We’ve been to 3 Congolese weddings now – all employees of Seb’s – which have been fascinating cultural experiences. I’m now officially in love with Congolese music. And boy, do these guys know how to dance.
I wonder if it was the missionaries who long ago left their mark on this important life event, in that many customs are the same as ours. There are similar blessings, a white dress, flower girls, a first dance, a white cake, a large meal.
But it’s the customs that diverge from ours that I find fascinating. We have yet to attend an actual ceremony, which begins in the morning with a civil ceremony, then progresses to a church ceremony in the afternoon. Most people only attend the evening reception, and I can see why. It starts about 3 hours later than planned, and takes a LONG time. It’s a great party and a lot of fun, but you definitely shouldn’t plan on doing anything else the next morning. If the invitation says it starts at 7 and you show up at 8, you’ll be alone. At 9 some other guests will start arriving, but you won’t see the bride & groom before 10 or 10:30. The meal is usually served around midnight, and if you skip all the dancing and leave shortly afterwards, you might get home around 2am.
But it’s worth all the trouble. The evening is beautiful. When the bride and groom enter, they do so slowly and dramatically. There’s always music, usually modern and hip-hoppy. They dance as they walk to center stage. Well, they sashay, really. It’s elegant and natural, and something I have a hard time mimicking when it becomes my turn (more on that later). They don’t smile, they don’t look at anyone. They take their walk very seriously while the audience is on their feet clapping and cheering to the beat. It’s kind of a goosebump moment. As they walk there’s an emcee on a microphone introducing them and their wedding party. The bride wears a beautiful white dress, the groom a tux, the bridesmaids matching gowns in a style similar to bridesmaids everywhere. (Here’s a short video I put together of one of these entries.)
Then begins a set of rituals, like the traditional first dance. This differs from ours in that the guests come shower the bride and groom with wads of cash which the bridesmaids gather up into little easter baskets. Also, there’s no father-daughter dance broken by the new groom. Not sure why, but I’ve not yet seen the parents of the bride or groom play a role in any of these rituals.
Then there’s the presentation of the gifts. This is done individually, one gift-giver at a time, processional-style. More modern music, more sashaying. Each gift-giver presents their beautifully-wrapped box to the couple, and the 3-kiss greeting is given to all members of the wedding party. (Two women or man-woman greetings are 3 kisses, starting to your left, their right. The man-to-man greeting is a forehead bump in the same pattern of 3.)
Our “entourage” (Seb and I tend to go to these weddings with other Congolese members of the department) always has to pull us out of our chairs to join the processional. Our terrible dancing and awkward sashaying across the room always makes everyone laugh. No matter how much beer we’ve consumed over the prior 3-4 hours, it’s still highly embarrassing.
Here’s our group preparing to carry in the department’s gifts – larger ones than most.
There’s something else about the gift-giving that is decidedly different than ours. Except for the large items, all the gifts are wrapped up very nicely, pretty ribbons and bows, but I guess no one puts their name on them. At the second wedding one of Seb’s guys told us why. (He made it sound as if this was kind of common – my apologies to Congolese friends if this is untrue or exaggerated. I’ll just tell you what he told us.) I guess sometimes there are guests at the reception who may have been wronged in the past by the bride and/or groom, yet received an invitation anyway because they are family or whatever. But they would like to take this opportunity to, let’s say, take some revenge. So they show up, eat the free food, drink the free beer, dance the night away AND present a prettily-wrapped gift with a lot of dancing and bravado… but with something disgusting inside. Maybe a dead animal, maybe used toilet paper. It’s customary for the bride and groom’s “chaperones” (an older, unrelated married couple who act as impartial marital counselors for the couple) to keep all the gifts for something like 2 months before they open and “audit” them for the couple. This allows time for anything really gross to expire, and for the couple to be spared the horror of opening it themselves.
That disgusting story aside, we’ve truly enjoyed the chance to attend these weddings. One of them in particular was very creative. After the bride and groom entered the room, the attendants performed a little dance routine (see video here). Then there was an elaborate presentation of not just the cake but the knife as well. The girl presenting the knife was dressed in a tribal outfit and danced to tribal music. Loved that. After several minutes moving down the aisle to her routine, she finally reached the couple. But before she could release the knife, the emcee announced that someone had to pay her. She stood there pulsating as if in a trance with the knife over her head until someone went to her with a $20 bill. Finally, there was also a comedian who performed a 15-minute sketch, entirely in very rapid French so I can’t tell you much beyond his first joke. He was an albino fellow, and I guess he took one look at us and announced that crap, now all his jokes were going to fail, because when he wrote them he planned on surely being the only mzungu in the room.
After all the processions and introductions and gift-giving and rituals, around midnight we finally eat. The meals have always been impressive and elaborate. The drinks keep flowing too. After the meal, the real party begins. I love watching everyone dance. Kind of like our Macarena, there are lots of songs that everyone recognizes and jumps up to dance to in a coordinated style. Here’s an example that’s a bit modern, but it made me laugh. It’s an English-language song, from Nigeria, but very popular here (our gardener was playing it over and over on his phone the other day, though he didn’t understand it at all). The chorus goes something like “She took my money… but I don’t care” with motions to match.
Various photos from various weddings: