It is 4:50 am when we leave Nairobi. I am joining my friend Ruth’s husband-to-be, Evanvil, on his journey to her rural home’s doorstep to propose to her. The Kenyan version of this entails a little more than a ring and a bent knee, though.
During our five hour ride to Kisii, we have to stop several times along the way, mostly to drop off or pick up people from Evanvil’s family. About 40 relatives are coming along for the dowry ceremony. They rented a bus to transport people from his home near Kitale to hers in Kisii on an arduous, six hour drive.
A drive through a beautiful part of Kenya. So beautiful in fact, it makes you wonder why so many leave it and go to the big cities. Sure, people here tend to have little money and little perspective. So they move to Nairobi, in the hopes of getting a good education, a job, some money. And when they have all that, what do they do? They use their precious money and even more precious time to go on holidays or visit their families in beautiful parts of Kenya, just like this one.
We make sure that the whole party arrives together at the house, which seems to be important to the semi-traditional ceremony the couple and their families have planned. Because the rains of the last weeks have drenched the dirt roads, we have to park the cars outside the property. I join a caravan of well-dressed Kalenjins wading through the mud to get to the bride-to-be’s house.
When we get there, the wazee, the grooms family’s male elders, are immediately ushered into the sitting room. Here, they will sit with their counterparts of the hosting family and negotiate the dowry, which is to be paid in cows. Neither the prospective groom nor bride will be present for this, and the price they will eventually agree on will be kept secret.
Ruth receives me in another part of the house, where she is getting ready for the day with her bridesmaids. She is wearing an amazing colourful dress, tailor-made for the occasion. We will spend the waiting period until an agreement between the wazee is reached here, chatting and getting made up.
“They are sitting together to discuss how many cows they’re going to sell me for”, Ruth tells me with a wink. “And they better hurry, because nobody is going to be fed before they have agreed.” So wills it the tradition of the tribes of both families, Kalenjin as well as Kisii. Smart move, I assume. That is bound to speed up the negotiations. “But because we’re nice, we gave them tea.”
After about two hours of waiting, I am starting to slowly fall asleep, when all of a sudden there is a huge commotion. We hear shouting and singing, the Kenyan equivalent to white smoke: An agreement has been reached!
I throw over the beautiful yellow and blue dress all bridesmaids had made and walk out to join the others. Ruth is in the sitting room, where Evanvil is now officially proposing to her. Afterwards, she is guided outside by singing and dancing women, where she is being shoved from one person to the next to hug and celebrate with all the relatives.
She runs back into the dressing room to change into her ‘outside dress’, while I stay around to watch what the families are doing. A tent has been pitched in the garden, and about 100 people are gathered here now. The two families sit on opposite sides of the tent, facing each other. People are singing, dancing and praying, everyone is happy for the couple – and also excited with the prospect of food being served soon.
Back in the house, I am being handed a plate with a huge pile of food on it. A bull and two goats were slaughtered for the occasion, and the meat was divided between the guests. The bridesmaids and bride get matumbo, cow viscera, served with rice, potatoes, ugali, green vegetables and cabbage.
When everybody is fed and happy, the ceremony continues outside. I notice that during the entire day, the bride and groom’s roles are very passive, they are more or less reduced to being presented to the families.
Now comes the part of the ceremony in which the families are officially introduced to each other. Speeches are held, of which I unfortunately don’t understand much, since the bride and bridesmaids are seated in an extra tent beside the families’ tent. Plus, I don’t speak Kiswahili, which might play a part in that, since all the speeches are held in it.
After all is said, the groom’s relatives start to bring out a huge pile of presents for the bride’s family members. They are a sign of appreciation for the relatives who have to part with their daughter, sister, cousin or niece. They receive duvets, cooking equipment, shoes, and other useful things. All the bridesmaids, including me, get beautiful shawls.
Finally, it’s time for the long awaited highlight of the day: The cake cutting. No Kenyan party is complete without it. After Ruth and Evanvil have cut out the first pieces and fed them to each other lovingly, the cake is divided into small pieces. My job is to go around the crowd and distribute them. And boy, are they loving it. You’d think they’ve never seen a cake before, the way they are prying it out of my hands. “But you get some more and come back, yeah?!”, someone yells at me.
All the while, a big bulk of kids is standing around, mouths watering, waiting for their turn to pick up the scraps. Some of them are wearing school uniforms. “Who do all these kids belong to?”, I ask Ruth. “No idea”, she says. “Most of them probably just came by on their way from school. That’s what happens when people hear there’s a party.”
When the cake is gone, the party is over all of a sudden. Everybody is starting to pack their things, say their goodbyes and hurry off before the sun sets, or worse yet, the rains start. The weather has been gorgeous most of the day, warm sun and a serene blue sky. “Somebody is my friend”, Ruth jokes and points towards the heavens.