Sunday, June 17, 2012

Swazi Weddings

I am tired of talking about marriage, but that topic here is on the list of most common topics.  It comes right after the topic of the weather.  So far I have attended 3 weddings while in Swaziland: two Western/Christian weddings and one traditional (umtismba) wedding.  I am curious in how a couple decides which one they want, but I still haven’t gotten a concrete reason yet.   From what I understand, they tell me that Christian weddings are expensive.  They must buy the ring and other jewelry, all the dresses and decorations, and enough food to feed the entire community (and the spouse’s community too which ends up seeming like half the country’s population!).  In a Christian marriage there is opportunity for divorce if there becomes a need in the future, and a Christian wedding supports monogamy.  In contrast, an umtsimba celebrates Swazi tradition, singing and dancing as they wear their Swazi attire, no expensive jewelry is exchanged, a cow is killed, but a traditional marriage doesn’t recognize divorce and the man can take as many wives as he wants.

A Swazi traditional wedding starts with the engagement which is called kuteka (koo-tay-gah).  The bride, who has spent the night at the groom’s homestead, is woken before dawn by the female members of the groom’s family.  She is taken to the kraal, the pen where the cows sleep (it’ where a lot of traditions take place).   When they are in the kraal, she stands basically naked and is forced to cry while the groom’s family sings until dawn.  If she doesn’t cry, they make her.  They might pour water on her, it’s before dawn, so she will be so cold she will want to cry (how’s that for welcome to the family!?!).  Then the bride’s family is notified and there is a meeting to discuss the bride price, the amount of cows the groom’s family must give to the bride’s family.

I have a few issues with this whole ceremony.  Firstly, I believe that it condones premarital sex.  I know, I know, almost no one stays a virgin until marriage these days. But I am living in a country with the highest HIV rate in the world and tradition says that in order for a woman to get married she must sleep at the groom’s home, then woken from his bed, and when she is outside she is naked.  So from that I am assuming that there wasn’t just sleep happening during the night.  Not only does this country have the highest HIV rate in the world, but there also isn’t great access to condoms, and I’m not sure the girls even know what birth control is until well after their sexual debut, let alone have the resources to access it.  And women equality and empowerment… ha, what’s that?  My second issue with this tradition is the crying.  I guess it is supposed to symbolize how she must lose her family because now she belongs to the groom’s family. I love my family too much to ever lose them and weddings/engagements are supposed to be happy days and not days to symbolize grief and loss.  My last issue is that a bride price implies ownership, so as an independent, free-thinking woman I cannot agree.

The wedding itself, umtsimba, was great fun though!  It is a cultural event with everyone in their traditional clothes, singing and dancing to their traditional songs.  I am sure there was a lot of drinking of the traditional brew which would be a lot of fun except I don’t drink with Swazis in order to better protect my own safety.  However, I did join in on the dancing and no one seemed to mind my horrible rhythm.  The biggest negative of the whole ceremony was that everyone looked beautiful, everyone except that is, for the bride!  The bride wears a big feather headdress that covers her face like a veil, except ugly!   She wears little balloons of cow intestine in her hair and an apron of goatskin over her traditional clothes.  On my wedding day I hope to look the most beautiful I will ever be.  Unfortunately, a traditional Swazi cannot say the same.
Umtsimba - Swazi Bride pictured on the right

This weekend, I attended a Western style wedding.  One of my neighbors who also attends the church I go to got married on Saturday.  It was held at the Primary School’s hall where two weeks ago I was teaching over 120 6th graders how to knit scarves.  Now the room was transformed to a wedding hall and even more overcrowded than it is during school hours.  But as all weddings seem to do, it started late, so the choir from my church kept us well entertained with their gospel songs.  Finally the wedding party arrives and begins the ceremony with a choreographed dance down the aisle.  The flower girls came first, throwing candy at the crowd and suddenly I am having flashbacks 4th of July parades after the fire trucks pass throwing candy to the children.  It is amazing how fast a group of mature adults become petty and childish.  I thought they were going to jump over each other and the toddlers in their way just for few pieces of penny candies.  The candy doesn’t even taste that good anyways. 

After the flower girls, then it’s the bridal party’s turn, more than two dozen people in all!  If I had a bridal party that big there would be no one to sit in the audience!  They had the opportunity to show off their moves in a choreographed Electric Slide-type dance that just couldn’t wait for the reception to be done.  Three steps forward, one to the right, some weird hand movements, two steps back, awkwardly get their faces as close as they can as if they will kiss, oh wait, but then they fake us out and repeat the dance down the entire aisle all the while with a stone-face look on their face.  The groom enters in the front door after the procession finishes.  He bravely wears a white suit, bravely, because nothing here stays white for long here.  Finally the moment we were all waiting for, the bride enters with her father.  She looks absolutely gorgeous, prettier than I have ever seen her look!  They reach the front and the father hands off his daughter just like would happen in America.  It seemed like what would happen in America until the father turned around, waved at the crowd, and then exited the way he came in.  I turned to the teacher sitting next to me and asked “Where is he going?  Isn’t he going stay and watch his daughter?”  She simply said “He left, so I don’t think so.”  Many parts of the wedding were overdramatized and exaggerated.  I attribute that to the TV they watch here which consists of Soap Operas like Days of Our Lives and WWE wrestling.  Can’t get much more dramatic than those shows.

Another highlight that seemed strange to me was when it came time to show the symbol of oneness, of two becoming one.  In America it is common to take the fire from two separate candles and together light a 3rd candle or some other variation of this.  But here they choose to use Coke products, mixing Sprite and Orange Fanta!  I have seen that done at both Christian weddings I have attended here and it made me laugh both times.
The HUGE wedding party!

The best part of the wedding is in the transitions between speakers.  Swazis are gifted in leading congregations in songs, so whenever a speaker finishes their speech they automatically begin a song which is then backed up by the choir and then entire congregation.  It is beautiful and a small detail that is spontaneous and natural for them, but it really adds something for me and also gives the next presenter time to get in their place to start the next part of the program.

Actually most of the ceremony is similar to America except it lacks the sense of sophistication or appreciation that this couple is entering the next stage in life.  I got the feeling that most of the people were just attending for the free food that was promised following the wedding, but maybe my impression had to do with the overcrowding in the room, the length of the ceremony as it went on and on, and people losing patience.  When the ceremony finally finished mass chaos ensued as people lined up for food, ate their food, and went on their way. 

My Swazi mom
I was left wanting more.  I am accustomed to having the formal reception after the wedding, where the real fun takes place!  I wanted to dance and celebrate with the couple and all of my friends in the community.  Instead I was home by 6pm and in the mood to dance, so I improvised having a solo dance party in my hut!  I turned my music turned as loud as it could go and jammed out.  I invited my sisis and bhuti to join, but they seemed content laughing at me and playing with my iPod.

Sometimes I wonder which wedding I would want if I were a Swazi woman.  Thank God I am not because I prefer neither of them as I have seen them.  I love the cultural aspect of the Umtismba but couldn’t deal with the disparity women face here or the horrible costume the bride wears during the ceremony.  Whereas the Christian wedding tries to mimic American weddings but don’t do them justice.


  1. Hi Kelly,

    Greetings from the Peace Corps' Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services! Thank you for sharing your experiences with Swazi weddings. It is especially interesting to compare both the ceremonies and implications of Western/Christian weddings with traditional umtismba weddings. We love the photos! Thank you for participating in the Third Goal with your descriptive and cross-cultural blog.

    Tim Slattery
    Peace Corps Program Support Assistant

  2. It's human nature to prefer what you are familiar with. Sadly your lack of understanding about our culture has given you courage to write such nonsense.

  3. The western culture outfits are hideous! How do you even begin to say they look better? I'm perplexed

  4. Wow this was actually my brothers wedding, I am doing research on Swazi marriage (ll the way in Italy now) and I come across this.Amazing.

    I have to say though, practices differ as to what happens at a weddings and this one in particular was on a limited budget.

  5. Please pass my greetings to your family and friends in Sinceni. I am by no means an expert in Swazi culture, just a guest. These weddings were some of the highlights of my time in Sinceni. They did not feel cheap compared to the evident poverty in the area. I'm am still very thankful that these families invited me to be a part of their special days.