Aissatou’s Wedding

Kaitlyn Johnke - Senegal


February 3, 2014

When holidays or special events arise, I view them with significantly more apprehension than excitement because for a whole day or even week, I have yet again landed in another world: different greetings are said, I am supposed to follow a course of actions everyone understands but me, we wear different clothes, and I am never sure, being a foreigner, where I fit into it. In every culture, monumental life moments are celebrated; birth, marriage, and coming of age are among them. Through experiencing the wedding at my house, I was able to experience the culture in it’s fullest, and all the smaller things that go into it- the traditions and values of the Pular people, religion, and also my individual family.

The wedding came as a surprise to me two days before it actually happened; not knowing the meaning of the ridiculously large amounts of food seasoning packets and powdered milk, the new refrigerator, and the chairs that entered the compound when my father came home from Dakar. The agreement of the marriage began when now twenty year old Aissatou was twelve and my family agreed to give her hand in marriage to a family that lives just a ten minute walk from my compound. The reason her wedding would take place at our compound was because she is my adopted sister- another surprise. I had always thought of her as my cousin because I knew that her biological parents were my uncle and aunt. After asking around, I discovered that at around age eight, she had come to live with my family because they did not have any girls of their own to raise and my older mother, Dialamba, needed help with house work (my youngest mother just had another boy, making it a total of six sons my father has).

To get ready, there was a lot of work put into presentation but there were no decorations-it is the vibrantly colored and patterned clothes people wear that brings the color and festivity to any Senegalese event. I cleaned my room for the many people at the party that would ask to see it. We put a huge tarp above the uncovered section of the compound for shade.I bought a fabric that would match with several other’s dresses and my mother, Dialamba, took me to her tailor. The dress and outfit ended up looking nothing like the designs we had laboriously and carefully chosen; but was admired by everyone anyway.

Weddings and naming ceremonies (parties seven days after the baby’s birth) are the two occasions celebrated most extravagantly and bring large Senegalese communities together. So many extended relatives and friends come to these events that they would not fit comfortably inside the compound, spilling out into the informal dirt road outside. We borrowed pots for cooking food that are so big several people could fit inside them. Many women cooked together to get the meal ready with cooking tools three times the size of ordinary cooking tools. Hospitality is a highly regarded value in Senegal, which means no one is left standing. Many people sit in plastic chairs, on benches, or on mats on the floor. I spent most of my time peeling onions with a bunch of women until the onions got to meand my eyes started watering. Then I helped with breaking up lacchiri clumps, which is a commonly eaten food around here that is chunkier than flour that tastes a bit like crumbled cornbread when it is done. Lunch time didn’t come until around four in the afternoon when we spooned out enormous amounts of cheb (essentially fried rice although on this day it had a generous amount of meat and larger than normal variety of veggies) onto huge platters.

I was surprised when one of the ladies I was cooking with handed me a huge bowl and insisted it was mine to eat in my room. I thought she was kidding and refused. My language tutor was also attending the wedding, and explained that there were many people at the party and the food I was being given was my portion. I felt odd retreating into my room to eat the bowl of food the amount I normally might share with three or four people- needless to say, I couldn’t even finish it all.

After eating, I was pulled around from place to place by younger girls and did not even see Aissatou, the bride, until in the evening when she and her friends appeared, all nicely dressed and the professional photographer took their pictures, a forced smile on her face. Aissatou’s husband was not present for the celebration, and I was told this was normal, her husband’s family was having a similar party at their house. But he was not present for that either, in fact, he was not even in Senegal- he was in France. The party was so much more focused on the families than the couple that it did not even matter that he was away. She was old enough to leave the house, and so she would.

Aissatou’s wedding was not completely traditional, but many aspects of the traditional wedding were there. Tradition holds that later in the evening the bride will be bathed then dressed in all white. As she exits the hut she cannot see because of the white cloth over her head and as she is brought to her husband’s house she is not allowed to touch the ground; she will ride on the backs of different people until arriving to her new home. Surrounding villages have a stronger emphasis on tradition because they have not been as exposed to television or media depicting other European or western culture. Because I live in the rural city of Kedougou, my sister got into a car- her feet still did not touch the ground, to get to her husband’s house.

A group of us women did take this trek on foot however, clapping and chant singing as we went to let everyone know of Aissatou’s marriage. It was dark and I could only confusedly clap along and watch the ground as it sloped and turned under our feet. I was also watching out for the dog that zigged and zagged through our little crowd, causing the children to scream. According to tradition, as the bride is carried to her husband’s house every few steps she is supposed to be put down onto someone’s lap and everyone dances around her. In this way, little by little, it could take a majority of the night to get to her husband’s house. We reached her husband’s house in a matter of minutes. When we arrived, the women made a circle and dance to a call and response song. For days afterwards people made fun of me because while the dancing was happening someone offered me a chair to sit in and I quickly fell asleep (It was ten oclock, past my bedtime).

The party did not really finish for about a week afterward. The next day we walked over Aissatou’s new family’s gifts; pots, pans, cloth, cooking supplies, buckets, and cups. I put on my other newly made dress and walked over again, this time the main purpose seeming to be to look at Aissatou’s new home. Everyone took turns going into her new bedroom. I noticed that the house did not have electricity. This would make it difficult for her to do her school work, which she would continue doing. Many people came from far away for the wedding, so most stayed at our house for a long time. We continued to feed them as they sat around and came and went from our compound door. The excitement died down and I got back to living in the routine that is now like home to me- participating in my community involvement activities (watering the plants or making compost in a nearby garden and teaching English at a school- actually the same one Aissatou attends), playing with the kids around my house, helping with family chores like washing clothes and cooking.

Now that her husband has finally come home from France, almost two weeks later, someone has taken a sharpie marker and written, in enormous letters on our compound wall, Aissatou’s name and then beneath it, her phone number. I thought this was a nice gesture. If anyone is longing Aissotue’s presence or wants to speak to her, she is just as accessible as she was before. It has been about a month since she was married, now, and when I see her she seems happy. At first she would emphasize her longing to return to our compound, but I think her settling will be the same as mine in Senegal- only after time and commitment did it begin to feel like home.

Kaitlyn Johnke