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My Heart is Africa - A cross-cultural wedding

Inspired by Scott Griffin's book, "My Heart is Africa", this is the fourth instalment in the story of my short, eye-opening vacation to the East African republic of Kenya for my brother's wedding earlier this year.

February 3rd was the day before my brother's wedding. The day's key events were the wedding's rehearsal -- and the assembly of the wedding cake.

My parents had brought most of the ingredients for the wedding cake's four layers from Canada, an adventure in its own right. My mother had spent some time during the week experimenting with ways to make the cake in the small oven in the house of my sister-in-law's family.

The day began with my mother starting work on the cake. Each layer would take a couple of hours to make, and there was no room for error. If a mistake was made and a layer did not work, my brother would just have less wedding cake to work with.

There were four layers to be made for the cake. Only three of them would be present at the reception following the wedding. The fourth would be given to the rather large local choir whose exact function I did not yet understand.

The first layer was made without any problems. My mother assembled the ingredients, put the layer in the oven, and took it out when it was done some time later. Late in the morning, on the second or third layer, I heard from my perch upon the throne in the guest house washroom some unholy cursing coming from the kitchen in the adjacent building. The colourful language brought everyone who was around, only my father, wife, and cursing mother, at the time, to the kitchen to see what was up.

An uncooked layer of cake lay in the oven, the timer indicating that its stay in the oven was nearing completion. The oven was off, and cold. The power had been cut to it.

In a land of unstable utilities and high budget consciousness, my sister-in-law's mother cut the breaker to the washing machine when done with it, and turned off the adjacent breaker to the stove out of force of habit, on her way out of the house to run errands. The oven, which had to be precisely preheated to cook the cakes properly in the conditions we were in, was cold. Fortunately, it had been turned off just as the layer had gone in and it was not damaged.

That was the end of my time around the cake construction. That adventure would continue without me. My father and I went to the Windsor hotel while my wife stayed behind to help my mother bake. The wedding rehearsal was to take place in the afternoon and, lacking any particular official role in the wedding, I took to taking pictures of the proceedings.

We checked in and went to our new home. We would be spending the next three nights in a cottage at the Windsor. I noted our cottage contained two master bedroom type rooms which private washrooms and locking doors on both ends, one end being a series of large glass doors and the other being normal doors. The washrooms had multiple wall sockets so tourists could plug in their razors no matter where they came from, an interesting feature I would see more of. There were also small lizards kicking around, which was an improvement over the small, almost cute ants we had spent the previous days sharing our meals with.

We returned to the main lobby area to have lunch at the restaurant next to the pool at the hotel, and then returned to our room, wandering outside to our veranda overlooking the Windsor's golf course. Every few minutes a golf ball would pass, followed shortly by a golfer accompanied by a caddy. In some cases, the golf balls even stayed within the limits of the green, but it seemed to be more the exception than the rule.

The veranda sported four uncomfortable metal chairs that begged for cushions. We shortly found these and sat around waiting for preparation for the rehearsal to begin. Eventually, my brother showed up and I snapped my first photo of the day showing my brother in focus through out of focus bushes with his right hand on top of his head and a strained look on his face. The rehearsal was about to begin.

The rehearsal itself was mostly unremarkable. My mother's brother was asked to be the celebrant for the wedding and proved beyond a reasonable doubt in the rehearsal that he was a good pick for the job, at least by appearances. I got rather preoccupied photographing people's comings and goings around the site, and avoiding the frequent golf balls that landed in the immediate vicinity of the rehearsal, followed shortly by the golfers and their apologetic caddies. Truth be told, I don't recall paying much attention to the rehearsal. My job would be, along with my sister-in-law's brother, an usher. It wasn't a job that required much practice.

Various speakers practised their readings and my brother and his very soon-to-be wife traded rings and quickly took them back before giving each-other the wrong idea, as family, the Windsor's events coordinator, and some monkeys looked on.

The best man had arrived the night before and was doing his job well. The rest of my brother's friends had arrived several days earlier from England, but the best man had moved back to Brazil since being asked to be the best man and his journey to the wedding was hampered by his wife becoming ill just days before their scheduled departure. His arrival relieved some significant stress for my brother.

Following the rehearsal, I headed back to our cottage. Everyone else scattered, though I really don't know where to. I was expecting my wife and mother to show up around 5 and so sat back in the room to relax for the hour or so until their arrival.

I turned on the TV. Most channels were grainy or completely unavailable, but BBC World worked well and suited me. I hadn't seen much news in the week since I had arrived in Kenya. After a little while, someone knocked on the cottage's front door. I went to answer it, and a staff member from the Windsor came by to inform me that there was a burned out light bulb in our cottage that had been reported, but he didn't know where. We were quickly able to identify the offending light, though I hadn't reported it. I asked him if he had any batteries for the remote that I could try. He disappeared and re-emerged a few minutes later with a pair of AA batteries. I put them in the remote and found no improvement. He apologised, saying that the Windsor had ordered new remotes.

Time marched on. Five came and went. Six came and went. Seven came and went. I was hoping my wife would call with an update from the house where the cake assembly line was going. I headed up to the pool area of the hotel briefly and then returned to my room, finding not much more that I wanted to do in that area.

A little after seven, someone knocked on the door. I answered it and found another Windsor staff-person. She told me she was here to prepare the room for the night. I scratched my head and wondered what on earth she would do, and politely declined.

Eventually, my mother, my wife, and my father who had returned to the house to help, showed up carrying one layer of the wedding cake. Some of the cake was on my wife's shirt which seemed like an impractical way of carrying it, but I suspected it wasn't intentional. Sure enough, they had taken a taxi back from the house with the layer of the cake intended for the wedding choir. They had asked the taxi driver to drive carefully, as my wife would be carrying the cake in her lap. He didn't really heed the request and my wife's shirt did at least some of the holding.

We put the cake on a shelf and headed off to find dinner. We wandered down to the restaurant downstairs of the main hotel lobby, finding some of my extended family crowded around a table. We sat down at an adjacent table and began mixing with the existing table, much to the entertainment of the waiter.

That night, my wife and I stayed on the hide-a-bed in the cottage's living room while my brother pondered his last unmarried night in one of the bedrooms. In the morning, wedding prep went into full swing, but I don't really remember much about the hours leading up to the wedding. I put on my suit for the first time in nearly a year, noting that the dry environment did not make my suit feel excessively hot. My brother, his best man, my father, and my brother's father-in-law dressed up into rented British morning suits and prepared for the moment. As they got dressed, the official photographer and team of videographers recorded the event for all to see many times over.

Three tents were set up for the wedding. Twin tents straddled an unprotected aisle for the procession, and a third covered the stage area. The chairs were draped in white with some chairs having red and some having gold decorations. The aisle's floor consisted of a white carpet covered in rose petals with an arch at the entrance.

My job as an usher was pretty simple: hand out the limited supplies of programs and direct people to grab seats, with the bride's family on the left, the groom's family on the right, and their army of friends padding my brother's family's side to at least try and match the attendance of the bride's family. A large array of chairs was set up facing the attendees to the left of the stage and it soon became clear that this would be where the choir was to sit.

The families and friends assumed our seats, and about two thirds of the choir assumed their seats. My uncle took his spot at the podium and my brother's wedding was under way, just one year, seven months, and a week after mine.

Music started and all eyes turned toward the cottage row behind us. The missing members of the choir were dancing slowly toward us, facing right, then left, then right again. Soon the beaming bride emerged from a cottage behind the choir, preceded by her sisters in bright red dresses each holding a bouquet, and flanked by her parents. The procession approached slowly but surely, taking what seemed an eternity to reach the arch at the end of the aisle. On arrival at the arch, the music switched to the traditional "here comes the bride" as they finished their procession the last few steps to my patiently waiting brother.

My uncle started off by welcoming everyone to the wedding. It then proceeded on to a mix of traditional wedding readings about the meaning of love and the obligations of marriage, interspersed with the choir singing an assortment of songs on the topic, mostly in Swahili. A priest was also invited to speak to the wedding and he set about a long speech, more or less repeating the content of most of the readings that had already been given. He then ad libbed about my brother and his wife, joking repeatedly that my brother was a bad Jew. The jokes would have probably been very good coming from a Jew, but that's how it goes.

The wedding was very nice as far as weddings go. The choir's presence, in every sense of the word, added a lot to the wedding. Hearing singing in Swahili is a unique experience in its own right, but having a black Kenyan choir singing Swahili songs for a Goan Catholic marrying a white Jewish Canadian is really quite the fascinating mix.

Following the exchange of rings and the recessional, there was a general retreat to a sunny, grass hill below the cottages adjacent to the wedding site and golf courses for photos. Over the next hour or so, every conceivable combination of relatives, friends, and the wedding party themselves arranged themselves in lines to be photographed by every conceivable combination of cameras and photographers, with the official photographer trying to get his shots in edgewise. Noone was really in charge of organising the photography, though several people assumed contradictory control, though it all worked out well in the end.

From there, the wedding party escaped back to the house in a poorly disguised convoy of cars marked by a flower-covered Mercedes. My immediate family left in one of the last cars of the convoy to help set up our particular role. The rest of the guests followed in their own cars, with a private security officer watching over the fleet of cars parked outside the house's locked gate. The matatu brought the group that did not have cars.

Among the neat ideas for this wedding was the use of a Polaroid camera for the guest-book. Instead of each guest signing the guest-book at the reception, my wife and I had a booth set up at the gate and photographed each person or group as they came in, putting the developed Polaroid into the guest book with some tape and inviting each to sign below their photos.

The official photographer and videographers for the wedding looked at the Polaroid camera with wonder and amazement. They had not ever heard of such a camera, much less seen one in operation. They had a good deal of difficulty coming to grips with the fact that the Polaroid technology is so old in the West that it has more or less been relegated to the history books. My brother apparently spent quite a bit of time and effort touring London trying to gather enough Polaroid film for this effort to even work.

In all our time taking these pictures of each guest, my wife and I got so caught up with it that we totally forgot to put in a picture of ourselves, a problem that remains unrectified more than half a year later. We are the ghosts of the guest-book.

After everyone arrived and before the sky did its equatorial near-instantaneous transition from day to night, the cake was cut. At our wedding, it was still frozen, making for an entertaining effort to get our first piece off the cake, but this one went off without a hitch. My sister-in-law and my brother fed each-other pieces of cake, with my sister-in-law giving an extra push embedding the cake around my brother's grin.

As the evening wore on, it became apparent that the official photographer, using a film SLR camera with a single 50mm lens, was quite envious of the digital SLR camera with 18-200mm lens I was using. He kept joking that we could trade cameras, asking if I could please leave mine behind.

The reception carried on, with increasingly drunken speeches followed by one of the best DJed dances I have yet seen, not that I have a lot of experience with dances. On the dance floor members of my family somehow managed to kick off a full blown execution of the Hava Nagila and while I was in the washroom, I found out a moment too late, managed to get my brother and his wife hoisted on chairs in good Jewish tradition.

At the end of the evening, my brother set about removing his wife's garter while blindfolded. Apparently this tradition is common, though I had never personally seen it before. My brother made endless and hilarious efforts to remove the garter from a couple of different people before finally finding himself in front of his wife. After its recovery, he threw it into a crowd of presumably single young men attending the wedding, and the reception's recessional began with everyone present linking hands in the air to create a tunnel through which the new couple would pass. The wedding was over.

We climbed into our matatu and, to the sound of drunken, singing Brits, returned to the Windsor.

The next day was a day of rest and recovery for all involved. My main activity was tracking down usable Internet access.

I went to the Windsor's net cafe, where I attempted to connect to my home machine. I was dismayed to find that the proxy limits service to web only and asked the employee about it. He told me that the network is split in two, with an unfiltered network going to the staff computers. To use that, he led me up to someone's office up a flight of stairs and set me up on their computer, where I was finally able to use the secure shell to connect to my home machine. Some time later, as my wife and I checked our respective emails, the office's main employee entered and wanted to know what we were doing at her computer. We explained and she asked if she could have it back. We obliged and went downstairs to pay the net cafe's exhorbatant rates.

On the first of February, four days earlier, we went to an Internet cafe in the basement of the Diamond Plaza in Nairobi which charged one shilling per minute, which is as cheap as it sounds. On one wall was a row of computers, and on the other, a row of VoIP phones. As long as no-one was on the phone, the Internet connection was quite usable. My father and I had spent an hour and forty minutes there, and paid exactly 200 shillings for the two computers for that time, less than $3. Not bad. At the Windsor, the rate was ten shillings per minute for a comparable quality of connection. But then again, a small bottle of water cost 300 shillings at the Windsor, where the same bottle cost only 100 in most other places. Separating tourists from their money is a bit of a game.

Later on, we stopped by the net cafe again, and the geeky technician informed me that he had rewired one of the computers to be on the unrestricted network, so I was able to use it periodically through the rest of the day.

We went outside to the pool where most of our group was spending the day. My wife lay down on a beach chair and declared she would sunbathe. She then proceeded to cover herself with towels from head to toe, complete with a hat over the towel over her head.

At dinner, we more or less took over a room of the restaurant in the basement. My family set up at one table, with my brother's friends set up at another one up some stairs and behind a cubicle type divider. As the meal progressed, bread rolls were exchanged without human escort between the tables.

This night would be our last at the Windsor and I took note of our location posted in the front lobby of the hotel: The Windsor Golf and Country Club is at 0117'S by 3649'E at 5,680 feet elevation. In the morning we would leave for our Safari.

My Heart is Africa - the series

  1. My Heart is Africa
  2. My Heart is Africa - The Nairobi Railway Museum
  3. My Heart is Africa - Carnivore, and seeing the animals we ate
  4. My Heart is Africa - A cross-cultural wedding
  5. My Heart is Africa - On Safari: Lake Nakuru's flamingos and the Naivasha Highway
  6. to be continued...

Posted at 20:19 on September 26, 2006

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