As darkness sets on the island of Zanzibar, excited shouts, music and the ululating of women fills the air. Dressed in their most colourful and stylish outfits, donned with heavy gold bracelets and chains, their hands and feet decorated with flower patterns made from traditional henna, the women anxiously await the arrival of the star of the evening: the bride. As the live band in the expansive hall draws the crowd to a climax, the bride makes her grand entry.
She enters amidst shouts of ‘Bibi Harussi, the bride, has come!’ as the women let out their high-pitched sounds of joy. Her mother, friends, sisters and aunties follow in her footsteps, dancing and singing, literally escorting her in. Her sight catches the breath of many: it is the most important appearance this young woman will ever make in her life. She has now officially entered womanhood; she is a married woman, a changed person, and the results of days, sometimes weeks, of beauty treatment, culminate in her moment of entry. She majestically struts in, all bright and shiny, showing off her glittering gown, her astonishing hairdo and make-up and the intricate henna patterns on her arms and legs.
The grand entry of the bride represents the climax of a Swahili traditional wedding. Such weddings are held among the entire Swahili population of Eastern Africa, including the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, and the Tanzanian and Kenyan coasts. Swahili weddings incorporate a deeply rooted culture and religion, which can be traced back to the Arabic roots of the Swahili population.
Although a Swahili wedding can differ according to local tradition and the depth of a families’ wallet, the basics remain the same. If a young man and woman want to get married, first, a dowry payment has to be made. This involves elaborate negotiations between both families. The dowry, usually a sum of money or gold, or furniture for the newlyweds’ house, is given to the girl. Secondly, the girl has to consent to the marriage. On the wedding day, before the actual wedding vows are taken, she is asked three times if she has consented to this marriage. If she says no at any one time, the wedding is immediately called off. If she agrees, the vows are then taken with witnesses present, one of which has to be her father or a representative of her father.
For those who are not able to afford elaborate wedding celebrations, a simple ceremony incorporating these things makes for a valid marriage. Swahili culture however deems marriage one of the most important events in a person’s life, and it is therefore expected that a wedding be celebrated in style.
When wedding negotiations are over, a wedding date is set and preparations can start. Two weeks before the wedding day, the bride receives a ‘Sanduku’, the Swahili word for suitcase. It is literally a sizeable suitcase filled with every imaginary item the girl could need for her personal use in her first year of marriage. It includes clothes, shoes, underwear, make-up, toiletries, materials for making dresses, bed sheets, perfume, and even toothbrushes and toothpaste.
A week before the wedding, the girl is taken to a secluded place where she can prepare herself, receive all kinds of beauty treatments and can ask her female relatives, especially her godmother, all the questions she has about the life she is about to enter. For a young Swahili woman, her wedding day symbolises the transition to womanhood. In her culture, this comes with responsibilities, such as a husband and later on a family, but also with rights; she has come of age. She can now wear make-up, gold, beautiful dresses, do her hair, attend weddings -something unmarried girls are not allowed to do- and generally be a woman in her own right.
One of the most noticeable differences between a traditional Swahili wedding and its Western style equivalent, is that the bride and groom are not together when the wedding vows are taken, and they are even separated during much of the festivities. This is based on the religion of the Swahili people, Islam, which does not allow men and women to celebrate such an occasion together. Reason being that the women would not be able to celebrate freely; that is removing their headscarves, dance their sensuous traditional dances and be generally free when men are watching.
During the official ceremony, or Nikkah, the groom is normally in a mosque; his wife to be is in the same area -but not in the same room- if space allows, for instance if the mosque compound harbours another building or secluded area where the bride can sit. It does happen that the bride is not anywhere near the groom when they say their vows. She could be at her parent’s home, or any other place that is deemed fit.
When the wedding vows are taken, it’s time for the bride to come out in her moment of glory. She makes her entry in front of the female wedding guests, and takes her place on a stage in front of the crowd so that she can be admired and people can take pictures with her. A while later, the groom joins her and after elaborate congratulations and picture opportunities, they leave together as man and wife, leaving their guests to celebrate and eat sumptuous amounts of food.
When attending a Swahili wedding, it’s quite obvious that the women are in charge here. The air in the hall where the festivities are taking place is heavy with the perfume of all the women present, their outfits a feast of colour, their gold dangling in abundance. A wedding celebration is a Swahili woman’s party time; it is her chance to get dressed up, show her latest fashion outfits, wear her gold and dance until morning; a chance to get away, if only for a while, from the chores of daily life.
There are usually several other functions following the official ceremony and the ‘showing of the bride’. A smaller party with close relatives can follow, or a religious celebration where prayers are recited to bless the couple. Sometimes a mock ‘fight’ is staged; if the party is at the girls’ parents house, the husband has to ‘break down’ the door to get his wife; and usually, he has to ‘bribe’ the male relatives of the bride to let him in!
With the official wedding day over, the celebrations can go on for several more days. The husband then takes his new wife to all his relatives to introduce her – in Swahili tradition; a bride becomes part of the husbands’ family after marriage. She remains a bride until she gives birth to her first child. Her ‘bridal’ days are then officially over. But by then, she will have probably gone for countless other weddings to enjoy the party!