Cash-sash and other culture jams: (No I’m not married, I don’t have a baby)

by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein on April 5, 2011

You heard me. No, I’m not married. No, I don’t have a baby. These are the two of the most potent culture-bombs I drop on unsuspecting Zanzibar citizens on a near-daily basis. The reaction hints at devastation for some, others are just confused. You’re thirty-five and you don’t have children? Never been married?

In my office one day, with a newly-hired teacher, I was confronted, yet again, with the shock & awe of my marital and offspring status. Precisely, why I had not yet bore any children. He soliloquised the perils of waiting too long to have children, how Western women were totally led astray by a culture that, in the end, betrayed them, by asking them to wait until it was too late.

Never mind that it’s really not his business. Everything is everyone’s business here, in a good way (mostly). Even at the DHL office, for example, when dropping off a package, I ended up watching the employee’s mother’s entire funeral video footage on her cell-phone screen and commiserated with her. We nearly cried together. The personal is public, especially when it comes to birth, marriage, and death, apparently.

Still, of course I think about it, babies I mean, and weddings. The fantasies we inherit, shuck, deconstruct. The lies we tell ourselves, the promises, union-and-baby-joy springing like spring itself all around me. Living in Zanzibar, where marriage and children are facts, not decisions, has definitely made me consider my life in ways I had not expected.

With every wedding invitation and baby announcement, every innocent inquiry into my personal status, I am forced to confront the shoddy brand of feminism I interpreted through the lens of longing for a future defined by something larger than marriage and children. It was true, I was raised to wait (for marriage, not sex). My adolescence was spent with Hannah Arendt and friends, pacing rain-slicked empty school yards, which became an emblem of sorts, for the fifteen-year-old girl in me who wanted more from the world than a wonky promise of love.

I finally understand just how cultural-bound we are to expectations of marriage and children and how, depending on where we are born, various scripts and scrolls shape our lives accordingly. If I were Zanzibari, I’d probably have children by now (inshaállah). I’d be long-married and my parents could rest in peace knowing that they’d aced the ultimate goals of parenting. To know, at least, that though they would make their mistakes, they would not have not left this world without some hint of themselves behind.

I used to balk a bit at what I considered a blindness women suffered when it came to getting married and having children. Now it’s starting to feel like it’s all  just a part of things – what we do here on earth. The details are in the henna and punch. Weddings are a chance to eat chicken and dance. Babies are a chance to feel like we might just get a little taste of immortality through the cherubic love of those who look and smell exactly like us, for a time, and teach us daily how to be good again, through love.

Once my Zanzibari lady-friends get past the initial shock of hearing that I am not yet married or have children, they make it a point to invite me to their various and frequent wedding celebrations. It’s not just me – Zanzibaris are very proud of their wedding customs, being some of the most sensual and involved customs in the world. You can’t really live here for long without attending a Zanzibari wedding. One, because people get married here all the time and two, your attendance is a blessing.

I can’t think of the last wedding I attended in the States. I’ve been invited to a few, but most unfortunately have been too far away and expensive to attend. I did register to be a reverend for the Universal Life Church so I could minister the union of my older sister to her husband. That was amazing. Being a wedding-reverend is the secret calling of a poet. Beside their wedding, though, I hadn’t been to another until I moved to Zanzibar. I cry at weddings. I cry and cry and cry, maybe because they are such an unabashed display of faith in the antiquated hope of forever.

Last month, I ran into my boyfriend’s cousin Munira on the street and she handed us two fancy invitations announcing her son’s wedding celebration. Were we going to go? Of course we were going to go! What else did we have planned on a Friday night except go to Buwani Banquet Hall for a wedding celebration? A good friend of mine, Sara, had also received an invitation, so the three of us decided to catch a taxi together, and showed up at the door Friday night, decked in our finest, flushed with perfume, clutching our official invitations as entry tickets.

The night brimmed with hushed excitement. We walked into an enormous faux-wood panelled banquet hall full of decorated tables and plastic chairs. In the far right corner of the room, a lone man with polio had set up his keyboard, his leg braces leaning against the table’s edge. I’d seen him before – he is self-taught and sings the most soulful Taarab. Women in their complicated head-scarf styles and shimmery gowns were already swaying to the marbled electric piano grooves.

Zanzibari women sort of lose their minds when it comes to sequins and bling. If there’s a wedding, a party, a reason to paint the face, slide on the bangles, or wear bejeweled Barbie shoes, most will go for it, easily outshining the rest of the world. Their gowns and dresses are something like Prom meets Oscar-night meets White House dinner early 80’s meets Persian-Gulf-Fabulous meets Bling-Bling-Tastic meets Arabian Nights.

Marvelling the balloons, colorfully set tables, a sea of headscarves, the music waving like a mirage in the distance, we set out to find a table of our own. It was around 8 p.m. At our table, plates full of apples and crunchy Indian spicy fried goodness sat covered with plastic wrap, accented with three packs of fruit-flavoured gum.

We were some of the first guests to arrive. When my boyfriend’s other cousin M. arrived, she waved to us and made her way to our table, carrying with her an invisible banner of jasmine scent. I barely recognized her, she was super-fly, all bedazzled and blinged out in silky purples hues, her hands and feet hennaed and piko’d for the party.

When I asked her when the bibi harusi (bride) was arriving, she informed me that she wasn’t coming to the party. We were attending a kujaza baggie party, meaning, to “fill the bag” with presents for the bride, not a classic wedding celebration. I guessed it was something between what Americans would consider either a shower (sans bride, just the groom’s side, on behalf of the bride) or an engagement party (again, sans bride).

I was a little disappointed that we wouldn’t get to see the bride that night. This was a new Stone Town trend and I wasn’t quite sure what was in store for us that evening. After plunging into the snacks, women grabbed each other by the arm and headed up to the distant front, where the mode is to sway and twirl shilling notes in your right hand until you feel moved (by the spirit) to saunter up to the Taarab singer and either stick the shilling bill on his forehead, in his hand, or in a random bucket (in this case, a plastic red basket).

The Taarab singer was way under-dressed in light-brown slacks and shirt, especially compared with the peacocked ladies, all bling, glitz and dazzle. The ladies swayed, expressionless, only lit up by the glaring lights of the film crew who stalked them with large video cameras. I started to call their particular nonchalant stare the “I don’t give a shit, but I love this more than anything” blank-faced lady-sway.

This stare-and-sway impresses me. I have way more pep in my step; even when I try to pull off the stone-cold sway, I still end up popping around and getting dance-floor dramatic. These ladies just do not break easily — it’s sway-and-stare out into space until the song is over.

When women weren’t dancing they were sitting at their tables with the most blank I don’t give a shit stares they could muster. To be honest, I found it odd, and chatted away about it to my friend Sara. Women outnumbered men nine to one, but still, they didn’t talk to each other much at the tables. They just sat there and stared off into the distance. What were they thinking about in the gaze? Weddings? Babies? Love? Future? Fortune? Betrayal? Luck? Chance? Desire?

An hour or so into our long wait for some grand interruption to pull the plug on the Taarab drone, M. leaned over and whispered to me that the groom is actually already married once and that this bride is a mercy bride, an arrangement due to some misunderstanding that betrothed her to him based on some long-ago arrangement.

Realllllllly? This is the 28 year-old groom’s second wife?

It does happen here, a man marrying up to four women as Islam permits, but not as often as in the past. Doing so is a major financial commitment, an arrangement not to be taken lightly. I appreciated the juicy gossip, but it also made me sad to think I might be at a wedding celebration of a union that was not particularly mutual. This is the fear: that weddings are simply social contracts and that love is the lie we tell, the story we weave, the bridge we walk to get to the other side of life’s illusion.

The gossip was never confirmed, but it definitely held us over in the duller moments when we weren’t dancing, hanging outside on the cement patio to catch a breeze, mumbling our fashion critiques, or nibbling on the dwindling snacks. We were getting hungry, our stomachs grumbled.

Finally, at around 11:00 p.m. the mother of the groom made her entrance with her son.

Lights, camera, action.

Munira simply dazzled in her shimmery see-through dress. How many times can I use the word shimmery? Not enough to describe Munira that night. Her handsome son walked in rolling an empty suitcase behind him, and headed straight to a table set up near the Taarab singer, trailed by the whole film crew.

With Taarab blaring again, the “bag-filling” ceremony quickly commenced. All the decked-out guests sauntered and swayed up to the table to present the groom with wrapped gifts. The invitation card had read, Zawadi Muhimu meaning, “gifts are important” – (you better bring one). Camera lights flashed with each gift and hand-shake. The groom grinned. His friends helped him organize the piling gifts. I sauntered up with our bag full of kanga, Sara shimmied up with me to snap some pictures.

The night was moving faster now. Finally, food was served — a box of cake, cold chicken, a samosa, and a can of hot soda. At our table again, we dug into the box and pulled out what was most appealing. We’d had fun, practiced the I don’t give a shit stare, swayed and danced, met new family and friends, slipped off our sandals, determined fake-awards in various categories to unsuspecting guests, acted goofy out on the patio, but it was getting late. As soon as the food was served, people ate in silence, and then most scampered out the door.

Those who left early, though, missed the best part of the evening. After hips had swayed, cold chicken chewed, hot soda sipped, the remaining women sauntered back up to the dance floor for some dancing and cheering around Munira, who sat on a chair while ululating women circled round her, throwing colorful kanga cloths on  her lap.

At one point during this last hurrah, around midnight, Munira had left and re-entered the dancehall with a cash-sash, a  bunch of 2,000 shilling notes linked together and looped around her curvy body. She shimmered and shined as she danced in circles with her lady friends. I couldn’t help but feel that this celebration was really for her.

And that when we get married, or have children, or attend the weddings of others, or welcome someone else’s baby into the world, it’s really never about us alone, at all, is it? It’s really about some vast, wild field of happiness in the distant future where we’d all like to meet up and romp around, roll up our sleeves, throw money in the air, plant strawberries, kiss passionately, and most of all, be cared for when we get old, get sick, and die.

That’s why I’m more ready than I’ve ever been for marriage. Not for the chance to wear sequins and bling, not for the cold chicken, hot soda, the stare-and-sway, the burn of video lights documenting proof of my worth, No. Not to appease my daily interrogators who think there might be something truly wrong with me for having failed so miserably at following God’s will to get married, procreate. No, it wouldn’t be about those thing at all (well, okay, maybe it would be about the royal-style henna I’d apply to my bridal body).

No, it’s not even for me, really, not for today, but for some unknown part of me, some version of myself, all of us, who want to believe that this is worth it, has meaning, is the only thing that matters. Weddings are a collective sigh of relief, the kind of gathering that says, see God? We listened. See world? There’s love.

And the baby thing, yeah. I think I sort of get it now. Babies don’t steal women from themselves (as I’d often feared), they bring you back to your body, perhaps, making that umbilical link to life that much clearer — their medicinal, healing weight on your chest, their hands gripping everything, you, your face, the universe.

This is not to say that a life lived with or without husband and children is better or worse, or that I have any real control over any of it. Friends who never thought they’d marry are now face-booking their sweet little babies’ faces left and right. Other friends who wanted marriage and children are still in (frustrated) flux. Some are quite satisfied with their artist-driven road-tripping lives, sans children, sans marriage certificate. A few struggle to keep some version of the dream alive, but buckle under the weight of addiction or disappointment. Divorce. Infidelity. Death. Miscarriage. Marriage. Birth. So many different realities, paths, bright lights, deep darkness.

It’s all to say that I understand some of my great Aunt Edna’s last words on earth:

Amanda, she said, There are all kinds of arrangements, there are ALL kinds of arrangements, Amanda.

So what that it’s flawed and imperfect, riddled with emotional bullet holes. It’s all just a part of things, this being born thing, this loving thing, this marrying thing, this dying thing, this starting over again, the stare-and-sway, and all.

 

Radhika Rao April 5, 2011 at 11:26 am

Amanda, what a wonderful blog!!!!! I have been thinking about all these things so much!!!! My fb is inundated with friend’s babies, wedding pics, newly bought houses, etc… but my question (when I’m not burdened by societal constraints) continues to be: Am I happy? Are they happy?
I just love what Aunt Edna said– wow!!!
So what’s my “arrangement” to be??? Still working through that. Asking myself if I’m just used to resisting societal norms or is it because some of them genuinely don’t suit me. But for the timebeing, I’m trying not to deny myself the peace and contentment that I feel in the moment even though my “arrangement may” not be societally conforming.

Michael Harrison April 5, 2011 at 11:31 am

You do write very good articles. Perhaps it the fresh look at a world I remember. Perhaps coming from a culture I recognise, describing a culture I observed there is a fascination provoked by prsonal memory. Of course, being a man, I observed these wedding parties at greater distance and you write down, very vividly, what other women have described orally.

These questions about marriage were also directed to me- odd I thought since men do not usually ask such questions. My answer, that I had made a few proposals but always been refused was always answered with “sikweli”.

Zaynab Macho, a long term freind of mine, a true queen of the bling dressing you describe is a very vocal character most of the time, but at these tarab do’s the blank faced swaying is her fun for hours. It always struck me as odd- but, unlike you, I did not have the nerve to ask any questions.

Kate September 23, 2011 at 8:00 am

Habari Amanda, and thank you for your writing – by far the best articles I’ve read about Zanzibari life and culture. I’m leaving for Zanzibar in two weeks to start Swahili classes and research on Swahili weddings, and reading your blog has revived all the excitement that a year of London libraries had dampened.

I wonder if my culture-bomb is even worse than yours: I’ve been married for six years, but don’t have a baby yet. When living in Yemen this earned me universal pity and the occasional offer of rather unusual remedies (one involved powdered lizard mixed with a Quranic verse). Explaining that I am fine without babies for the moment was met with complete disbelief. Next time I’ll quote your very wise Aunt Edna.

I don’t know many people in Zanzibar and would love to meet you, if you have time (kanga shopping? henna afternoon?) Kate

Courtney September 26, 2011 at 3:15 am

hilarious! i receive similar looks and lectures when it is revealed i am atheist/agnostic/who cares how you say it. you really nailed the stare and sway. : )

Sandra November 5, 2014 at 8:14 am

You got a new fan, Amanda. beautifully written. Makes you stop, think, examine and appreciate.

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