Last week I told y’all about my exciting news! This week, I want to share with you the details of our two “weddings”. As I mentioned last week, Rob and I petitioned Peace Corps for permission to live together for the remainder of our service after we got engaged. Peace Corps granted our request with the stipulation that we had to get legally married in Zambia (which doesn’t hold legal water back in America unless we swap for an American certificate of marriage), and do all the legwork of moving Rob to Northern Province from Northwestern Province on our own. So, we filled out the forms and booked an appointment with the Civic Center in Lusaka to get ZamHitched.
Turns out, getting married in Zambia is not unlike getting married in Vegas. You show up to a tackily decorated “chapel” where there are a variety of dilapidated Bibles to choose from (having a religious wedding is not optional; Zambia is a very Christian nation). The officiant runs through a quick ceremony, the male partner signs all the paperwork (because “he’s marrying me” and so the female partner has no business signing legal contracts), and then you’re scooted out the door in time for the next dressed-up couple to come in and do it all over again. Ours went something like this.
We showed up at 8:30am because our appointment was at 9am. We knew we’d be the first to arrive because it is practically unheard of for a Zambian to be on time to anything. We were right, and so sat waiting in the lobby with our witnesses (Peace Corps staff). Other couples started to walk in dressed in white gowns and tuxedos, and we tried not to feel too under-dressed in Rob’s too-big pants and shirt (he’s lost almost 40 pounds while in Zambia) and my brand new maybe-still-with-tags-on dress and shoes. We went in to confirm our paperwork and the woman in charge took one look at Rob and scoffed. ”
What?” “Ah…no. He cannot be married without a suit jacket and a tie.”
“What? Why not? Is there a dress code?”
“No, there is not dress code. He simply cannot be married without a jacket.”
“Oh. We don’t have a jacket.”
“You must find one.”
We looked at each other. We’re in the middle of a government office miles from the nearest shopping. Crap. At that moment, our Peace Corps RAP (programming) staff show up and brighten our day. Ba Frazer and Ba Donald are not only our program support staff, but two fantastic friends. They arrived and give us hugs, dressed to the nines in their own complete suits. They looked at Rob and smiled.
“Ba Rob, why is Ba Hannah looking so nice but you are without a jacket?”
“Seriously, what is the deal with this jacket thing? How did everyone know about this but us?”
“Ah, yes, you must have a jacket, and also a tie. Why do you not have a tie?”
“Because we didn’t think the whole dressing up part for a courthouse wedding was so essential!”
“Ah, well I will find you a tie.”
We, at this point, could care less about the tie and jacket situation and just want to have our ceremony. We return to the “chapel” room and take our seats. Being early means we’re first in line to be wed. A few minutes later, Frazer comes running into the room holding a half-length tie and his own suit jacket in hand.
“Here, Ba Rob. You must wear these.” We look at him with surprise.
“Ba Frazer, where did you get that tie?”
“Oh, I encouraged the security guard to loan it to me so you can have a tie.”
“Wait, encouraged? Ba Frazer, did you steal the tie from the security guard?”
“No, no, no. I instructed him to let me borrow it. We will return it later.”
We decide it’s better not to question the origins of the tie and rob slips the black tie over his brown shirt. Ba Frazer then hands him the jacket. Rob looks at it and we both bust out laughing. Ba Frazer is probably 6’4″ and around 250 pounds, while Rob is about 5’11” and around 180 pounds. With the dark colored jacket draped over his shoulders, Rob looked approximately like a 5-year-old child trying on his dad’s clothes. We all laughed while he got situated in the clothes, and then the doors swung open and our officiant walked in.
Our officiant was a large, proud looking Zambian man who walked with a swagger. He ordered us to sit at the gaudy table with the fake flower arrangement and immediately got things underway. We spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time making sure everyone was sitting in the proper seat (witnesses, bridge, and groom) and then scooting the chairs around until he was satisfied with our various distances from him and the table. He then confirmed our identities (wouldn’t want to be marrying the wrong people now, would we?) and our pre-filed paperwork and then began the ceremony (which, in this case, is a word I’m using loosely).
First, we had to pray over the proceedings. Rob and I are not religious folk, but in Zambia we’ve grown accustomed to the polite and silent head bow while others proceed with their spiritual communications. Next, the officiant leaned back in his chair and said, “Now, I am to instruct you on the responsibilities of marriage.” First, he turned to me. “Ms. Lee, Hannah Harrison (the officiant struggled to know our middle from our first names throughout the ceremony): as the wife of this man, Mr. Jay, Robert Ronci, you must be subservient to him, manage the duties of the household, and care for him. Do you think you can manage these things?” I slowly unwrapped my whitened knuckles from the table, smiled sweetly at the officiant, and said, “Yes, of course.” “Good,” he said.
“Now, Mr. Jay, Robert Ronci, as the husband of this woman, Ms. Lee, Hannah Harrison, you must try to love only her (a nod to the polygamous nature of some Zambian tribes).” He looked sternly in Rob’s direction at the “only her” part. “Do you think you can manage this?” Rob nodded. “Yes, I think I can manage.” “Good,” said the officiant, and made a mark on our documents. “Then we can complete this ceremony.” The officiant walked us through the traditional “’til death do we part” bits and, after much micromanaging of rings, standing, sitting, and other basic bodily functions, we were able to consider ourselves officially ZamMarried. The whole ceremony took about 20 minutes, and afterward our Country Director (Ba Leon) came to meet us and drove us back to the Peace Corps office. We celebrated that night with champagne (a thoughtful gift from our Embassy friend) and a card from the Charge D’Affaires himself! We were very tickled.
But who would settle for one wedding when you could have two (or three, or four!)? As part of our agreement with Peace Corps, we also arranged to have a village wedding (well, and seriously who wouldn’t want to have that cultural experience?) in our now-shared village in Mbala ( a district in northern Zambia). We invited lots of volunteers and the community members we knew best, knowing that we’d probably have lots of people who didn’t invite show up, and lots of people we did invite not show up (as is tradition in our Zambian experience). First, we picked everyone up from Mbala, our nearest hub (about 65k from our site). We hired an open bed truck (called a Canter after the company that makes them) to haul everyone and their gear out to our site for a two-day wedding/camping party. We left Mbala in good spirits, sun shining. Then, as could have been predicted, it began to rain. And rain. And rain. The hardest and most relentless rain we had seen all of rainy season. While I was safe in the cab with the driver, all the rest of our wedding guests and the groom were stuck wrapped in a tarp in the truck bed. Not an amazing start to the day. Several wet and cold hours later, we finally arrive at our site. While everyone was drying off, Rob and I learned that the headman and his family, who had originally agreed to help us cook up all of the food necessary for the wedding (goats, chickens, and lots of veggies and nshima) had decided not to participate. We were left with 25kg of maize flour and no earthly way to prepare it appropriately to feed the dozens of village guests (not to mention our friends) we were expecting to show up. Crap. Thankfully, we have some of the world’s most amazing neighbors. They rallied to our cause and we began transporting food next door to prepare first thing the next morning. Meanwhile, our volunteer guests did their best to dry out in our 7×5 meter hut.The next morning we woke early and managed coffee, tea, and eggs for all of our campers. Our neighbors started in on the food preparation, and I ran back and forth from house to house trying to be helpful. Finally, it was time to get dressed up and head up to the local school to start the ceremony. At this point, we were depending entirely on Zambian friends and neighbors to tell us what we should do to “get married”.
The ceremony began with a reed mat spread on the ground. Rob and I perched ourselves on little wooden stools while our “grandmothers” (local ladies who were kind enough to stand in for the traditional relative) sat beside us. Then began the speeches. First the men of our village came forward and gave little toasts to us, our work as volunteers, our union, our choice to get married in the village, and – of course – our future children. Then, all our volunteer guests stepped forward and shared with us all their love and friendship with well-chosen, if spontaneous, words. Rob and I did our best to appear stoic (as is custom), but a few rogue tears may have escaped. It was such an incredibly touching experience for both of us. Sometimes you don’t realize how loved you are until your friends are forced to give speeches at your wedding.
Next, the dancing. We brought out a speaker and all the volunteers whipped out their best ZamPop. Having experienced the magic of kids and a limbo stick at our Grassroot Soccer activities, we thought to bring a rope along too. Never let it be said that I did not boogie on down at my village wedding.
By the time the food was ready, we were ready to drop it like its hot (right into a chair, because my legs are tired). Our incredible neighbors had helped us prepare 25kg of nshima, beans, cabbage, eight chickens, one rather surly goat, and lots of onions and tomatoes for a wedding feast. While there was enough food for the people we actually invited, we also ended up with lots of people suddenly appearing out of the woodwork to sample the wedding victuals. This then lead to the low point of the wedding when a few of the local headmen swaggered up to us and not-so-jokingly-or-soberly demanded a payment for the privilege of getting married in their village. We were stunned by this request, this being the first time we had heard of the payment “tradition”, and decided to politely decline their request having privately decided that their bellies were full of enough nshima tribute as it was. Later we learned that it actually is tradition to pay your headman some small token fee, but that the headman’s family is also supposed to provide help for the wedding and settle on a price beforehand. Since neither of his responsibilities had been accounted for, we tried not to be frustrated when they insisted upon ours.
After the eating, the wedding wound down and the day grew long. After our phenomenal friends cleaned mountains of dishes and entertained us late into the night with games and popcorn, we collapsed into bed completely exhausted but very happy. It’s not every day one gets to be married in Zambia.