Sunday, June 21st, 2015

No Kids Allowed: How Kenyan Weddings are Changing

No Kids Allowed: How Kenyan Weddings are Changing © flickr

The first time I went to an English wedding as we stood on the steps outside the church I thought to myself,“Where are The Aunties?” In Kenyan weddings this is where the celebration begins. As much as I so love English weddings, the focus on the couple who are getting married, the dancing at receptions, the way the bride gets to wear her dress all day and doesn’t have to change into something equally eye catching for the evening party… it still felt like there was something missing.  At Kenyan weddings, led by the aunties everyone sings ancient songs that have been sang at weddings since the earth was young for the newly married couple.


No one ever teaches you these songs. There is no equivalent of Sunday school or madrassa classes to learn these rituals. Years and years of attending hatches, matches and dispatches infuses one with this important knowledge. So much so that when a cousin of mine got married in the U.K. last year my Samia auntie (I have written before how my mother’s culture is different to my own) was amazed that I spontaneously led the singing when the time was right. How would I know what to sing as I am not Samia? She was forgetting the numerous weddings I had attended as a child, the songs I had listened to, the imprint that they had left on my heart. There we were in the middle of the very English Cotswolds when our singing brought the place to a standstill as all and sundry listened to these songs you do not have to understand the language they are sung in to ‘get’ their meaning.


After the singing stopped and it was time for the speeches something magical happened. A Kenyan female cousin had chosen a verse from Shakespeare to open the proceedings and the bride’s English grandmother stopped in her tracks and chimed in. Two women from two different countries and two different generations recited together for the union of the two families happily coming together across the cultures and seas.


My daughter thoroughly enjoyed the wedding, as did I. We danced the night away to a superb English DJ, one of many English DJs who do music incredibly well.


Yet increasingly in Nairobi I am getting invitations to adult only weddings. I usually send gifts but refuse to attend them in protest. Weddings are community events. Traditionally they belonged to everyone.


Nowadays people are wanting fancier and fancier affairs complete with brides arriving in helicopters. In these settings, children can be seen as a nuisance. Elegant place settings can be destroyed in seconds. Parents taking advantage of the large number of people around barely monitor their children’s behaviour and instead use the precious time to catch up with friends or relatives. A wedding of 500 or more guests is not unusual. It’s the prefect social setting for being with your children but not having to be directly responsible for them at the same time. Children raised on 24-hour constant entertainment expect magicians and games at weddings and couples don’t want the extra expense. Children have less and less training in sitting still for long periods listening to long speeches and have been known to disrupt them.


Quite frankly it saddens me deeply. One of the reasons I wanted my daughter’s early years to be in Nairobi was so she could absorb our culture. Learn it in the natural way in which it should happen as we go about our daily lives.


Despite the many discussions I have had with friends about this (one very nearly changed her mind) the trend is not abating. My mother thinks I am old-fashioned and that at the end of the day cultures change. While I am aware cultures do change, I wonder if it is something that we will lament the loss of later.


The interesting thing about many Kenyan wedding songs is they often do not talk of romance and happily ever after. They talk about difficulties, hard times and imply the way it is possible to find love and connection despite going through every challenge imaginable. They carry the wishes of the community into your life. The community that will help you raise your children, the community that will wipe your tears and share you laughter.


As my daughter’s generation grows up, if they have children and if some of those children get married I wonder will the church steps be silent? As yet another adult-only invite arrives I literally hear another piece of our culture falling into the same circular file that I place the envelope.

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J. Claire K. Niala is a mother, writer and creative who enjoys exploring the differences that thankfully still exist between various cultures around the world. She was born in Kenya and grew up in Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire and the UK. She has worked and lived on three continents and has visited at least one new country every year since she was 12 years old. Her favorite travel companions are her mother and daughter whose stories and interest in others bring her to engage with the world in ways she would have never imagined.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsThomas Gitau   |  Tuesday, 22 September 2015 at 10:24 pm

    I do enjoy every piece of your work.

  2. CommentsLynnette   |  Sunday, 05 June 2016 at 7:42 am

    I love reading your work. I can olny imagine what it would be like to have such beautiful customs and true community. I understand why it is so very very important to keep these traditions alive. Because when they are lost they are forever gone, and that is such a shame. I live in America, i have all my life and as i get older i long for the traditions that have long passed. The bond of family, and community can hardly be found. I never knew my traditions of my ethnicity. This makes me very sad. My grandmother is 100% french and my grandfather 100% German yet ive never learned a single tradition from either country. I believe it is very important to pass your traditions on to your children so they dont just fall away . I cant even begin to imagine what my ancestors traditions were and i think that is sad. I love reading your stories about your traditions and since of community. I find your writing very inspiring.Keep on writing, im certain you also inspire many many people. Thank you for that. I wish more people embraced their culture and continued traditions because it is very sad when that is forgotten.

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