One of Them

Posted Jul 29, 2011 by 4 Comments

I could barely lift my head against the weight. A dozen Kenyan mothers fussed over me as I tried to take a few steps and failed miserably. I tipped sideways and nearly dropped the “Kiondo,” or women’s basket, I was carrying on my head.

The other women started singing and dancing as they walked forward. The basket’s leather strap dug into my forehead, but I ignored the discomfort and joined them. Thirty Kenyan women swayed to a beat with huge baskets balanced perfectly on their heads, swishing their glamorous traditional gowns as they walked.

Our kitchen was filled with baskets of food for the dowry ... but I had no idea one would end up on my head!

I was a six-foot tall white woman who struggled to balance a very tiny basket, attempted to mumble Swahili words I’d never heard before and consistently moved two counts behind the beat.

I should have been out of place, but in that moment I truly felt like family.

A Day to Celebrate

They descended at around nine in the morning.

Aunts, uncles, cousins and a string of friends arrived en masse, dressed in their traditional finest. They toted baskets full of fruits, vegetables and maize flour. Two men carried in an entire branch heavy with green bananas. The back door of my house became a minefield of shoes and everyone required chai and cake at once.

And the festivities hadn’t even started yet.

I found out from one of the cousins that I would be attending the final of three engagement ceremonies before the actual church wedding. Each meeting represented a new stage of the two families becoming one. At the final meeting, both sets of parents haggled to determine the daughter’s dowry.

The groom, my brother Kagia (left), couldn’t stop smiling.

A variety of factors go into determining Kenyan woman’s dowry, including her individual skills and level of education. Part of the idea of the dowry is to bring the two families together. Instead of having the groom’s family pay the sum all at once, the payments are stretched out over an extended period to make sure that the two families stay connected.

To my disappointment, I wasn’t actually allowed to see the haggling over the bride price. Apparently that aspect of the marriage tradition is only for the fathers and their chosen spokesperson, a close friend who’s an excellent bargainer.

The rest of us were required to follow another grand tradition in African culture: feasting. I appropriately stuffed myself, convinced I couldn’t eat another bite. Then a small man thrust a platter of steaming nyama choma (roast meat) in my face.

“I’m ok,” I said. “But thanks.”

Every conversation around me stopped as I said it. Awkwardly, I dug around on the plate just so everyone would stop looking. I popped the smallest piece I could find in my mouth and tried to pass the plate. My neighbor wouldn’t take it from me, so I looked for another piece … and accidentally grabbed the biggest bone on the tray.

In the midst of gnawing on it, I listened as the two families welcomed everyone and began some introductions. But instead of stopping after introducing the bride and groom, the families began listing off members of the wedding party.

Kenyans certainly know how to eat.

Unfortunately, that also included me, the mzungu with nyama choma juice dripping down her chin.

My host father wasn’t really sure how to introduce me. He looked at me affectionately as he said something that made the others laugh, although I didn’t understand. I felt too awkward to ask for a translation, but eventually I understood I’d been labeled a “cousin.”

Someone pushed me to the front with twenty or so other “cousins” who were each supposed to explain how he or she was related to the bride or groom. My cheeks ached as I attempted to cover up my nervousness with a fake smile.

Somehow, I didn’t think “random American living with the groom’s parents” fell under the category of family.

A New Name

By the end of the night, I knew I’d certainly made an impression at the party. But whether that impression was good or bad, I wasn’t quite sure.

Therefore, when one of the more boisterous “aunties” approached me with the Kiondo and motioned to my head, I went for it. At that point, I really had nothing to lose.

Somehow, the basket stayed on my head the entire way to the bride’s house. I sang and moved along with the others, just like a Kenyan woman would. Well, maybe a little less gracefully. My neck was killing me by the end, but I did it.

The crowd of women helped me set the basket down and then all tried to grab my hands at once. One of the oldest got to me first.

My brother with his new wife, Kate and their one-year-old son, Ryan.

She grabbed my arm and using all of her might, proclaimed to the wedding guests, “Wanjiku!”

And the rest of the party cheered.

Later, I found out that Wanjiku is a family name. It’s given to every firstborn women in the family to honor the paternal grandmother. By receiving it, I officially took up a place in Kikuyu culture. Not to mention that I gained around 100 immediate family members.

Since then, my family doesn’t call me Molly. When the introduce me, they don’t say I’m their “American” friend or that I’m visiting. Instead, they say I’m their daughter, their Wanjiku.

On the day of the wedding my family says they intended to bring home a bride, but they ended up bringing home a mzungu as well. They gained two daughters.

And the thing is, I know they really mean it.

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Next Steps
    • The beauty of an earthly family is that the concept includes the out of place, the lost and the broken. When it comes to the family of God, the same concept applies! We all have a place with Him. Consider Ephesians 1: 4-6. “Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son.” (NLT)
    • Interested in knowing more about Kikuyu culture? Check out as site like http://www.theafricantribes.com/samples/ or a book like the Lonely Planet’s guide to Kenya for more details about wedding traditions and other aspects of daily life for the largest of Kenya’s 42 tribes.
    • My Kenyan family can be yours too! They’re the most welcoming, genuine people I’ve met. Feel like part of the family by joining me in prayer for my brother Kagia, his new wife Kate, and their son, Ryan as they start a new life together.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Molly Meyer was a summer intern with World Next Door in 2011. She currently attends Indiana Wesleyan University where she’s studying Journalism and International Relations. She loves discovering how God can work his grace through every story, no matter the circumstances.

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Comments

  1. Darla said... 

    Reply

    July 29th, 2011 at 7:31 am  

    After having a child, the meaning of family or parent becomes personal as did calling God my Father. Being in God’s “family” and being His “daughter” now must feel especially different for you with this experience. What a blessing!!!

  2. Josie Tilyou said... 

    Reply

    July 29th, 2011 at 8:52 am  

    No more just a ”sister” in Christ! Jokingly going through the “initiation process” of becoming their “cousin”, sounds like that relationship lasts a lifetime as well:)
    I smiled reading your article & it made me sing the chorus “The Family of God”, thank you for sharing your experience.

  3. Gary Paultre said... 

    Reply

    July 29th, 2011 at 9:54 pm  

    That’s great!

  4. LeAnne Hardy said... 

    Reply

    August 6th, 2011 at 7:16 pm  

    What a precious day!

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