My first African wedding
Let me start by saying none of the below is a judgment or criticism, but merely an observation on a culture I knew nothing about until Friday and Saturday. The wedding I coordinated this past weekend was like nothing I have ever experienced before. I learned so much about a new culture, and I loved it! The people I helped were warm, gracious, and SO joyful. It was a wedding I won’t soon forget.
The bride and groom are originally from Liberia. It is a country on the West African coast. They have been together for quite some years and have five children together. I’m not sure if it was a cultural thing or not, but they have never been formally married. So apparently they decided it was time to make it official.
This was the biggest wedding party I have ever seen. There were 14 people on each side. 14! Meaning 31 (including the bride, groom, and minister) people were on the stage, and down the stairs. Trying to move that many people around was tricky, to say the least. I’ll get more into that in a bit.
I learned quickly that there is such a thing as African time. I learned this at the rehearsal on Friday afternoon. The bride wanted to have the rehearsal at one o’clock in the afternoon. I took a half day at work and made it happen for her. The only problem was one o’clock came and went and there was no bride, groom, or wedding party…now what?! The sound guy, pastor, and I sat around and talked over options. None of us knew that this was a cultural thing or even what to expect. Both the pastor and I tried calling the bride and groom. No answer. Then about 1:30 pm the bride and some bridesmaids showed up. The bride apologized and said the others were on their way. We finally got most of the bridal party there by 2:00 pm and ran through the ceremony as best as we could. Then about 3 pm when the bridal party was leaving, two more women showed up to put up decorations. They had an archway they wanted to put up, so I stayed to help with that. I realized once we got it up and decorated the position of all the bridal party was now wrong because the arch was in the way… “oh well I’ll deal it tomorrow” I thought.
Little known fact about my coordinating style, I never sleep well before a wedding. I lay awake thinking about all the details I need to remember and all possible plans in case something goes wrong even though I have learned over the years there are just things that you can’t plan for. This was an entire wedding I couldn’t have planned for. I knew I needed to be flexible and just go with the flow, and I think that is what saved my sanity and ultimately made the whole experience more enjoyable for me.
The wedding day was a hot and muggy day, so I was glad our church was very well air-conditioned. I had asked the bride when she wanted in the building her first thought was 2:30 (the wedding was at 3 pm) because they were all getting ready together at the hotel the reception was at. Then I told her about the getting ready rooms at the church being available (hoping that might get them into the building earlier) and she said maybe 1 pm would be better. So I opened the doors at 1 pm and decided to stay at the church thinking by 2:30 the guests would be arriving. I need to move so of the tape markers on the floor of the stage back anyways because the archway was now taking up a lot of room. So I did that, and sat down and waited…and waited…and waited.
Observation #1: African time: “Tell the Africans 1 pm. Tell the Americans 3 pm.”
At 3 pm when the wedding was supposed to start there were only 10 guests in the lobby. No bride. No groom. No wedding party. The sound guy, pastor, and I started jokingly taking bets of when they would show up. At 3:45 pm two large hummer limos pulled into the church parking lot. The wedding party had arrived! So in a flurry of activity and in about 15 minutes 50-60 people, both wedding party and guests, showed up all at once. A gentleman, that I later learned was the brother-in-law, came right up to me and apologized for being late.
“We had some problems at the hotel” he explained. He went on to explain, “We try to tell the Africans 1 pm and tell the Americans 3 pm because we will always be late in our culture.”
“Good to know,” I thought to myself. I stored that nugget of information away in my memory banks in case I coordinate any other African weddings in the future.
Observation #2: Make a list of the wedding party
There was nothing formal about this wedding. The guest seated themselves because there were no ushers. I quickly announced to the throng of people in the lobby to please be seated and that we would get the wedding started as quickly as possible. That only kinda worked. I was handed the unity candles by a bridesmaid as many of the groomsmen and bridesmaids headed for the restroom. Then I saw the bride was in tears over something, and there was a gaggle of women around her. I walked over and asked if I could do anything to help. I never really did catch what the bride was upset about, but I did communicate with her that she wanted the wedding to get started ASAP. So I quickly ran into the sanctuary, put the unity candles in place, moved the candelabras off to the side where no one could see them (because no showed up with candles for them), and ran to the lobby to get everyone in place. Some guests were still milling around the lobby, but most the bridal party was coming back from the bathroom, so it was go time! I had the groom seat his parents and then the bride’s sister who was standing in for her parents because they had passed away. Then I tried to get the bridal party lined up. I realized in one horrible moment that I didn’t know who stood where. I never thought to write down who walked with whom. UGH! Lesson learned I’m going to start doing that for all my weddings big or small. This one would have been the ideal one though. So in mess of motion I yelled for everyone who was there at the rehearsal to line up like we had practiced yesterday, and we would fit the stranglers in. It worked, not well, but it worked.
Observation #3: African people move to the beat of the music…all the time.
Finally, we got the wedding party making their grand entrance. And that they did. What I didn’t understand, and now know, is that African people move to the beat of the music…all the time. The processional song was a slow worship song. A beautiful song, that is now stuck in my head, but slow none the less. Each couple slowly walked in and swayed to the music. No one rushed and several praised the Lord aloud and worshiped as they walked to the beat of the music. It was neat to see but seemed to take forever. The sound guy had to play the song twice. I reminded myself not to rush, though I felt I should because we were running so late. This was their time and their moment; I was just there to help.
Observation #4: If the bride wants it, the bride gets it.
I already know this, but it came back to me in one specific way this wedding. As the last two couples were entering the maid of honor grabbed me and said, “We need the aisle runner! It’s in the back of the limo, can you go run and get it?”
“Um, no, I can’t,” I said, “I still have all the ring bears and flower girls to get down the aisle.”
“But she wants it!” she replied. She stops from walking down the aisle, turns to the uncle who is going to walk the bride down the aisle and said, “Go grab the aisle runner from the limo. She needs it.”
If you’ve read my other blog post about my feeling on aisle runners you will understand why I internally screamed and did a facepalm. Outwardly I said, “Yes and hurry please.”
He must not have heard me because he walked all the way out to the limo in the back of the parking lot and all the way back. Again they don’t rush to do anything. Once said aisle runner was retrieved the brother in law suddenly showed up in the lobby to “help me” roll it out. It was still in this packaging, of course, so we quickly unwrapped it and then had trouble rolling it out. Then the photographer took over. He grabbed it from both of us and rolled it all the way down the aisle like a boss. Finally, the bride made her grand entrance.
Observation #5: Africans are a vocal people
As the bride made her entrance, I started realizing the amount the excitement and love that surrounded this union. The song the bride walked down the aisle to was about her being a Psalms 31 women. She was virtuous and most precious than rubies when these lines were sung, the crowd of onlookers reacted with shouts of “YES!” and “AMEN!” and clapping. It was nothing like I had seen before. It was strangely refreshing and uplifting to watch. The same happened DURING the wedding. Every time something happened that someone liked they reacted with praise or clapping or both. Everyone clapped after the bride and groom said I do, and after each of them said their vows. They talked to the bride and groom during the wedding too! “Speak up. We want to hear this” and “you know that’s right”. It was very raucous but joyous. It was fun to watch, and I kind of loved it. I have to commend the pastor for going with the flow and not getting thrown off too much by all of it. He did really well for this being his first African wedding as well.
Observation #6: Fashion statement is an understatement
I have observed in the past that African clothes are always very colorful, full of pattern, and unique to each person wearing them. Fashion is a big deal in that culture and it as big a deal to the men, as it is to women. There were many beautiful gowns and very sharp suits among the guests, but what I saw the most were the shoes. Now this may be because I like shoes and I think shoes say a lot about a person, but everyone at this wedding from the wedding party to the guest had amazing shoes. Men included. Even though the guys in the bridal party all had the same suit on they all wore different very stylish shoes. One pair was blue sequins, one was leopard print, even the groom had on rhinestone encrusted shoes. It was awesome! And if the guy’s shoes were great, the girl’s shoes were even better. They were all giant heels, but as beautiful and unique as the women wearing them. The funniest thing was as soon as each bridesmaid walked out of the sanctuary they all immediately took off their shoes. HA!
Observation #7: There will be dancing…and photos.
Even though this wedding had very little structure and was very informal it was so full of joy and love. Every person that was there was happy to be a there, and every person had a phone. I noticed that even the bridesmaids and groomsmen had their phones out. At one point during the unity candle lighting, a man ran up on stage with his phone and was taking pictures. Two of the groomsmen joined him, and no one said anything! I felt bad for the photographer. Every person in the audience had a phone out taking pictures and videos. It was like nothing I had seen before.
My favorite part had to be the party atmosphere at the end of the wedding. When the vows were said, the kiss was done…twice because some didn’t get a picture, and the pronouncement was made, the place seemed to erupt with joy. The recessional song started to play, and the bride and groom started to dance as they walked out, and everyone in the audience (which was less than everyone on stage with them) got up and joined them and danced up the aisle with them. I usually stand in the back of the church and am the first to greet and congratulate the bride and groom. Not this time! This time a hoard of people came dancing up the aisle, out to the lobby where they paused only briefly to get more photos, and then out to the limos. It seemed in a few short 30 minutes the wedding came and went in a flurry of activity. I caught the bride’s eye once in the lobby as she was being accosted for pictures, and she mouthed thank you to me. I smiled and mouthed back your welcome, and then she was gone.
Observation #8: Don’t worry about the details.
Once the wedding was over and the guests were gone I realized that no one was left to take down the wedding arch. The sound guy and decided that we would do it ourselves. Since I was there to help put it up I knew how to take it down. There is supposed to be someone after the wedding there to help clean up so that we can get the sanctuary back in order for Sunday morning services. We decided to box everything up and leave it in a closet in the church, and whenever someone wanted to come get it they could contact the church. It was annoying, but not a huge deal.
I had run into the lady who does the cleaning at the church on Friday afternoon after the rehearsal. I told her about the late arrival and she advised me that the African culture is more about the people than the details. They are more concerned that their family and friends are there to enjoy the celebration with them than any of the details surrounding the celebration. She also told me that the wedding would not start on time. She was right about all of it. This bride and groom were surrounded by all the people that mattered to them. Though some would look at 28 people standing up with them as ridiculous I say how blessed are they to have such a strong community of people supporting them! Every marriage needs that, and if this couple’s support system is any indication of how strong their marriage will be then I know they will make it all the way.
This wedding taught me a lot about a different culture, and how I view weddings overall. Weddings shouldn't be any type of cookie cutter style. Each wedding should be as unique as the couple getting married. I love that even six years into this I learn something new with every wedding I do!