My Beef With Kenyan Weddings


My Beef With Kenyan Weddings

Illustration by: Capu Toons

I am at that age where adulting is doing that weird thing to me. All I want to do is get married. And if murmurs from my workmates are anything to go by, I make for an awesome office husband, whatever that means. They say I should take it as a compliment. It also happens that whenever I tell people I’m not married, the common refrain has been for them to try to set me up with their friend or sibling. As for older folk, they try setting me up with their daughters. They seem to think I would make a great son-in-law. Actually, I would. I call often and file my taxes. 

I’ve never been married. But I’ve come close to. Close to people who got married, I mean. For instance, one of the more memorable ones was when I attended the wedding of a feisty former fling of mine’s. They saw me in the crowd and asked me to leave. I liked what I saw, though.

Lopsided priorities

While most of my friends will go to weddings to celebrate a union between man and woman (that’s where we still are in Kenya, not yet at the woman and woman or man and man, or whichever other possible combination that’s out there, like in South Africa where there’s a proposition to legalize polyandry), I go for the food and fashion tips.

I hoard it all—the free food, the pilfered booze, the unnerving small talk that sprinkles the day. Small talk is like going to the barbershop. You might hear the psychiatrist’s opinion of Prozac and the barber’s opinion of Brylcreem. But you are more likely to hear the psychiatrist’s opinion of Brylcreem and the barber’s opinion of Prozac.

I focus on these trivialities because the wedding model doesn’t work for me. You get invited to so many of them, with the expectation that you’ll bring a gift, in the least, and not just any gift but something pricey, something worth of your name. What’s one to do with these biting economic times, including pre-pandemic, where Fuliza, M-shwari and the rest of them rule?

You’d in fact be lucky if you escape committee duty, often tasked with raising money for the wedding. Even when you’ve put that Group Restriction thing on WhatsApp, someone will still find a way to add you to the committee. You are already in too many groups; totaling 17 the last time you checked. In Kenya, being added to a WhatsApp group is a euphemism for bringing the money. You contemplate deleting the app altogether but you can’t.  It’s the medium used by your meme supplier. Memes keep you sane. It’s a Catch 22. You can’t just up and go.

The largesse

Kenyan weddings are an over-the-top affair, with tens of attendees. Never mind that the bride and groom may only know, like really know, a handful of those in attendance. Gate crashing isn’t so much of an alien concept either. We’re always down for a good time – even on a budget, even on a stranger’s special day – as long as there’s food, booze and good company.

A good Kenyan wedding is all about showboating pizzaz. The top of the range SUVs, even if hired on credit, and the destination photoshoot thereafter, leaving guests yawning at the after-church reception as they buy time waiting for the newlyweds to arrive. It can be theatrical and cynical at the same time, more a piece of work than a work of art, an element of gall and a show—sometimes maybe just an artifice—of constantly having a good time in the whirligig.

The preliminary gymnastics

My good friend Eric* was getting married the other day. I use the term good friend in the sense acquaintances do. And so obviously, if you do not attend the wedding for Eric, at least you go there to picture the lady who convinced him. Because Eric and married are two words no one ever imagined they’d use in the same sentence. Eric is two years my junior, meaning more pressure for me. Culturally, I’m supposed to have led the way and gotten married first.

You arrive at the wedding famished and ready to attack the mukimo and brown rice. The Auntie Wa chapati this time looks mean, so you don’t try to negotiate less mukimo for more chapati. Your classmates are streaming-in in pairs, and you prepare for the barrage of unnecessary questions you have to wittingly deflect. What happened to nani, when are we coming to eat mucere, and aren’t you too old to be wearing shorts? You plead guilty to the first two charges and furnish the court with a curt riposte: ‘Soon.’

Forget suits, we’re in Kitenge territory

This is a modern wedding. Who still does that fad of suit and gown? Nah. Bah.

Here, it’s all about the kitenge. It’s a fashion fest and you stick out like a sore thumb, which is also the excuse you give when you are asked why you don’t want to say a few words about the groom. You barely know the groom, and you are not even sure if his widely-used name is Eric.

Let me tell you about Eric. He was an introvert, inherently shy. He is the nerd every librarian in town knows, and a teacher’s pet. He has the voice of a well-ironed trouser, is sweet and caged, never saying more than is necessary. He does his talking with his fingertips (he is an IT technician). It is assumed Eric does not like to talk. But no one knows that for sure. All we do know is that Eric does not like talking… to you, to us, maybe to the rest of us in attendance.

Eye on the bride

Anyway, I won’t bore you with details of Eric’s harrowing silence.

But all I know from the chats nyuma ya tent is that the bride can whip up chapos to die for and that she makes Eric – the certified introverted almost always never smiling type – giggle like a giddy teenager. And she probably wasn’t hearing anything the croaking MC was saying considering the volume of her hair. But that’s the price you pay. Every man makes a compromise in his own way, a Faustian bargain to keep the peace. All I know is that Maria loves her hair.

From the look of things, Maria isn’t the reserved type. Her sense of style is screaming ‘‘Look at me.’’ But you don’t look. You are a nobleman. You only have eyes for Eric. Or do you?

You are not sure who is luckier here—Eric or Eric’s bride. The bride’s procession starts. Maria floats through the aisle like a butterfly on a lily. She moves languidly, effortlessly, covering cast tracts of ground without ever really seeming to stride. She does not wear her emotions on her tiara. Nay. She is, instead, elegant and graceful, a bride of great moments, who sparks into life, not one who constantly burns. Eric chose well. Or was chosen well. Who knows.

Why it’s a NO for me

Maria’s offering notwithstanding, Kenyan weddings are still a pain.

Allow me to list my grievances. Bossy, overbearing mothers of the bride; groomsmen who don’t know their left feet from their right, arriving late and drunk; caterwauling sopranos, who see themselves as operatic divas wanting to lead the Firirinda orchestra; and pushy photographers who think the wedding is a show staged for their benefit.

It’s untoward. Like the photographer wouldn’t give up on making me smile. “A little wider,” he kept asking. “A little bigger.” Some happy people just don’t show it on their faces. I just want to put this out there, it’s OKAY if your wedding doesn’t turn out just like your Pinterest board, Susan.

And do we really need all that cake? Oh, you do? No, we do not. Because we never really get to eat the cake. It just… disappears. Save the money and put it toward your open bar—something everyone can actually enjoy; except the kids, but they aren’t the wedding’s target audience, so.

It’s all self-inflicted

But why do we really do this to ourselves?

I’ve been watching some nature documentaries lately, and you know what? No other species on planet earth does weddings. Hippos don’t send out save the date magnets. You think dolphins, safari ants, or hyenas deal with this? They just copulate and keep it moving. There’s no awkward small talk with distant relatives, Kayamba Africa songs, or tiered cupcake trees involved.

While I’d rather die than experience live poetry at a wedding, I think it’s reflective of an entire generation that the number one focus of what is supposed to be one of the biggest days of our lives has shifted to the guests rather than the couple in question. Or maybe it all boils down to the premise of marriage – coming with the good, the bad and in worst-case scenarios the ugly – where it should ideally mean that against all odds, you love one person so much so that you’re willing to get the government involved. It’s that insane, really.

So maybe I should cut weddings some slack, considering the idea of two people coming together has its unorthodoxies. But as you’re just about to get lenient, you remember the tipping point during weddings, that moment when the MC pores over the details: How did they meet? That’s my cue to head over to the bar. This, and those tired wedding lines every MC keeps regurgitating. Let me just say this, as my wedding day tribute to all my friends who intend to tie the knot in this Kenyan-wedding-fashion. If the day comes and you need to cut down your wedding guest list, please don’t think twice before chopping my name off. I am that generous. 

*Names have been changed to protect the sanctity of their union.


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