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kukwatira

Posted October 11, 2015 at 04:07 AM by Paulu

A few words about wedding receptions in Malawi.

I attended my first yesterday – my counterpart within the hospital was getting married and since I ask him to do so much unpaid work with me I felt obligated to show up. Not that I wasn't flattered he asked me to come, and not that I didn't want to gain the cultural experience of a wedding here. But in college I worked catering and I've been to literally a hundred or so weddings, and the prospect of yet another does not fill me with any sense of joy.

However, I knew I'd regret making up some excuse to miss it, and I figured a few hours of discomfort was worth having a cool story to tell for the rest of my life. (There's a commentary on Peace Corps service writ large in there somewhere, but you can draw your own conclusions.) Despite the entire thing being in Chichewa (the most widely-spoken language in Malawi) and me being the sole azungu, the goings-on were, by-and-large, familiar.

This all took place at one of the meeting halls at the local secondary school. Rows of chairs were set up, all facing the stage, which was festooned with colorful streamers and sheets hung from the walls. On stage was a wrought metal bench for the bride and groom, and behind them were seats arranged in a semi-circle for the wedding party. To the side was an array of speakers and next to them the DJ. An MC directed the events, calling for different groups of people to come up and dance with the newlyweds based on their affiliations or relationship to them. For instance, when he called for everyone who worked with the groom (my counterpart) at the hospital to come up, all of the staff – and myself – would get up and dance. The music was mostly techno remixes of songs you hear blasting from every radio in Malawi, with a few familiar American dance songs thrown in for good measure.

There are differences, however. At every party event in at least the parts of Malawi I've been to, there aren't really moments without noise blasting from the speakers. When the music stops, the MC would begin a constant stream of talking until the music started back up. Conversations – if you even bother – have to be carried on at a yell. The atmosphere is less hors d’oeuvre hour and more Saturday night at the club.

Oh, and all the while everyone is throwing small bills in the air.

We call it 'chopping kwach' (the local currency being the kwacha). It is reminiscent of nothing so much as throwing singles at a stripper, and therefore seeing crowds of family and friends toss money towards the bride is particularly disconcerting. However, at weddings and birthdays, it is customary to literally shower the person or persons of honor in money. The goal of the people throwing the celebration is to recoup more money in gifts than they spent on the event itself. While everyone is dancing, a rain of twenties and fifties falls to the floor, where it is collected by designated people into woven reed baskets and taken aside to a table to be counted. If you only have a thousand kwacha bill but you want to make it rain, you go to the table and get change. Simple as that, and you now have twenty bills to chop instead of just one.

The bride and groom are also presents with a mattress (or, as was the case yesterday, several mattresses). The image of my counterpart and his wife sitting on their new mattress as the assembled masses throw money in their direction is just as incredible as it sounds, and was probably worth the price of admission.
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