/ 4 September 2008

How to say ‘I do’ to the wedding committee

Some call it marriage made easy, others think it’s just another way to show up the haves from the have-nots. Either way, wedding committees are part and parcel of Tanzanian life.

In a country where 89% of the population survives on a single meal a day, it’s hard to believe that a wedding ceremony costing $10 000 would be considered quite cheap.

But thanks to the booming wedding committee ”industry”, no marriage happens without the extravagant funding process that happens long before the bride and groom say ”I do”.

In the capital Dar es Salaam, wedding contributions are the order of the day. Every week the city’s bars and hotels play host to wedding meetings organised to raise funds for the marriages of people you might hardly know.

Potential wedding contributors are lured to the meetings with the promise of beers and nyama choma (roast meat) and the implied threat that if you don’t cough up, nobody will when your turn comes.

I relocated to Dar es Salaam, home to four-million people, a year ago from Mwanza on the southern shores of Lake Victoria. I’ve already received five ”wedding invitations”: in other words, asked to join committees to raise funds for the big day.

I was recently involved in organising the wedding ceremony of my neighbour — me and about 100 other people.

Our first meeting was used to elect a chairperson, treasurer and the key committees that are tasked to spearhead all wedding preparations.

They included finance, decoration and reception, food, beer and soft drinks, transport and security.

The security committee is responsible for the safety of the bride and groom, as well as that of the guests. It also has to deal with the gate-crashers who routinely try to sneak in to these weddings.

Each committee consists of five to 10 members, depending on the budget, made up of relatives, friends, work mates and neighbours.

I was the chairperson of the finance committee. From the money we collected — Sh15-million ($13 000) in total — about 90% was used to fund the wedding ceremony.

The happy couple only got a fridge and a gas cooker worth $800.

Some people campaign heavily to get elected to wedding committees — especially the finance committee — considered to be the mother of them all. In some cases the budget is highly inflated in order to benefit certain members.

It is common for wedding organisers to set a minimum amount for contributions, currently the going rate is between Sh50 000 ($50) and Sh100 000 ($100) per person. Some people are even forced to borrow money to pay their wedding contribution, to avoid being excluded by their fellows in the community.

Those who fail to contribute are seen as ”traitors” and noted down for future reference so they can be excluded too.

These meetings are thirsty work, and the beer and music are kept flowing to inspire contributors to pledge more.

Once a private affair, wedding contributions have become a way to show your financial muscle and how popular and well connected you are.

The criteria to qualify for funding are clear: contribute to other people’s weddings; be connected to the royal family or popular politicians and be an active member at religious or social gatherings.

Not everyone takes a cynical view. ”The positive thing is that you can have only $1 000 but can still have a wedding ceremony amounting to $10 000,” says William Oheri, who got married three months ago.

”This has made the cost of marriage affordable to the majority of people.”

In a country built on the foundation of socialism by the late Dr Julius Nyerere, this trend is viewed by many as the true spirit of socialism.

”This is something that should be nurtured because it has enabled even the poor to fund their wedding,” says John Mlekwa, who has been driving taxis in Dar for 30 years.

”In my day a wedding was a daunting task because the whole financial burden was left to the family.”

In some cases, contributors are even asked to pay the dowry when the groom’s family can’t afford to.

Contributors can look forward to being well-fed and watered when the wedding day finally arrives.

Whether wedding committees are an ongoing demonstration of Nyerere-style socialism, or a bank-breaking exercise in social pressure, depends on your point of view.

Richard Mgamba is the managing editor of the Guardian on Sunday and a winner of CNN’s Africa Journalist of the Year for 2008


M&G Newspaper