The weekend before last I came into Conakry to assist a wedding. My “adopted” host family who I eat dinner with almost every night invited me and I had to come to Conakry for a training the following week so it worked out really well. The oldest son in the family, Elaj Mammadou Oury (pronounced Wuri) was getting married. This was my first time traveling to Conakry by taxi. It took about 4 more hours but I experienced no carsickness this time. I was able to read and listened to season 2 of Serial on the way so it wasn’t too bad. We also stopped a couple times for people to pray so I had a chance to stretch.
Before I talk about the wedding day I want to provide some background on Pular weddings.
Abstinence only with your Fiancé/fiancée
According to Pular tradition, if you are going to marry someone you cannot have had sex with them. So even if you’ve dated someone for 2 years and you are in love with them, if you’ve done the deed you can’t marry them. It seems like a really tragic love story. I’ve talked to a few people who would want to marry the people they are currently dating but they say they can’t. The first time I heard about this I was talking to a 30 year old guy in my village and I thought he was interpreting things to his benefit. Ok you can have sex with girlfriends before you get married but you just can’t have sex with your fiancée- that’s convenient. But then I heard it from various other people. Apparently when you get engaged you don’t want to see your fiancé/fiancée too often either because something may go down. This is also why there is a 3 month rule where you can’t see your fiancé/fiancée 3 months before the wedding day. If anyone reading this knows more or would like to correct me on something I’ve said, please feel free to comment.
Before the wedding the groom must present various things to the bride’s family. Among them are: kola nuts, a dowry, and a suitcase with an odd number of fabrics- usually 9 or 11. According to the Koran, the dowry must be at least the value of a gram of gold. I had heard about the kola nuts and the suitcase in Senegal and Mali but it seems the things you have to give in the suitcase or as part of the dowry vary from place to place. In Mali, I was told you had to provide money for all the things that your wife would need to cook.
By the way, the groom is also going to pay for the whole wedding. Seems fair since he can get married up to 3 more times if he wants.
Preparing for the Wedding: Cooking
They don’t have people cater weddings over here as far I’ve seen. Instead everyone in the family and/or village chips in. Cous-cous making started in my village and was continued in Conkary. The day before the wedding the women were really busy making cous cous and cooking everything so they could reheat it the next day. I learned that they make the cous cous by adding water to corn powder. Then they will use the bottom of a cup to push the cous cous around a strainer and break up any balls. After that they put the cous cous in a cotton sheet and steam it. This is followed by more sifting/breaking up of any chunks. Another round of steaming + another round of breaking up and then lay out in the sun to dry and voila you made you corn cous cous called lachiri. The women (even the bride!) worked all night to prepare the food.
The day of the wedding I went to the family’s house and they were reheating all the food. They tried to give me a plate of chicken, fries, fried bananas and some bread for breakfast but I didn’t want to eat too much so early and I felt a little strange because I didn’t see anyone else being served that. Here when you’re eating you’re supposed to invite people to eat so it was a little weird because I was the only one eating and there were people coming in and out and I wasn’t sure if I needed to offer each time. Such is life in Peace Corps, you’re always a little worried that you’re being impolite.
In the afternoon, there were still some girls getting their done and someone offered to do mine. I was a little worried I wouldn’t like it but I was really impressed with the final product. The girl who was braiding my hair asked me if in the United States people could file a complaint against someone who pulls out their hair while braiding. I don’t know where they get these ideas but I explained no they’ll just ask you to not pull so much.
I don’t know what I was expecting honestly but I realized that I really did not know very much at all about their wedding ceremonies. Also this was a city wedding so they’re bound to be different. I was pretty confused as to what was going on throughout the day. The groom came by in a very nice white bubu which I thought he would wear in the wedding but I later learned that that was all for the religious ceremony. They had said there was a reception so I was waiting for us to go there but I didn’t understand why there was a tent set up outside of the house and why more and more people kept on coming to eat. I figured we would be eating at the reception. Nope. Here, everyone will eat at someone’s house and then go to the reception. I think both families prepare food and serve guests before they head to the reception. Wedding food was lachiri (corn cous cous) with kosan (yogurt) or chicken and fries with peas. People arrived and ate and chatted for awhile and then around 5 pm people started heading to the reception.
For us, the reception is a really big deal-it’s where all the wedding memories happen but I think for them the other wedding ceremonies are the important part- the kola nuts, the suitcase, etc. The grooms parents did not attend the reception. When I asked why, my host brother told me they are too old for this lol. So, even though it may look like they’re adopting Western customs because the bride is wearing a white dress and the groom a suit and tie, it doesn’t have all that much resemblance to a Western wedding.
There reception area was a large outdoor space and there were various weddings happening. When the bridge and groom arrived they went through a little archway and then sat down at a table. Everyone started lining up at the archway to greet them and take pictures.
I was really surprised at how little the groom’s family was involved. I would’ve expected them to be part of the bridal party but none of them were. This could also have been due to the fact that they do not live close to Conakry so it would have been very difficult to involve them but still his sisters could’ve sent their measurements and had dresses made. His family even had to get in line to take pictures with their brother and his new wife! That was weird to me. Maybe it’s a result of the polygamy; it may not be the man’s only wedding so the main focus is on the bride and her family.
Also, I had been looking forward to dancing A LOT during the wedding but I kept waiting for the dancefloor to get a little fuller and that moment never came. It was just a circle of women dancing the whole time and the only music was Pular music. People told me “Oumou, you’re going to dance. C’mere I’ll have them call you to dance.” Apparently calling people to dance is a thing here which I was not aware of and wasn’t too keen on. I wanted to dance with people I knew not feel like the dancing monkey in a circle of strangers but regardless if I had been called up I would have danced. Apparently I was called and did not hear my name so I dropped the ball there.
The wedding ceremony ended around 6 pm. A Mercedes pulled up to take the bride and groom and some of the bridal party. At that point we went back to where we had been earlier in the day and it seemed like the whole thing was done but there were still ceremonies happening.
The bride was busy sorting out all the gifts of fabric given to her and splitting them between her family and her new husband’s family. Once the bride has given the fabric out at her house she goes to her new husband’s family’s house. She chooses which member of the family will receive what fabric. They will write the relation to the husband such as “The groom’s mother” on a paper and fold the fabric with the paper and someone will read it and pass out the gifts of fabric. After that is done she finally gets to go home with her husband.
After the gifts were distributed and we had eaten dinner I was sitting around. The plan had been that I would head to the volunteer house in Conakry after the wedding but nobody told me to take my bag with me and I figured “the reception will end at 6, I’ll get my bag and take a taxi”. That didn’t pan out. It was around 8:30 pm when I reminded the groom’s father that I would be heading to the volunteer house. He said “No it’s too late now. It’s not safe. You’ll leave tomorrow morning.” I was hoping his son could convince him to let me go but he agreed with his dad. So anywho, after dinner people were trying to work out who was going back home in what car, etc. They were speaking Pular but I was able to understand at least 25% of what was being said. One guy was talking to the groom and asking “Where is Oumou going to stay?” The groom’s dad/my work partner said “She is staying at the groom’s house”. Then the groom said in French “Can she stay in the other room?” and I realized OMG I’m imposing on what is supposed to be their wedding night! I was seriously really freaking out inside and I whispered to the groom’s dad that I could go to the volunteer house but he told me “No your spot was already set”. So long story short I shared the same bed as the bride on what was supposed to be her wedding night.
Honestly, I didn’t feel too bad because the poor bride was exhausted; she had been up cooking the previous night. The groom was really nice about it too. He told me “Oumou you’re going to be Aminata’s (the bride) husband tonight” lol. Also, I had imagined it would only be me, the groom and the bride at the groom’s house but when we got there I discovered 4 other people were staying the night there so it wasn’t so awkward. The next morning I was ready to bolt out of there so maybe they could salvage some of their wedding night but the family insisted on dropping me off and not before I had had breakfast. Can you imagine an American couple deferring to a wedding guest who is not even family and postponing consummating their wedding? Absolutely not. Guinean hospitality has taken on a new meaning for me and I can be sure that couple is never going to forget I came to their wedding =)
I will post more pictures in my Facebook album.