Happily ever after

24 March 2014

Auberge Bab Sahara is a bit of a mess. As I return from Ouadane, I find Cora has a strained back and a bad temper; both her husband Justus and the staff seem unsure of what to do, and thus nothing much is being done. That’s problematic, because there’s a mountain of work to be done, before tonight no less. Tilo had asked Cora to help her decorate the venue of her wedding reception, and to bake some cakes – Mauritania doesn’t share Morocco’s obsession with pastries and other baked goods, so very few people here can bake a proper cake. However, Tilo and her sister Coumba only came over to arrange things properly on the evening before the reception, which wouldn’t be enough time even if Cora had been fit. With lots of pain, she manages to bake three cakes that should be enough for the 50 or so invited guests – including me! However, due to her back pain, she can’t join the wedding herself.

Around 22:30 I make my way to the wedding, together with Justus and Bab Sahara’s cook – he’s about 20 years old, has tribal scars next to his eyes that are typical of the Fula people (Mauritania’s largest Black African ethnicity), and is, according to Justus, one of the best local men they’ve employed over the years. He can’t tell him that, though, because according to Justus’ experience, that would instantly inflate his ego to massive proportions and make him as slow a worker as the others. Together we carry the table with the cakes onto the hotel courtyard / parking lot that serves as the wedding reception’s venue. A man with a video camera and a painfully bright construction lamp, whose job is to document every last detail of the wedding, follows and records our every move. This, of course, does nothing to reduce the pressure of carrying a table full of cakes under the watchful eyes of all the guests – about 300 in total, or six times the number that Cora counted on when making the cakes! The upshot is that Justus, the cook and I are instantly guests of honour. This means that whenever I’m looking for a seat, someone else gets told to make place for me, and whenever I try to take a picture, a spot with a good view of the action is cleared for me; no matter who might have been sitting or photographing in that place! Given that I’ve only known the bride for a week, I feel quite awkward about my newfound status, and I try not to abuse it.

The bride (Tilo) and groom (Abye) aren’t here yet, but some of Tilo’s brothers are here as masters of ceremony. At first they try to get the men and women to sit on different sides of the courtyard, but as more and more people arrive, and as people mingle anyway, they give up on that plan, and concentrate on keeping the central part of the courtyard somewhat clear. The men mostly wear a boubou (also known as dashiki), a pull-over shirt with a V-neck, and sometimes featuring a print or embroidery. Several also wear the Moorish “grand boubou”, a massively oversized sky blue or white robe that can billow in the wind like a sail. The older women usually wear loose-fitting robes with a traditional headscarf; the younger ones often wear a long tight skirt with blouse, or a flashy party dress. Many wear traditional African head ties, but especially the younger women have their hair (or a big wig) proudly on display. Whatever they’re wearing, all the women’s outfits are colourful and often glittery and/ or full of prints, making for a dizzying sight. Amusingly (and simultaneously sadly, assuming my interpretation is correct), some women seem to want to appear lighter-skinned than they really are, but go about it in a rather crude fashion. They apply a white powder or cream to their face, but it really doesn’t make them look white or even lighter brown; if anything, it makes them look like an unusually festive zombie…

The music starts (very loudly) with a record of a West African style that I can’t identify, but that sounds remarkably like Caribbean music, with added call-and-response chanting. After a while, this changes to calmer Malian and Mauritanian desert blues, which sounds fantastic. The crowd loves both styles of music, and many people get up and dance. As you’d expect, they have a fantastic sense of rhythm and movement. Something I hadn’t expected, given how strict and devout Mauritania can often be, is how implicitly sexual some of the dancing is, especially by the men; several of them let either their oversized belt, or part of their “grand boubou”, hang in front of their legs and dangle it around suggestively while they dance, picking it up every once in a while and then letting it loose again. The women seem to love it, cheering them on at the top of their voice. Perhaps it’s because the dominant culture at this event is Fula and other sub-Saharan ethnicities, rather than that of the more sober Moors? One (Moorish) man taking the suggestive dancing over the top is, to my Western eye, by far the queerest man I’ve seen in Africa. His dancing is bordering on hysterical, and the women cheer him on, too. Maybe people here don’t even consider the possibility of him being gay, or maybe being so overtly queer and interacting only with women means none of the men feel threatened in their masculinity; whatever it is, everyone seems to let him be, which I wasn’t sure about in a country where the official punishment of gay sex would be stoning to death (although the death penalty hasn’t been executed in Mauritania since 1987). The women dance very well, but not in a suggestive way (as far as I can tell, anyway; who knows what kind of significance their seemingly innocent moves might have around here).

Having taken their time (but then this is Mauritania; apart from prayers, nothing here is on a strict schedule), Tilo And Abye finally make their appearance. He wears a long, tightly cut boubou in the traditional (for grooms) white colour. Tilo wears the first of two glittering colourful outfits she’ll be wearing throughout the evening. Two of Tilo’s brothers have to practically beat away the many women and girls that mob the newlyweds, hoping to get a photo with them. The 11 or 12 bridesmaids (including Tilo’s 6 sisters) line up opposite of an equal number of groomsmen (including at least several of Tilo’s 7 brothers; I’ve no idea if they all have the same mother) to form a guard of honour. The happy couple walk through and take place at a sort of throne. Then the gawlo – the Fula equivalent of a griot, a traditional West-African musician / storyteller / historian / poet / praise-singer – shows up. He’s wearing a flowing boubou made of rust, purple and blue coloured fabric, and golden jewels including what appears to be a box or a little book on a necklace (is it some kind of talisman? A miniature Quran? I’m curious, but I never manage to find out). He gives a speech of which I understand not a single word. 

This is not the wedding ceremony; that happened yesterday. Today’s event is the wedding reception, for the entire social circle (and the odd lost backpacker). I’d have loved to see the wedding ceremony as well, but still it’s an honour to be here. After the speech, the cakes are cut. Since there are about six times the number of expected guests, the best they can do is to cut the cakes into minuscule pieces and give them to about a third of the attendees. As the cake is being distributed, the bridesmaids and groomsmen form a circle around Tilo and Abye. The gawlo / griot starts singing a song in Fulani, and the newlyweds have their first dance. They’re shielded from view by the circle of bridesmaids and groomsmen, but halfway through the song, they all bend through their knees. Suddenly, the guests get a view of the newlyweds dancing. I don’t know if this is to tease them, or to make photos possible, or simply to watch them dance; whatever the reason for this ritual is, it feels special and intimate. After ten seconds or so, the circle stands up again, and Tilo and Abye finish the dance in relative privacy – although the 24 people making up the circle are still right there, watching from up close.

After the first dance, everybody else can join on the dancefloor, much like in a Western wedding. Much more fascinating to me is what happens on the side; while the griot sings, dances and cheers on the crowd, a second man stands next to him, holding a blue cloth bag. Apparently, local tradition is for the wedding guests to pay the griot, and what’s more, it’s a matter of prestige to pay him a big sum. The result is a comical sight: a line of women in flashy outfits, waiting to pay the griot, while waving their money around and shouting excitedly, so that nobody can remain unaware of the fact that they made a sizeable contribution. For a while, their shouts even threaten to overpower the griot’s singing, so the volume on the speakers is turned to the max.

The guests are served baguettes with grilled lamb, and beignets; sweet fried dough balls which seem to be more chewy and substantial than the ones I know; there must be some secret ingredient. Meanwhile, Tilo is making the rounds, standing next to each and every single wedding guest; she strikes two or three poses to show off the henna decorations on her hands to the video guy with the construction lamp following her around, after which she moves on to the next guest, where she repeats her two or three poses, and so on… Her face shows that she finds it about as much fun as it sounds, but I suppose it’s tradition.

Sooner than I’d like, the griot stops singing and we’re back to playing records; not much later, even that comes to an end. I make my way to Tilo and Abye to thank them for the honour of having been invited to their wedding. Tomorrow, they will make the journey to Abye’s home village in the South of Mauritania, where they’ll stay for a couple of days. After that, it’s time for a honeymoon in Dakar, the “Paris of Africa”; that’s not something everyone can afford, but apparently his family is quite wealthy. I also say goodbye to Coumba, Tilo’s sister (who also wore 2 different outfits tonight). She invites me to have dinner at her house tomorrow; after my return to the Auberge, Cora tells me it’s an invitation to a date! I’m not quite sure what to make of that, but I’m curious to see how it will work out…

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