You timidly approach the family compound, unsure if you’ve arrived at the right time, unsure who to greet first and unsure if you were actually invited (you think that’s what they were saying in Chichewa). You observe multiple groups of women, clustered around various homes, cooking nsima. You’re beckoned by one group, out of which you recognize only a handful of women. Regardless, a warm welcome is extended and you are invited to take a seat on a reed mat positioned in the shade. One woman greets you in typical Malawian fashion:
“How are you?”
“I’m fine, how are you?”
I’m fine also, thank you.”
…and then ten others follow suit with the same exact exchange. After repeating your well-being eleven times, plates are then hastily arranged in front of you with prodigious amounts of rice, meat and nsima. Free food! You accept it with alacrity, rinsing your right hand in a bowl of water and digging into the bowl of rice. Around you, the chaos of a Malawian wedding is unfolding. Women arrive to the bride’s home like family members to a Thanksgiving feast, bearing massive containers of nsima, rice, beans, goat meat, chicken and eggs. Other women run around frantically, in what appears to be a search for clean plates to serve their guests with. Meanwhile, you sit on the mat and stuff yourself with food, unable to understand most of the conversation around you but content with simply soaking up your surroundings.
You eat communally, scooping up rice with your fingers from a bowl that three other people are also eating from. The girl next to you picks up a slippery piece of potato, slurps it out of her fingers and then plunges her sauce-stained hand into the shared pile of nsima. On the other side of you, one woman holds down a bone while her friend pulls up on a parcel of meat and tears it off. (Since only the right hand is used for dining, employing a friend to help you consume meat is essential). With curiosity, you inquire what type it is but are only responded to with “kaya” and an insouciant shrug (“who knows”). One of the ladies deliberately places a greyish hunk on your side of the bowl and rattles off something in Chichewa, throwing her head back in laughter. You laugh at her laughter, realize it’s intestines, and then eat it. It’s not that bad.
Your attention is then turned to a disorderly group of young boys, assembled five feet from the mat. In the center of the crowd, a long pole-like arm extends towards the sky, hoisting up what appears to be a plate of nsima. The food doesn’t remain untouched for long, though, and is soon bum-rushed by fifteen greedy hands that dive-bomb the plate like vultures. Nsima flies in the air, and a few lucky boys who secure a piece for themselves happily trot off.
After finishing your own nsima, you wash your hands in the original water bowl (now used by five other women) and attempt to chat in Chichewa. With enthusiasm, the amayis answer your questions all at once. What’s more, all seem to believe that your understanding is correlated to the volume of their voices. You feel overwhelmed and slightly uncomfortable, but loved.
The chaos continues when one woman, without so much as one word, does a drive-by drop off. Into your lap falls her baby and when you look up, the woman has disappeared. You become the child’s pseudoparent for the next half hour. (That is, until she pees on you and must be re-swaddled).
The official wedding ceremony has already occurred in the early morning, but you are then ushered to the “after party” where huge speakers, run by a generator, are blasting Malawian beats. Hundreds of men, women and children surround the site, all watching the dancefloor. The emcee encourages everyone to “kusupa” or toss money into a container that will later be given to the new couple.
As always, you are surrounded by hundreds of people that know you, but you can only pick out twenty people that you know. Kids swarm you, amayis smile and shout indiscernible things at you, and a sea of Chichewa and dust envelopes you. After dancing, chatting and “kusupa”-ing, the sun starts to set and you realize how mentally and physically exhausted you are. You say “tiwonana” to your friends and return home, greatly satisfied with your first real Malawian wedding and happy to be living in such a wonderful community.