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A Namibian Wedding

A Namibian Wedding
22 December 2002

 On Saturday, yesterday, we went to a traditional wedding out in the middle of nowhere. We took the Oshakati main road east to Ondongwa, then turned north on a smaller (but still paved) road, then, after a while, we turned west onto the sand and drove through the bush for half an hour. No electricity or running water this far out. In fact, they didn’t even have a latrine. When we arrived at the homestead, I asked one of our relatives where the latrine was. She looked confused, so I said toilet. She still looked confused, then lead me around in circles for a while as if trying to find the latrine. Finally, she just gestured to the bushes beyond the fence. I actually prefer the bushes because at least it doesn’t stink out there and you don’t have to worry about spiders and flies.

 Now, we didn’t actually go to the wedding ceremony at the church, luckily we missed that. Our friends, who went to a different wedding on the same day, could only say of the ceremony that it was “long.” What we went to was the reception at the bride’s homestead. When we got there, the bridal party had not yet arrived from the church, but there were many people there, all working furiously to prepare the food. They were cooking freshly slaughtered goat and cattle in big pots over fires. In another place they were putting the final touches on the potato salad, pasta salad, rice and coleslaw. Zac and I wandered around aimlessly for a little bit, trying to find somewhere to hide from all the stares. We finally ended up under one of the makeshift tents  talking to an older couple that (thank god) knew English very well. We stayed there until we heard singing, a bunch of shrill yelling and a few gunshots. Aah, the arrival of the wedding party. We followed our Tate out of the maze (I think all homesteads are modeled after the Labyrinth, with a topless Kuku (grandma) hiding in the center instead of a minotaur). The bride and groom were walking under two umbrellas (to shade them) accompanied by the wedding party and all the guests. There was a lot of singing, and dancing, and older women with horsetail things that they were waving around. We tried very hard to be inconspicuous, to “blend” but it just wasn’t happening.

 After a while, everyone crowded into one of the sections of the homestead and there was some praying and more singing. We hovered outside the fence. Eventually, because a tall man with a red and white striped shirt and a big feather in his hat beckoned us to come inside, we made our way around the maze and into the homestead. We were inside for only a few moments when several of the kukus came filing out from somewhere, with their shrill yelling, to greet us. We “uhalopo’d” as best we could, and our greeting must have been sufficient because they then trailed back to the wedding party. The wedding celebration actually ended up being a lot more fun than we anticipated. In Omege, we are used to being ignored by everyone except the children, who never tire of calling out “ongiini” or “hello, how are you?” But many people at the wedding came and talked to us and seemed interested in what we were doing in Namibia. We probably talked to more people than we have during our entire stay in Omege so far. Even our own family was more friendly than normal.

 After loitering around for a bit, it was time to eat. We went back to our assigned tent and were soon presented with a glass filled to the brim with the traditional drink (consisting of mahangu flour and water, allowed to sit for one night). I tried to say no thank you, because the drink is really bitter and awful, and there really weren’t enough cups for everyone, but a man across from us said we had to drink it, that it was tradition. He was quite insistent, so we accepted. I drank a few sips whenever he looked at me, then I handed the drink off to our Tate at the first opportunity. Our Tate also saved us on another occasion. The girls were bringing out the plates of food now, piled high with goat meat and the salads. Now, for those of you that don’t know, I got terribly sick from eating goat my first night in Omege, and I have managed to not eat it every since, on the premise that I am afraid I will get sick. Evidently our Tate remembered that we didn’t eat goat, and asked us what he should tell the girls to bring us. We said, just the salads, no meat. This was very confusing to everyone, that we didn’t eat meat, but in the end they complied and we escaped having to eat goat once more.

 When we were finished eating, one of our relatives came to us and said, “let’s go.” Not knowing where we were going, we followed obediently. She took us into the yellow tent, where the bride and groom were seated at a table, looking utterly miserable. She then kicked two little kids out of two chairs at the same table as the bride and groom. Then she left. We sat there thoroughly confused for a bit. We congratulated the bride and groom, and someone brought us orange soda, and we sat there confused for a bit longer. Then we struck up a conversation with the person sitting on our right, and the evening flowed smoothly from there. People were very friendly at the wedding, and some of them either knew other Peace Corps volunteers, or had worked with The Peace Corps or something.

 The digital camera turned out to be the bearer of our success. I wanted to take pictures of people at the wedding, but I always feel bad, like I’m imposing, or it marks me as an outsider. But I discovered that the key is to show the people their picture right after I take it, which provides them with infinite delight, particularly the kids. I’m not sure where they got the idea, but they all do gangsta/rapper poses in front of the camera. So I soon found myself surrounded by a hoard of kids, all saying “me, me!” But it was fun. When the memory stick started getting  full and I was tired of taking their photos, I turned the camera off and told them it was finish, broken, no more, anything they might understand. Then I snuck over to the other side of the compound, switched memory sticks, and took pictures of the adults. Although they didn’t surround my like the kids did, they took equal delight in viewing their photos. One man went and got a traditional bow and arrows to pose with, and one family wanted their photo with the gun. I took pictures until it got too dark. Then Zac and I went outside the compound to watch the kids play a game. Soon a group of older kids came and lined up near us. They seemed content to just stare at us, but we started a conversation of sorts. They didn’t believe we were married until we showed them our rings, and then they immediately asked “where is your baby?” I tried explaining that we were just married and weren’t allowed to have children in Namibia anyway. Then, they were shocked when I said I was the last born. Here I am, no children and not at home taking care of my parents. I’m a failure as a woman.

 Communication is always interesting. Sometimes the people will speak English to us, but they speak their own language amongst each other. We don’t know enough to follow along, so are often left out of the general conversations. The older people usually don’t know English, or they only know a few words, so we get along primarily by sign language and a mixture of the few words we know in each other’s language. This can get interesting at times. For example, one Kuku approached us, and tried to introduce herself in Oshinkwanyama (the language we don’t know). We got her name down, and then she kept saying “mem Kornelia.” Kornilia is our Meme, that we’re staying with in Omege. Finally, the woman held up her breast while saying “Kornelia”. In this manner we learned that the woman was Kornelia’s mother.  

Other times, we stick with some of our relatives and hope that they will help translate what is going on. This too becomes interesting with the little kids that mix up their own language not to mention English. One time our little host brother came to me saying “Zac, he needs the camera, the dress.” After much despair on the part of the child, I finally figured out that what Zac really needed was the clothespins, that were kept in a little “dress” on a hanger, that served as the clothespin bag. I asked Zac, and he said he did not even mention the camera. Our little four year old brother Boky has learned an important word: chocolate. Zac and I made no-bake cookies for our family, and Boky loves them. Now, every time he sees me, he says, “hello…….chocolate.” And I reward him with a delicious cookie. He will probably associate white people with chocolate cookies for the rest of his life.

 One thing Zac and I are really glad about is that The Peace Corps insists on our learning the local language. Although our particular language instructor was not very good, and we are not the least bit fluent, we now know enough to get by. The most important part is the greeting. You must greet everyone you see, and people are usually very impressed when we can speak the language. Of course, they then begin to ask us questions in Oshindonga, and we usually stand there helplessly, but I think even knowing a little of their language distinguishes The Peace Corps Volunteers from other white people they may have encountered, particularly when they were colonized by white South Africans. For example, when we meet someone, we are just another white person, but when we greet them in the local language, they immediately break out into a huge grin. In general, we feel like we have been received very well by the host country nationals. We were worried that some people might only remember the white people that terrorized their villages during apartheid, and associate us with them. But we can distinguish ourselves by living with a host family in the villages, going to weddings, and learning the language. The language is also essential in convincing taxi drivers to take us from town back to our village. Usually they said, “Oh! Omege….it is too far.” But we have discovered if we greet them first, they are a lot more likely to drive us all the way out to our village. They make good money doing this, because they cram all seven of us into 1 vehicle, and charge from N$7-10, per person, which is not bad for us or them. Everybody comes out a winner.

 So overall, our experience has been really good. The pace is slow and the people are reserved, but gradually we are beginning to understand this culture and our place in it. Over the text two years I am sure that we will learn much more.

Love Sera

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