Wedding joy, African style

We are driving down a dirt track through wild groves of palm trees and overgrown brush to the village of Kake, one hour north of Douala, the sprawling seaport of Cameroon.

Ahead of us is a four-wheel-drive Renault decorated with pink and white streamers, carrying the Cameroon bride and the French groom. Leading the wedding procession is an open truck, with four drummers beating away and loudspeakers blaring. The drummers wear yellow T-shirts, pepper-red shorts. They sing, shout, dance, nearly spilling over the sides as the truck hits potholes.

Pierre and I are crowded into a chauffeur-driven car with the parents of the bridegroom. Wide-open windows let in a breeze. Behind us are three more cars carrying the parents, brothers, sisters, and cousins of the bride.

Children run down the track to greet us. "Allo, allo! Bonjour, bonjour!" Some of them are wearing spotless white shirts and bright-colored shorts, others whatever they have. They smile and clap to the beat of the drummers. They follow us, running alongside the cars, peering into the windows.

Soon village women line the sides of the track. They dance to the music, clapping and chanting, "Oula, oula, ou, ou!" Their red, yellow, and blue robes sway in the bright sun. Matching scarves are wrapped high on their heads.

Preparations for the reception have been going on for weeks. One of their own is marrying a European. Behind them are their potos-potos, clay houses with sheet-metal roofs. Some of the wood-framed huts are raised off the ground. Others, with open windows and doorways, squat on beaten earth.

The caravan of cars stops in front of the small village chapel. The bride and groom were married in Douala, but the reception is here in the bride's village. From the small square, we follow the bride and groom on foot to her house. Flowers and pink streamers are strung along the way. The villagers surround us, keeping in step to the drumbeat.

In front of the bride's house is a podium with a couch for the bride and groom and armchairs for the four Europeans, the groom's parents and us, their friends.

The bride's father has built a trellis over the front yard, covered with dark palm leaves to give shade for the reception. In the middle of the yard, two long tables are dressed with saffron-yellow cloths for the food. To one side are tables and chairs for the village chief, his wives, and other special guests. On the other side, rows of folding chairs for everyone else.

We are called inside the house for the wedding-bed ceremony. A four-poster bed has been made up with elaborate white bedding. The bride and groom are escorted into the back room of the house where the bride grew up with her 10 younger brothers and sisters.

We crowd around the large white bed, as the newlyweds lie down upon it nine times. We shout encouragement: "One! Two! Three!...." and then burst into applause. The marriage is blessed.

A younger sister takes me out back to show me the summer kitchen behind the house where two wood fires are burning on the ground. Slices of plantain are frying on one. Fish are grilling on the other. Chickens were cooked that morning.

Women rinse lettuce for the salad in immense tubs of water fetched from the stream flowing south to the sea. There is no running water at Kake, and the village fountain has run dry. More women slice carrots, onions, and tomatoes. Trays of manioc and bowls of ndole - a spinach-like vegetable mixed with dried fish - are piled on the ground.

The drumming continues. The rhythm throbs, the beating never lets up. I sit down on a wooden chair, away from the podium, near some women friends of the bride. We are speaking French together. When there are no Europeans, everyone speaks in patois.

These friends belong to a sorority- like tontine, which functions as a private bank. Each month the women pay into a common treasury, and the money is distributed according to their needs.

Soon I am called back to my armchair on the podium, next to the groom's mother. The bride and groom are sitting in the middle. We sit there, the six of us, in the big upholstered couch and armchairs, as if on stage.

The bride's mother is inside seeing to the preparation of all the food. The father stands tall and dignified in the front yard, welcoming guests who continue to arrive. He now greets the village chief - in a white robe, a white-and-black embroidered shawl, and a black skullcap - and shows him to his table.

At his right sits his first wife, in a bright blue robe and blue turban. She wears a gold necklace. Further to the right sits his second wife, in a yellow and black robe, also with a matching scarf. She, too, has a gold necklace.

The little girl who carried flowers in front of the bride at church and who is still wearing a long white dress with lace and frills, comes and sits on my lap. She turns to face me and touches my hair. She tugs it gently. Another little girl in a bright red dress joins her.

The two of them run their hands through my hair with its blond and gray streaks. They giggle and whisper. The one in white has tiny braids, like the veins of a palm leaf. The one in red has a curly crewcut, hardly any hair at all.

The bride's sisters, aunts, and mother bring platters of food. They ask us to serve ourselves first. I help myself to the grilled fish, a spoonful of ndole, and a slice of plantain. I step back onto the podium and sink into my chair.

Other guests approach the tables. More and more food appears. Pieces of grilled chicken are distributed to the children standing at the entrance. Soon there are cakes and oranges. The drumming starts again.

This time the leader dances alone. He circles faster and faster around the table of cakes as the drumming intensifies.

The sun grows less bright. We have been warned that the mosquitoes come out in droves in late afternoon. Quickly we stand up and start our rounds of goodbyes. There are big hugs for all the women - the bride's sisters, her aunts, her grandmother, and her mother. The men are less effusive. We shake hands with the bride's father. It is time to leave this warm-hearted village and return to our hotel in Douala. The reception will continue late into the night.

And when it's early morning, and the drummers have left, the villagers will go home, down the track with the last of the streamers to their potos-potos.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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