This is Life in Tanzania
Photo courtesy of Mark Tipple
There were around thirty women sitting on both sides of the narrow hallway on colourful woven mats. All were dressed in mtandio, traditional Muslim headdress, and long flowing dresses. Sometimes the door to a bedroom would open and two women would whisper urgently back and forth in Swahili before the door was swiftly closed again. I felt the gaze of two young girls watching me closely from beside their mother, perhaps unsure what to make of a strange munzungo (white person) in amongst the familiar faces. They did not return my hesitant smile. From somewhere outside floated the muffled sounds of Arabic prayer, a sudden burst of cheering, a baby crying and being shushed.
Arriving at the wedding, I had been asked by one of the groom’s relatives to respect the “traditional way”, which meant men only participating in the ceremony while the women -including the bride – waited inside. My “bodyguards”, three of the students from Kigamboni Community Centre, had urged me to stay with them, but I wanted to be respectful, and to at least try to fit in. An hour and a half later, I started to question this decision. I felt sweat trickle down my back, shifted position on the floor in the hallway. In broken Swahili I attempted to ask Mata, my designated carer, when we would be allowed outside. The answer was “ci jewi” (I don’t know) – it was difficult to tell whether it was a response to my question or my terrible Kiswahili.
There was another eruption of cheering and singing, followed by a long silence. Mata nodded at me and got to her feet, “We go there now.” We walked out to the front of the house where a large group of men were sitting underneath a tarpaulin, a sea of white kunzu robes and golden hats. One of them stood in the very centre with a microphone, one arm outstretched toward the groom who nodded gravely as he spoke. I still had not laid eyes on the bride, who was to remain in her room until the very end of the ceremony. My friend, a photographer, was constantly directed this way and that, inside and outside, from guest to groom to child to grandmother, with the command “Make photo!”
After several more songs, speeches and prayers, the husband and a small group of the men disappeared inside. The loudest cheer of all arose from the bride’s room and eventually she appeared in the doorway, her gaze downward, her face emotionless. Her dress was a dazzling turquoise, covered in delicately threaded sequins that glinted in the fading sunlight. I turned as someone offered me a plate of wali (rice) and when I looked back the bride and groom had slipped into a white car that was already halfway down the street. The wedding guests slowly meandered behind them to the spot where buses usually stop. When a bus failed to appear after ten minutes, they spontaneously broke out into a dance circle in the middle of the road. This involved jumping forwards and backwards around the drummers in time to the beat, stirring up clouds of dust. I was dragged into the circle by my “body guards” who showed me the steps and laughed and cheered at my attempts to imitate them.
Eventually the bus arrived and everyone travelled to the groom’s home where there was a huge crowd of neighbours and friends packed into his front garden. I squashed into the front row along with the KCC crew and watched our acrobats, dancers, and a stilt walker who was challenged to a dance-off by an elderly woman in the crowd. She pointed a crooked finger up at him before lying down on the ground, groaning and rolling back and forth. While the rest of the crowd found it hugely amusing, the humour was completely lost on me.
Just as the speeches were beginning, our bjaji driver yelled for us to “Go, go!” and hurriedly ushered us out of the crowd and into the bjaji. Then we were careening around the narrow dirt roads in the darkness, thumping over rocks and potholes in order to make the fast ferry back to Kigamboni. It had been a crazy and brilliant day. Like most days, it was full of contradictions. The joyful dancing wedding guests and the still and silent bride. The formality and seriousness of the ceremony followed by the absurdity and fun of the performances. I had felt like an outsider in every sense of the word. I could not communicate with most of the guests, could not understand the rules and customs, and yet somehow simply taking part in it all, amongst my new KCC friends, made me feel deeply connected to the community.
As yellow car headlights blurred past us on the streets of Dar, I leaned forward and shouted over the roar of traffic for our bjaji driver to go more pole pole (slowly). He laughed and he began to sing at the top of his lungs in a mixture of Kiswahili and English. I couldn’t make out most of the words, but every now and then I heard: “This is life in Tanzania!” Indeed.
Photo courtesy of Mark Tipple