“Pleeeeeease!”, her dark-haired friend’s eyes pleaded as pitifully as her words. “But I don’t want to be a boy scout, and I’m not interested in pursuing law and order” the young girl replied to her friend. She could feel her resolve slipping and she felt the need to steel herself against her friend’s pleas. The Eagle Scouts had just opened the doors to young women and her friend, always the crusader, wanted to be the first to join – to prove she could keep up with the guys. The young girl, however, was much less competitive, content to read romance novels and daydream about men rather than compete with them. She preferred tall, dark men with deep, brown eyes, the depths of which one could easily lose oneself. Her friend’s voice cut through her reverie, “Only for this one meeting. I promise, that’s all I ask. I just don’t want to be the only girl on my first night in the Scouts. I need your moral support. If you come with me the first night, I promise I won’t ask you again.” “Well….I guess that won’t be so bad. At least we’ll be together and can support each other.” “Why do I always cave in?”, she internally reprimanded herself. She really did not want to go. If the topic was something else, she might be more interested. Once more her thoughts were interrupted when her friend turned around in her class seat in front of the young girl “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you…my boyfriend is coming too”. What?! “No, this is totally unacceptable,” screamed the shy girl’s soul within her. Outwardly, she said “Then I don’t think I’ll go after all”. “Why?”. the pleading tone reasserting itself against the previous, casual “oh by the way” quality in her voice. “Well if your boyfriend comes, you won’t need me. Besides, you’ll spend the entire evening holed up in some corner somewhere with him, while I have to fend for myself with all the guys. No way!” She was sure she was going to stand firm this time. “No, I won’t. I promise! I swear! Pleeeeease!” With a sigh of resignation, the shy girl relented to her only friend, not looking forward to the evening in the least.
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.