Life Zambia

Thursday Doors The Wedding

Red barred doors at the Saloon. That’s not a pistol on the banner, but a hairdryer. Perhaps we should have dropped by here to get our hair done or have a stiff drink before the wedding ceremony.

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.

Forty three degrees Celsius showing on the car dashboard, driving to Mambwe

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.

My witness, Dr George, offers us advice on how to have a happy marriage

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.

The marriage certificate

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.

Some of the dancers were more enthusiastic than others

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.

Dr George is on the far right wearing blue, but his mask has slipped. The security guard wanted a place in the limelight.

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.

Life Thursday Doors Zambia

Thursday Doors Wedding Planning

Simple doors next to Mfuwe Mini-Mart, Mayana

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”. 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.

Getting amorous? Two elephants disregarding social distancing

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.

Making contact

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.

Holding trunks

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.

Medical Zambia

Renewing Old Friendships

Last week, young Desmond (see a previous blog Desmond Doktah), saw me in the doctor’s vehicle negotiating the muddy potholes of the street outside the police station which leads to the clinic. He hauled himself up onto the running board and grinned at me. I grinned back. I had heard that he had been unwell, but he looked fit and healthy. He said that he would come for a consultation with me at the health centre during the school holidays.

I enjoy re-establishing links with people whom I have met or treated in my two previous missions here in Kakumbi. Of course, the doctor has a high profile, and everyone recognises the doctor’s car, even if they confuse me with another male muzungu doctor.

Occasionally, I will see my writing in someone’s health records, a cheap school exercise book and it strikes a chord. Or at least, I can see how I was thinking about the clinical problem at the time.

Most of the health centre staff are new to me apart from six: Jesse, the cleaner and register keeper, Erina and Margaret, who help in the mother and child health block, Celestino and Mike who are community HIV support workers, and John Mbewe who is the enrolled nurse in charge of HIV care.

John Mbewe vaccinating while wearing his waistcoat “Champion Against Open Defaecation”

Daillies, my former translator, and Helen, who was so skilled at handling hysterical patients using the power of Jesus, both work at the Airport Clinic now. Chanda, who volunteered at Kakumbi for ten years without pay, now has a post at the district HQ in Mambwe. Mr Chulu has taken over as environmental health officer at Kamoto District Hospital. I have met them all again (apart from Helen).

Maurice, another one of our volunteer community health workers, weighing babies

Dr Mashanga, my supervisor at Mambwe District, warmly welcomed me back to the Valley and promised to get me the additional drug supplies to enable me to treat patients with mental illness, asthma, hypertension and diabetes. We now have atenolol, nifedipine, metformin and glibenclamide in stock at Kakumbi.

I also visited Caroline Mwanza, the District Commissioner. I could see her outside her office, under the shade of a magnificent tree. I waved at her and she cocked her head onto one side, wondering who on earth this old muzungu could be, coming to greet her. Then her face beamed into a smile as she recognised me. We hugged and embraced each other before she marched me off to her air-conditioned office for a long chat.

It’s great to be appreciated and greeted so warmly by everyone. Zambians are so friendly (and so are the expatriates living here).