriam, but a good witness to everyone in the room as well.
When everyone was finished, Mulenga and Cornvent left again to sit by themselves and Miriam was escorted out of the house. She walked through the middle of the group in the sitting room, but was covered with a chitengi so that no one could see her face. Everyone else got a three minute break, then settled back in to begin negotiations.
First, they read the list of demands from the bride’s family. As they read them off, Emmanuel quickly agreed to the small amounts for spears and prayers and such. The total amount for that came to 280 kwacha (about $45). They then turned their attention to the matter of cows. The family asked for one bull for the father of the bride and one cow for the mother as a payment of good faith for Miriam. Since Mulenga owns no cattle, we asked about just bringing cash instead, but their asking price was too high. After Mulenga buys the first two animals, he is free to marry his fiancé. After marriage, however, he will be required to pay for an additional two cows at a cost of 1,500 kwacha a piece. This payment, however, is not expected for several years. All told, he got a new wife for the equivalent of two cows and $45. I’m not sure about the purpose of paying for a wife, but I suppose it does ensure that the husband is serious about his intentions. If we did the same thing in America, there would probably be significantly fewer weddings. Come to think of it, I’d probably still be single!
After agreeing upon payment, Emmanuel sat down in the floor with the 280 kwacha. A representative from the other family sat down across from him. He counted out the money on a small decorative cloth. They then grabbed opposite corners and together tied the money inside the cloth in a show of unity. They explained that Mulenga should show up two days later before the sun rises to give Miriam a new name. After that, he wouldn’t be able to see her until the wedding. We all agreed and then they served a feast of chicken, guinea fowl, goat, ndelele, and nshima. Our side of the family all ate together, separate from the other family and Mulenga (who was still separated from everyone). Everyone ate until we were full, but there was still goat left over. As they were taking away the leftovers, Emmanuel stopped them and asked if he could take the rest home with him. If you just promised to make Mulenga pay that much money, I suppose you’re entitled to the leftover goat. He took it and everyone was happy.
Back home, I asked Mulenga about the naming ceremony. He had no idea that he was going to have to give her a name, and only had a day and a half to decide. I tried to help out, but he solidly rejected my suggestions of Tina Turner, Obama, and Cleopatra. He told me it had to be related to his family somehow. Instead, he was trying to decide between his mother, Gladys, his sister, Mabel, and his favorite cousin, Musola. He finally decided on Gladys. Personally, I would have still gone with Cleopatra, but hey, he’s buying the cows, he gets to decide.
He also didn’t know about the not seeing each other rule. Originally, he was thinking of a wedding next July. This new wrinkle, however, has him looking for two young cows as soon as possible. He is very excited and seems genuinely happy. After the wedding, Miri—um, Gladys will be living with Mulenga in new staff housing that we are currently building on the edge of New Day. It will be an adjustment having someone new on the property, but we trust Mulenga’s judgment and choice and are excited about his new life! Please pray for this young couple, as there are many in the community who need to see what a godly marriage looks like.