American bridal showers pale by comparison with a Zambian “kitchen party.”
I was invited by a friend here to go to Mufulira for the kitchen party of her niece. We took a bus and a taxi to get there, about an hour away from MEF. Vivienne told me that friends and family form a planning committee a couple of months before the event, to pool their resources and plan the food and other details. The kitchen party is almost as important as the wedding, and I would come to see why.
We arrived early, so that Vivienne and her daughters could help with preparations. Chairs were set up on opposite sides of the yard. The food table was on the third side, closest to the house, and at the far end was a decorated canopy under which the bride-to-be and her spiritual advisors would sit. In the corner next to the canopy there was a huge display of gifts—pots and pans, dishes, tableware, small appliances, a dish cabinet. These were brought in advance by family and close friends. Other wrapped gifts were brought by guests and stacked inside the house. Popular and traditional music came from a cd player. People bustled around cooking, decorating, and greeting each other with ululations.
Soon I noticed that women were going into bedrooms and changing into traditional dress. The bride came from one region and the groom another, so there were two different styles represented by the two families. At the appointed time, I was taken to a front row seat, and the singing and dancing began. The bride’s family’s regional costume was a very full skirt, mid-calf length, with rows of ribbon above the hem. The top was a flowing tunic, also decorated with ribbons, and a shawl or apron around the waist. Many were made in solid colors with contrasting ribbons—red with black ribbons, blue with white, bright yellow with orange—and others were patterned fabrics, still with ribbon trim, earth tones. They danced and sang. Then friends of the bride in floor-length colorful dresses came and danced another style of traditional dance. They had chitenges folded and wrapped around their hips to emphasize the waist and hip movements. The dance represented a request that the family find a husband for the bride so that she could start a home and family.
Then three women drummers came and set up next to the canopy. All through the singing and dancing, there were ululations, and from time to time guests would join in the dancing on the grass. Then there was a hush, and a path of grass mats was placed from the house to the canopy. A long row of dancers emerged, led by the bride’s closest friends and cousins, The next five people in the line—the bride and her advisors—were covered by a cloth as they danced (reminded me of a Chinese dragon dancing), and they were followed by more friends and family in the line. The bride was danced into the canopy, and the grass mats were removed. She remained covered by the shawl, although her advisors emerged from beneath it. Wrapped gifts were carried from the house and placed near the canopy. Attendants brought a few to be opened, and the giver to be recognized—perhaps honored guests, I’m not sure, but the bride is still covered and the gifts are opened by attendants.
Then the groom’s family came dancing in, waving small leafy branches. They gathered at the canopy, singing and accompanying the groom. He approached the bride, knelt, and after some exchange of greetings, he gently removed the shawl and uncovered her face. She looked down demurely. He presented her with a basket of fruits and vegetables, symbolic of the pledge to see that she always had food. He also presented her with a decorated basket filled with household and cleaning items, symbolic of her responsibility to manage the house. Then he led her out of the canopy and she went with him to meet his parents, kneeling before them and greeting them. She then brought him to her family, and he greeted them. The prospective bride and groom then greeted all the guests, and we were invited to eat. Everyone visited with everyone else, and the party went on. The meal was rice, roasted chicken, beef in gravy, coleslaw, potato salad, and a traditional dish made of ground nuts and some sort of root vegetable. We left after eating, in order to get a bus back in good time, but the party went on for at least another hour, I’m sure.
What a wonderful way for two families to celebrate an upcoming wedding, with ceremony, symbolism and joy!