Wedding celebrations are muted in the time of Covid-19, but if I could wave a magic wand and have a massive party in Mfuwe to celebrate our marriage, I know the perfect band to provide the music. They are called the Shambolics, from the Black Country of the West Midlands in UK, a Peaky Blindin’ Rock and Roll band. They play cover versions of classics such as Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Black Magic Woman, Long Tall Sally, Born to be Wild, Back in the USSR, Sweet Home Alabama, Bad Moon Rising, Johnny B Good, etc.
“Shambolic” accurately described both the preparations and the wedding.
Every week since submitting the required documentation and marriage application to Mambwe Civic Centre (the Boma), I have contacted Mr Douglas Banda, the Chief Accountant, to ensure the arrangements are in place. I paid the application fee and posted the banns at the Airport, the Fuel Station and Mayana Mini-Market (stapling a sheet of paper to the trunk of a nearby tree) on September 1st.
Three weeks later, Mr Banda told me that if anyone now objected to our marriage, I could sue them in a court of law for being malicious. Good to know, but when I next telephoned, Mr Banda’s assistant told me that he had misplaced my papers.
A few weeks before the ceremony, Mr Banda telephoned me to ask for the name and occupation of both our fathers. I explained that this information was in the application letter which I delivered by hand a month ago, which he had misplaced. He gave me an appointment for 2pm on a Friday afternoon, but surprisingly he was not in the office. I left the information he required with his assistant.
Then I had to fill in a form stating that there were no impediments to my getting married to my fiancée, that we were not under 21 years of age, did not need parental consent and were not related. I signed the affidavit but Anne would have to sign her affidavit before we could marry. The assistant financial officer told me that she could do it at the marriage ceremony, which seemed a bit last minute.
I contacted Dr George and Caroline, the District Commissioner, to confirm that they would be our witnesses. Caroline didn’t reply to my texts or WhatsApp messages, but she had previously assured me that she would be present, so I wasn’t that concerned. Dr George happily agreed.
Four days before the wedding, Anne arrived in Mfuwe at 11.30pm having been driven in a taxi from Lusaka Airport (just over 700km away). She recovered after a day’s rest and we spent the weekend visiting the National Park. On the morning of the wedding, I attended the early morning health centre weekly meeting, saw a few patients and then returned home. I combed my hair and got dressed in the off-white linen suit which Anne had brought from the UK. Of course, Anne looked radiant and beautiful (she always does) in her wedding outfit.
It was already 30 degrees C when we set off for the Boma. The air conditioning in the doctor’s vehicle is a bit ropey, so I wound down the driver’s side window and the wind ruffled my carefully-styled coiffure. Anne wisely kept her window only slightly open, so her hair remained perfect.
Right on time at 10:30am we arrived at the Boma and met Dr George on the steps outside. He is renowned for keeping “British” time (ie being punctual) as opposed to “African” time. He told me that the Clerk of the Council who would be conducting the ceremony was not around, so George went back to his office to work.
As required, we put on our face masks and washed our hands before entering the Civic Centre. The same maskless uniformed security guard asked us what was the purpose of our visit. When I reminded him that Anne and I were getting married, he immediately thrust out his hand to shake. I fist-bumped him instead. He escorted us to Mr Banda’s office. He left us there for 90 minutes, sweating in the heat, making small talk with a succession of ladies who came by to see the happy couple.
The Finance Office was about three metres square and contained three desks, one laptop computer (switched off) and lots of lever arch files arranged on shelving on the walls. Everyone was engrossed in their smart phones, Facebook and WhatsApp.
“What about your witnesses?” asked Mrs Phiri, assistant financial officer. I explained that Dr George was here, but I had not yet seen the DC. “You must telephone her immediately, then!” Caroline answered her phone but told me that she had been obliged to accompany a Minister to Chipata, the capital of Eastern Province, just over an hour away; she could not witness the ceremony. Mrs Phiri offered to be our witness, but deferred to Mr Banda, who said that he would step in to support Anne as her family were absent.
I asked another financial assistant if he could take some photographs using my camera. He agreed, so I gave him a quick lesson in how to use the camera on automatic mode. Other people offered to use Anne’s iPhone camera and her small Sony camera to record the ceremony.
At 11.47, the Clerk of the Council (CoC) arrived. “He is the one in the suit,” said the assistant finance officer. A large man wearing a sports jacket, shirt and tie got out of a car at the front of the building.
The assistant showed me a photocopied list of 20 items detailing the order of the ceremony. “We don’t do many weddings. The last time we had muzungus getting married here was in 2018. We had three that year.” The CoC obviously needed a crib sheet to remind him what came next.
At midday, the council chamber was ready for the ceremony. All the local government workers had left their offices and were now seated around the chamber. The CoC stood behind a desk, in front of a portrait of His Excellency, Edgar Lungu, the President of the Republic of Zambia. There was a colourful display of plastic flowers on the table and a miniature Zambian flag.
Anne and I removed our masks and walked up to the table. The CoC gave a speech about marriage. “In this Christian country of Zambia, it is right that a man should marry a woman. We don’t have men marrying men here, or women marrying women, you understand?” We nodded our heads, unsure of the relevance of this to our wedding.
He handed me a Bible and the affidavit which I had signed a few weeks ago. There were about eight paragraphs, but only three or so were relevant for me to read out, stating my name, the name of the person I was marrying and that there were no reasons why the marriage should not take place. I confused him by skipping the section where I had to declare that I had the permission of my family, or a magistrate, needed if I was under 21. I don’t think that the wording had been changed since Zambia gained independence in 1964.
Then it was Anne’s turn. The CoC tried to help her but showed her the wrong sections she had to read out. He then changed his mind and it became even more confusing. She hadn’t signed all the parts of the affidavit, but that didn’t matter as she had declared there were no impediments with her oral statement.
She handed back the Bible and the CoC asked about the rings. I had Anne’s ring in my pocket in a box. She was on my left, so when I reached for her hand to put on the ring, her right hand was nearest to me. Anne deftly put her left hand out and I took the hint, squeezing the ring onto the correct finger.
I caused more confusion because I said that I didn’t want a ring. As a doctor I am always washing my hands and I don’t like soap getting under the ring irritating the skin. The CoC then checked our names; I genuinely think he had forgotten them. He mispronounced our names (Zambians often add an “y” to English words, so Anne became “Annie”) and then pronounced us man and wife. The council chamber erupted in applause and ululation as we kissed.
I had been warned to check the spelling of our names on the wedding licence as it was not unusual for these to be wrong. These were correct, but there were four minor spelling mistakes on the certificate. The CoC didn’t know who had to sign and where on the licence; Dr George helped him out. George gave a speech saying that the easy part was over and the difficult part of the marriage was to come, which was worrying, if realistic. He told me that the secret to a good marriage was admitting you were wrong when you knew you were right.
Mr Banda signed as our other witness. He said that now Anne was my wife, no one could touch her apart from her husband…and her adopted father (him) who was giving her away. Creepy. He spoke for a few minutes, echoing the good wishes of Dr George.
The CoC decided to talk about marriage as a journey. “You are here in Mambwe, and soon you will be on the road to Chipata, but it will be a long time before you get to Lusaka,” he said. He had forgotten the “in sickness and in health… till death do us part” bit, and said, “You are now married until ehr, death, ehr … until you die!” There was nothing in his homily about a wife obeying her husband because this is taken for granted in Zambia.
Finally, the CoC said that it was traditional for there to be dancing at Zambian weddings and did we want this? We agreed and several members of the audience hit the central area of the chamber doing impromptu dance moves. I was impressed by the amount of movement people could get from shaking their hips and buttocks. “That will be another 300 kwacha,” he said. I paid 1000 kwacha for the licence I told the assistant financial officer that the additional 300 was for “refreshments” for the audience and dancers.
Masks were discarded. Hands were shaken. Everyone was smiling. People took more photographs, inside and outside the chamber. Even the security guard wanted to be included in the photographs.
We walked to the doctor’s car with Mr Banda in our wake. He was insisting that as Anne’s surrogate father, he was entitled to a dowry payment. I dismissed this claim with a smile and genuine thanks. Nice try, but no cigar.
The ceremony was so shambolic and random that we dissolved into laughter at times. We should have arranged for it to be videotaped. But after all the chaos, we were now legally man and wife. We drove off to start our honeymoon.