Our plans for a joyous celebration of matrimony on the 6th June in the Victoria Gallery at Leicester’s New Walk Museum were flushed down the toilet of covid-19. All weddings were cancelled by the city, by government diktat, from 20th March 2020.
My fiancée and I had agreed that I could volunteer at Kakumbi Rural Health Centre from July to October on the understanding that this would include a honeymoon on safari. Well, the only way we could have a honeymoon would be to have a wedding first. So, we set about doing this in Zambia.
In my previous three spells as Valley Doctor, I have attended two glorious weddings – Ed and Kirstie (2014) and Ken and Lauren (2019). Both took place in wooded areas outside the national park: the Ebony Grove and the Marula Forest. We decided that a simpler approach would be better, especially as we would not be inviting lots of friends and relatives. The obvious choice was to be married in a registry office at Mambwe Civic Centre, otherwise known as the “Boma”.
UK.gov website explained what was required: affidavits, notice of marriage forms, certificates of no impediment. I drove to the local government office building which is next to the District Health Office in Mambwe. The guard on duty asked my business and smirked as he led me into a courtyard, surrounded by offices. At the first office, the clerk assumed that I would be throwing a huge party and directed me to the Environmental Health Inspector to get approval for the venue. I told him that we only wanted a simple ceremony. He said that this was not the traditional Zambian approach to a wedding. I had to remind him that large gatherings were prohibited under the Covid-19 regulations. He suddenly realised that I was wearing a mask, and he wasn’t. He scrabbled around in the top drawer of his desk, searching for his own mask, before leading me to the chief accountant’s office.
The accountant pulled out several large lever arch files and showed me what I had to do. I needed to provide proof of identity, copies of passports, birth certificates, and, in my case, proof that my first wife died in 2012. These should be stapled to an official request to be married. He gave me examples of previous letters so I knew how to word the request. I needed to bring all this to him at the end of the week. In the meantime, I should meet the Clerk of the Council who will be officiating at the ceremony. We moved to another office, but the clerk was in a meeting. “He won’t be long, he is just finishing,” said his glamorous secretary. “Take a seat.” I sat down in a huge Dralon armchair. The stuffing was absent from part of the cushion, so I was tilted off to one side.
“Are you getting married? How exciting! To a nice Zambian girl?” the secretary asked.
“No, my fiancée is English,” I said. “You’ve missed your chance.” She hooted with laughter, but this didn’t bring the clerk of his meeting.
“Let’s go and finish up some form filling,” said the accountant. It was getting perilously close to lunchtime.
I filled out four copies of “Notice of Marriage” forms, otherwise known as the banns. I had no problem writing my details, but wondered how my fiancée should be described. Single was too broad a term, so after a short discussion, we settled on spinster. The accountant had no idea of what a web manager was, but when I told him that my fiancée worked in local government, he smiled and said, “She is one of us!”
He stamped and signed these forms, and instructed me where to post them. I have seen similar notices stapled to trees, outside the local mini-market, the filling station and the airport. He then told me that once he had received the application with evidence, he would arrange for an affidavit.
A lady in the corner of the office asked me if I was going to give her some shampay. It took me a while to realise that she was expecting to attend a champagne reception. I had to disappoint her. She told me that I needed two witnesses, one from my side, the other from my fiancée’s side. I was hoping that the District Commissioner and the District Officer of Health could provide this service. She told me that I would have to pay another fee to get the Registrar’s Certificate of Marriage.
I went back to the District Health Offices to pick up vaccines and supplies for the clinic before their lunchtime shut down. While loading the vehicle, I met Reverend Ed, the clinical officer in charge of St Luke’s Rural Health Centre. He had been on a training course I ran last month and we were “best mates”. He asked me for a lift to Mfuwe (on church, not medical business) and I could hardly refuse.
On the journey home, I told him I was getting married and he offered to officiate at the Anglican Cathedral round the corner from his health centre. He could provide a marriage certificate for less than a pound, and thought that the local government charge of £50 was extortionate. “But they have to eat, I suppose,” he commented. And we need an official legal document which would be recognised in the UK. I was told that in some cases, the registrar had refused to conduct a marriage unless it had already been blessed in church. Well, thanks to Reverend Ed, we have a back up plan if that happens.
I have also learned that registrars may offer unsolicited advice to newlyweds. One new wife was told that she must carry a mobile phone with her everywhere she went, “even to the market”, so her husband knew where she was and could contact her at any time. I wonder how much this represents the husband’s control over his wife and how much it relates to the importance of marital fidelity in a country which has been devastated by HIV/AIDS.