Every bride-to-be dreams of a perfect big day, but two lucky Mozambican couples were granted an extra-special honour when they were chosen to be married at the grand reopening of the Palace of Weddings in Maputo.
Builders on the site, which has been closed for a year for refurbishment, were working up to the last minute to ensure that the final paving stones were laid and new plants were put in place in the grounds ready for the first ceremonies that took place last Friday, just days before Valentine’s Day.
Dressed in a full-length white gown with a tiara, veil and fingerless elbow-length gloves, Anabela Alberto Milisse (33) was one of two chosen brides, selected during a special televised lottery. She was at the palace ready to marry Tomás Francisco Malangute (43), her partner of three years. “Out of all the couples we were one of just two who were picked to marry on this day. It’s a blessing from God,” she said.
Her father, Pedro Milisse, was equally overwhelmed: “I couldn’t believe that this day would ever come. We waited a long time, but today I’m very happy. I’m not accustomed to cry in public so my tears are falling on the inside.”
The bride’s aunt, Nora Raul, stylishly attired in a dress made from traditional fabric, was also brimming with excitement. “I came all the way from South Africa to see my niece get married on this special day. It’s very emotional,” she said.
Marrying at the Palace of Weddings has long been part of the cultural tradition of the Mozambican people.
“It’s a national symbol and a kind of sacred place for us,” said Esperança Nhangumbe, an official from the civil registry, part of the ministry of justice that was responsible for the renovation. “The family is the foundation of society in Mozambique.
“Every individual, as a person and a citizen, has to be part of a family and the Palace of Weddings, which is also known as the Palace of the Family, is the official place where families are created. It was also the first building used by the authorities for weddings in the country.”
Venue used to host 100 weddings each Saturday
However, it was the popularity of the venue that eventually led to the need for renovation. Before it closed in February last year, the building was hosting as many as 100 weddings each Saturday, earning it the nickname of “the wedding factory”. Couples, with hundreds of family members, would climb the stairs to the entrance as another newly married couple posed at the exit to be serenaded by a local singing troupe and ululation calls before the wedding car whisked them down the road to Lover’s Park for the customary photo shoot.
“The building had got old and tired and we decided to carry out this renovation work so that we could host the weddings in a more organised way,” said Pedro Cambule, another official from the civil registry. “We have created an extra room, even bigger and more beautiful than the other two, meaning we can now carry out three ceremonies simultaneously.
“However, we are not planning to increase the number of weddings. In fact, we want to do the opposite and reduce the number to about 30 a day, give fines to those who fail to turn up and limit the number of guests to 50 as a way to preserve and give value to our state heritage.”
The palace was originally constructed in 1928 by the Hellenic Charitable Society — the first non-governmental organisation in the country — formed by a group of Greek settlers who arrived in Mozambique at the end of the 19th century. They called the building the Greek Athenaeum and it was constructed in the ancient Greek architectural style, with a triangular pediment supported by columns.
It was the first official gathering place for the Greek community and was used for all their cultural activities — from school lessons and religious ceremonies to social functions and theatrical performances. Many successful actors started out there.
In the basement was a library of Greek books and all around the main hall was a hand-painted history of Greece as well as a room containing intricately embroidered traditional Greek uniforms. The community continued to use the building for religious ceremonies as they worked to raise funds to build the Greek Orthodox church, which opened in 1952 and is situated next door to the palace.
Following independence in 1975, the government took over the building and in 1980 began to use it for wedding ceremonies.
Previous repairs to the building were mainly superficial or related to minor maintenance, but the recent refurbishment was a complete overhaul. “It was a big job,” said Cambule.
“New electrical, sound and air-conditioning systems have been installed, health and safety measures put in place and public toilets constructed. A new false ceiling has been fitted and structural work carried out. We did a renovation fit for a king.”
The grounds and gardens have also been landscaped, new benches made and large, stylish parasols designed and installed so that families can escape from the heat as they wait to go into the venue.
A floor-to-ceiling sculpture that wraps around a column in the main entrance hall, crafted by the famous Mozambican artist Valente Malangatana Ngwenya, has been polished and revarnished. New uniforms have been made for the staff who steward the weddings and there is even an illuminated electronic sign on which the names of the wedding couples are posted to guide guests to the right room.
“Our main aim was to help the weddings run more smoothly, but now the building is looking so beautiful that we hope to use it for other functions as well, such as exhibitions of photos and art, fashion shows or a book launch. We are also working on opening it up for daily tourist visits,” said Nhangumbe.
Anabela’s father, Alberto, welcomed the renovations. “It’s a beautiful place. They did a really good job,” he said. “Now people have to respect and take care of it, because it’s where we come to start a new family — a family that can create happiness.
“I think most Mozambicans would like to get married here, although not all of them get the opportunity to do so. But it’s the only place like this and it’s the best venue for getting married, so we need to take care of it for it to remain beautiful.”
The official opening ceremony — attended by Minister of Justice Maria Bemvinda Levi and the president of the municipal council of Maputo, David Simango — included the cutting of a ribbon and the unveiling of a plaque to mark the opening, a tour of the building and the signing of a new visitors’ book. Afterwards the two happy couples finally had their moment.
Accompanied by two bridesmaids and two page boys, Anabela and Tomás were married in front of their friends and family. The bride was presented with a special bouquet of flowers from the civil registry to mark the occasion.
As Anabela, now Mrs Malangute, left the palace, her nervous, shy looks were replaced by a big smile. “Everything went without a hitch. I feel truly happy and I hope our marriage will last forever.”