Go to Africa? Marry a Foreigner? What Was I thinking?
Karen van der Zee (aka Miss Footloose)
“If you don’t go, you’ll never know,” my mother says. It’s the perfect answer to the question I’ve been struggling with: Should I get on a plane and go to Africa to be with the man I’ve only known for a short time? He’s an American Peace Corps Volunteer and I’m a Dutch girl, in love, and dreaming of adventure. But we haven’t seen each other for six months and is he really the one? This is risky business, I’m sure you agree. Maybe I should just stay in Holland and marry a dentist and have a safe and unadventurous life in a nice, clean Dutch suburb.
But, no, I get on a plane to Kenya. Kenya is not Holland and I find it all a great adventure. And I’m in love with my Peace Corps hero. A couple of months after my arrival we decide to get married and purchase two 9-karat gold rings, the cheapest we can find because we are poor.
On a sunny tropical morn, my hero and I walk to the District Commissioner’s office in the town of Nyeri for the joyous event, at least we’re expecting it to be joyous. It turns out to be rather bizarre but we don’t know that yet.
Our wedding party of twelve strong awaits us at the door, a hippie lot consisting of one Swede, one Brit, a couple of Kenyans and several Peace Corps volunteers, all dressed up in their finest jeans and cleanest shirts.
We squeeze ourselves into the small office, a humorless space devoid of festive adornments and full of stale air. Behind the desk stands the District Commissioner, a man of solid build and serious demeanor. Also present are two mystery maidens, pretty Kikuyu girls in neatly pressed frocks. We do not know who they are, but soon discover they’re here to serve as our witnesses in case we don’t have any. We do, but the girls do not leave because (I assume) seeing wazungu (white people) getting hitched in this town is not a daily occurrence.
It may well be a very rare occurrence because the DC, wearing a suit and tie as is befitting his status, is sweating bullets. Not only from the heat, because along with the sweating he is also trembling and displaying a nervous tick.
After various solemn greetings, the ceremony commences. The DC directs himself to my man, ignoring me.
“Do you understand,” he asks, his cheek twitching, “that this is a civil ceremony and not a tribal one?”
My husband-to-be says yes, he does. So do I (this is, after all, Africa), but my understanding is of no importance apparently. I am not amused.
“And that under civil law, you can only have one wife?”
My man says, yes, he understands.
The DC’s hand trembles so much he drops his pen. “And do you understand that if you want another wife under civil law, you must first divorce the first one?”
Ye gods. Is this an omen? Am making a terrible mistake? We are talking about getting rid of me before I’m even married. How cool is that? I’m standing here in all my bridal glory, miniskirt and all, and the DC is talking to my man as if I am not even here. I’m overwhelmed with emotion at this sacred matrimonial moment. I’m sure, dear reader, you can identify.
My not-yet husband says he understands about divorce. (He hails, after all, from America.)
I’m aquiver with nerves. Should I get out of here, go back to Holland? Marry a dentist instead? What was I thinking, traveling to Africa, marrying a foreigner?
“However,” the DC continues, cheek twitching some more, “in the event you want a second wife but don’t want to divorce your civil-law wife, you’ll be allowed to marry a second one under tribal law.”
This is good news! My man won’t have to get rid of me if he wants another wife! I’m overcome with emotion. (This is, after all, my wedding day.)
After some more of this scintillating discourse, we finally get to the one single question I have the privilege to respond to:
“Do you take this man . . . . ”
I say yes, I do.
Years have passed. So far no second wife, tribal or otherwise.
Getting on that plane to Africa was risky business, but I ended up with the man I wanted and together we live a globetrotting life, which is never boring.
NOTE: This wedding was not a recent event, and I am sure that the ceremony I have described has been changed and modernized. So if you want one just like it, you are out of luck.
Karen van der Zee grew up in the Netherlands and has cooked, shopped, mothered, traveled and written romance novels and stories in Africa, Asia, Europe, the US and the Middle East. You can read about her (mis)adventures on her blog Life in the Expat Lane (www.lifeintheexpatlane.com)
Thank you Karen for sharing your Gutsy marriage in Kenya. We’re glad to hear there is no second wife, tribal or otherwise. You can find out more about Karen van der Zee, her travel adventures and her present expat life in Moldova on her blog.
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