We finally arrived at a beautiful house with lovely acres of green lawn surrounding it and the most beautiful view of Mt. Kenya right in the front yard! I was to discover that this was not where we would be living after all (aww, too bad!) but was the home of some other missionary friends who were hosting a party for the American and British expatriates living in Nyeri. To our amusement, nestled right in the middle of the table laden heavily with all manner of goodies, were two cakes, one in the likeness of the American flag and the other decorated like the British Union Jack. That’s right folks, on our first day in Kenya, we were going to a 4th of July party! My already terribly jet-lagged brain found this all difficult to take in and process properly. I mean, did we or did we not fly to Africa? Nevertheless, I certainly enjoyed all the mouth-watering food. One of the party goers asked her British friend what the British were celebrating on this day and she promptly replied, “Why we’re celebrating having gotten rid of you, of course!” Laughter all around.
After wandering around, stuffing myself with goodies and meeting loads of new people, and promptly forgetting all their names, I settled on the sofa for an old-fashioned song fest. Again, singing American patriotic songs felt somehow so out of place, even though most of the faces around me were white. By this time, my brain was so foggy with jet lag, I could hardly think, let alone keep up a proper conversation, so I had given up. I kept nodding off, until some particularly rousing song jolted me awake. I wondered if this was what it felt like to be high on drugs – never having tried that particular adventure in my teens.
I finally couldn’t stand it any longer and sidled up to Chip, plucking at the sleeve of his elbow and pleading “Can we go home please? I’m so sleepy!” “Um, we can’t” he replied. “Remember, we’re riding with someone else and besides I wouldn’t know where to go. We don’t know where home is!” “Oh, yeah, that’s right” was my resigned answer. I couldn’t believe that I had somehow forgotten such vital information. When a short while later we repeated the very same scenario, I knew I just had to get to a bed! I felt like I was losing my wits altogether. How could I have forgotten that I had asked him the exact same question just moments before and had received the exact same reply? My husband was looking at me with a mixture of wonderment and concern. Wow…this jet lag thing is real and it is most assuredly not pleasant! It can make one feel like they have lost their mind.
When after what felt like eons later, we were all crowded into the tiny station wagon (4 adults and 2 kids, the youngest riding happily in the far back, a rare treat for a little boy), on our way to the Louts’ home. I fervently hoped I would be sane again the following day. After all, we were to go to our first African wedding, and I did not want to be talking like a fool. I drowsily wondered what an African wedding would be like, as I nodded off, rocked to sleep by the car’s movement on the bumpy roads.
I have been trying to capture my thoughts, impressions, lessons learned and emotions surrounding my daughter’s marriage to a Kenyan man. This is quite the rollercoaster ride in cross cultural experiences…scary and thrilling at the same time!
It all began with the Ithege. Once we realized our daughter and her beau were serious and had definite plans to marry (after all, we saw her post on Facebook flaunting the engagement ring while we were in the U.S.), we knew we were about to embark on quite an adventure. After Amanda graduated from university, she trotted off to the U.S. for a year and a half to do a course in massage therapy. It was towards the end of this time we all realized that if they were to get married in the summer (before Chip & I were to leave for some months to the U.S.), we all needed to get started on the round of family meetings required for a proper Kenyan marriage. Thus the first meeting was planned to take place even before Amanda returned…the first meeting of the families.
The way I understand it, this first meeting, which they call Ithege (a type of tree, I was told), was actually a combination of the requisite first and second meetings. The way it was explained to me, in the traditional Ithege, the proposed groom’s family representatives come along with the groom and some of his friends, to meet the proposed bride’s family, see where she lives, and be reassured that indeed the girl is interested in marriage…that this is not a figment of the young man’s fancy. Once all this is established, traditionally, a tree would be planted at the entrance to the young lady’s family compound, basically to warn any other interested young men that this one’s taken! This is the equivalent of an official engagement. In this modern day, the Ithege tree now takes the form of money paid to the bride to be’s parents. The funny part to us was that there was considerable agitation that our daughter’s intended had ‘jumped the gun’ and given Amanda an engagement ring before having had this meeting of the families. They were particularly aghast when they discovered that the ring had been given and accepted even before the young man had even officially asked to court Amanda. What is done in that case is that a fine is paid by the young man – determined by his uncles – to the young lady’s family! All these discussions and activities were done with great seriousness and ritual.
There is one cardinal rule in the Ithege…the parents of the bride and of the groom must not speak! This was something which I found both comforting and difficult at the same time. On the one hand, this was all so new to me that I was lost much of the time and so was grateful I was not required to speak. I was sure I would say the wrong thing and offend everyone! However, it was also hard to keep my mouth shut when I felt something needed to be clarified! Chip and I had to keep mum and to trust our Kenyan ‘family’ to do all the necessary negotiations, ritual discussions and explanations.
So what did I learn in this first of several family events leading up to Amanda’s wedding? The first thing I learned was that in 36 years of living in Kenya and working especially among the Kikuyu community (Thuo’s tribe), I realized with great shock that I know nothing at all about their culture! This was a very humbling experience for me…and probably a much needed one! In addition to this was a profound sense of gratitude to the 2 couples whom we approached to help us navigate these tricky cultural waters (later joined by 2 more couples in the next meeting). We would certainly have sunk and drowned were it not for these wonderful friends who were willing to adopt us as true family, even to the point of doing all the uncle and auntie duties they would do for their own biological nieces and nephews. Finally, I was filled with a deep sense of satisfaction in these new discoveries. Even at nearly 60, there are lots of new things to discover and learn. This made me anticipate the upcoming meetings with relish, even as I felt nervousness over what challenges may face us ahead.