Clement’s sister Gladys arrived from Sudan in October she had left three years previously - three months before I arrived in Malawi – and this was her first visit home. I immediately liked her warm and talkative ways. Effie, Aisha, (two of Clement’s sisters) and I stayed up the first night listening to her stories. In 2004 Gladys was sponsored by a Malawian Islamic organization to study business management. Higher education opportunities are limited in Malawi and her sponsors promised her a rare straight path to a degree. They assured her that the school possessed good facilities and they promised that she would be taught in English. Thirty Malawians accepted the scholarship including Gladys and her best friend. Although anxious about taking such a blind step, Gladys and her friend allowed their anxiety to be replaced by excitement once in Khartoum as they drove to campus past modern high rises and wealthy neighborhoods with manicured gardens. Finally they reached campus and were deposited in front of several large plastic shipping containers, which had been converted into dorms but in the heat functioned more like ovens. Tears spilled over and continued flowing for days. They could not return to Malawi; everything had been paid for by the organization and their families would never be able to cover the expense of a return ticket.
The second disappointment came with the discovery that classes would be taught in Arabic. Without an alternative, Gladys and her cohort spent the first year studying Arabic. At the end of that year, still not fluent in Arabic, Gladys managed to negotiate with her sponsors to allow her and her friend to transfer to another school where classes were taught in English. (The remainder of her cohort stayed at the original school.) During her first true academic year Gladys performed well, obtaining A’s in all her courses, but at the end of that year her sponsors transferred her to yet another school which would not accept any credit for the courses she had taken. Gladys arrived in Malawi after three years away with only one year of academic credit. That first night she told me, “Joanne, my dream is to obtain a masters degree.” Gladys is a bright woman, someone who in the States would probably obtain her PhD by her mid to late 20s, but given the tortuous trajectory of her education, a masters will be a significant achievement.
Gladys also told us stories about the treatment of the Southern Sudanese by the government, the little she knew about the war that filtered through to eyes and ears despite censorship, her distressing encounters with members of the poorly trained and poorly educated police force, and the heat. Apparently the heat is so intense in Khartoum that people are warned not to directly enter a cold shower when coming from outside. During each year she spent in Sudan one or two foreigner students died this way from shock.
In celebration of Gladys’ return and in anticipation of Clement’s arrival more and more family and friends poured into the little house. The cooking and cleaning always got done, there were always plenty of stories and laughter, and somehow I still managed to find a quiet corner whenever I needed retreat. My friend Meera, a fellow midwife, arrived on December 17th. We spent long hours trading stories of the past months and then Clement arrived on December 19th. I had been counting down the days to his return for months but when he stepped out from the baggage claim in his tee-shirt and jeans he was so much more handsome and my love for him so much more overwhelming than I had expected.
My parents arrived on the 24th. They are both in their 70s and, though healthy for their age, were visibly exhausted by the two days of travel. My sweet little mother appeared to be on the verge of collapse as she stepped out from the baggage claim wearing a sweater, jacket, hat – in the summer of the southern hemisphere – and carrying two small bags. Clement and I hugged them both and my mother asked him to hold her on our way out to the car. The following days, leading up to the wedding, passed quickly. We celebrated Christmas with wonderful friends and food, wrote and designed the wedding program, arranged transportation to Mangochi for friends, met with the priest, and cherished our ordinary evenings with my parents, Meera, and Clement’s sisters.
Finally, the Thursday before the wedding, we packed my little sedan with five people and their luggage; Clement’s, his best man’s, and my father’s suits; my wedding dress; food; and the flowers. (Amazingly we bought all the flowers for the wedding from at Zikomo flower farm for $20.) Around 7pm, a couple hours after sunset, we arrived at Clement’s father’s house in Mangochi, peeled ourselves out of the overcrowded car and stepped into the overcrowded candle-lit house. Space was made on the couches and we were fed nsima and eggs. Clement’s father wanted to take my car to the village to deliver fuel to a truck which was waiting to drive the recently slaughtered bull to the cottage where my parents would stay, so it could be packed in the refrigerator. I handed over the keys but my car wouldn’t start. My parents and Meera were transported by another vehicle to the cottage. After about a half an hour several boys managed to push-start the car. Clement and friends departed to celebrate his penultimate night as a bachelor. I feel asleep on the couch. When Mr Chiwaula arrived with the cow in pieces in the back of the pickup, I followed them in my car to the cottage 20 kilometers out of town. While on our way Clement called, extremely disappointed, to say that the lodge/bar where the guys had planned to party with him (the only bar in town) had unexpectedly closed early. I headed to bed while five men packed an entire cow into two medium sized refrigerators. Meera laughed and said when she went to get water she tried to ignore the puddles of blood collecting under the fridge.
Friday was a blur, I met Clement, we picked up guests dropped them off, we forgot to eat and drink, everyone told us what was going wrong. The rehearsal, scheduled to begin at three began at five, Father Sax arrived at 6:30. The rehearsal consisted of dancing down the isle again and again. I was told that usually the bridal party rehearses for several days before the wedding, but we were apparently quick learners as we polished it off in just three repetitions. When Father Sax arrived we spent a few minutes discussing some of the components Clement and I had added and then, at last, we left the church to eat. At 4pm I had called the hotel, where we had booked our dinner a month previously, to tell them to expect us around six, the receptionist said they would be ready. Twenty of us arrived at the hotel at seven and the shocked waitress quietly asked, “That was for today?” I tried to be optimistic when she said they only had one cook and nothing was prepared but a friend called at that exact moment to ask how I was and the tears broke free. Thankfully Father Sax produced the desired miracle, he sat us all down, took drink and meal orders and within 30 minutes everyone was eating.
Saturday morning was lovely. The sun shined through a light rain. My dad drank coffee on the table outside facing the lake where Meera and I worked on the flowers. Little girls ran through the grass and then to the water’s edge. Fishermen mended their nets on the sand. The older girls and women sat inside slowly transforming the cow into samosas and snacks. I made the bouquets for me and Effie, as well as the corsages and boutonnières for the men and the parents. My heart calmed. Around 11am we drove to the hotel, which was a block away from the church, to get ready.
Once at the hotel I kept meeting people who needed to eat, others who needed rooms, and I still needed to deliver the flowers to the parents and candles to the church. I lost track of time. The wedding was set for 3pm. At 2pm I had a head of wet hair which I was desperately trying to towel dry. Thankfully four friends miraculously appeared with a hairdryer (I had never previously seen a hairdryer in Malawi) and they set to curling and pinning the masses while I put on my makeup. At 3pm I slipped on my dress and called Beatrice asking about our ride to the church. The car arrived after 30 minutes. I took a few deep breaths and got in next to Effie.
As we pulled up to the church everyone was standing outside, women singing Chewa wedding songs ran to encircle the car. Slowly the crowd filtered into the church and I was given permission to step out. I glimpsed my handsome joyful parents and then took their arms as Effie started dancing down the isle between the overcrowded pews. The choir’s voices flowed over heads filling all remaining space, and my eyes fixed on Clement.
Clement and I are both Catholic but have been raised in environments which made it impossible to believe any single path has a monopoly on truth. We are a Malawian and an American. Half of Clement's family is Muslim, the other half Catholic. Clement’s mom is Chewa, his dad is Yao. My mom's family is black American, my dad's family of German descent. Clement and I are accustomed to sitting in the middle, we respect and honor differences while always finding pathways to unity. We wanted our ceremony to embrace diversity and warmly involve all those in attendance.
The final result was a Catholic ceremony with our additions, our vows, and a lot of spontaneous ululating, harmonic singing, and movement. It was beautiful and basically unscripted. Through it all – sitting, standing, walking next to Clement – I felt incredible joy, deep calm, and complete awe that I could be blessed with such a life partner.
As we faced each other holding hands, Father Sax read “Blessing of the Hands," by Rev. Daniel L. Harris,
and then we exchanged vows,
Sometime later Father Sax asked us to move down the isle and offer the sign of peace to people, but before we could take a step the church enveloped us; a tidal wave of arms and bodies pulling us from one embrace to the next. It seemed to be a dramatic finale featuring all the major characters of our story in their best clothes and most joyful expressions Cromwell, Doreen, Memory, Msiska, the Nanthowas, maids from the hospital, Innocent and Ven, Tarek and Lara, Masauko, the Namaleus . . . In-between the moments of activity I sat next to Clement, my hand in his, awash in love.
We signed our marriage certificate and Father Sax concluded the celebration with the Apache Marriage Blessing,
Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be the shelter for each other. Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be the warmth for the other. Now you are two persons, but there is only one life before. Go now to your dwelling place to enter into the days of your life together. And may your days be good and long upon the earth.
From the church Clement and I were escorted to the village in a Mercedes in which we were instructed to standup through the sun roof – a hilarious and slightly embarrassing experience. The village welcomed us with drumming and singing and, though eager to join the scene, we were instructed to remain in the car until my parents arrived. We later learned that Father Sax had given them a ride but before joining the reception made a series of stops. The consequence was that Clement and I were trapped in the Mercedes for about an hour. Waves of faces undulated from the darkness to the car and back into the dark. Every once in a while a friend would approach and we would plead for news about my parents’ whereabouts and beg for snacks. Finally my parents arrived and to the dismay of those trying to choreograph our entrance, we claimed our freedom and leaped from the car.
The reception took place in Chiwaula village in front of the chief’s house, under tents, between enormous mango trees, in candle-light. Traditional dancing and drumming was followed by a couple short inaudible speeches and then a mob scene that masqueraded as the cutting of the cake. The cake was delicious; worthy fuel for a small battle. Clement and I enjoyed a few minutes of dancing and then, when the exhaustion that had been marinating our bodies over the past week reached the saturation point, we decided to return to the hotel for sleep.
A man placed the car keys in Clement’s hand, said, “Sakuyenda [It won’t start],” and disappeared. We gathered a few boys to assist but there was a moment when I was actually pushing the car in my wedding dress before a friend told me to stop. The car started and at last we drove back to the hotel, dropping Effie and a friend home on the way. As we pulled into the hotel parking lot we were greeted by a raging party on the lawn just feet outside our beautiful room. A few more people called asking about transportation and finally Meera kindly took my phone to her room. Clement and I, giddy and exhausted, shared the same sentiment, “thank God we NEVER have to do that again!!” Sometime between 2 and 3am the music stopped and I drifted into a shallow sleep, happy and comforted by the breaths of my beloved at my side.
We are grateful to all our beloved friends and family who honored us with their presence and to those who were with us in spirit. Our union has grown on the foundation of love and support you have given us over the years; our wedding day was not ours alone but also yours. May God perpetually bless you all.
With genuine gratitude,
Joanne and Clement