She said “traditional dress.” For a bridal shower on a hot, summer Saturday afternoon, “traditional dress” means to me a cotton skirt and flip flops. To her, it meant an African traditional dress complete with celebratory face paint. Noting the difference of interpretation, I already sense with some apprehension that I’m clearly under dressed.
We meet on a narrow side street in Masiphumelele, in a one-roomed church. You would call it a township, or shantytown, an informal settlement where corrugated tin rises from the ground in patchwork patterns. Others call it home. Yellow and blue balloons hang from the ceiling and soft tulle is tied around the backs of plastic chairs. A small table is set with refreshments, namely Cheetos and marshmallows.
The bridal shower is set to begin at 2:30. Knowing that time is but a suggestion, I arrive at 3:15. There are a few ladies present, none of whom I know. I’m only here in the supporting role cast. A friend of mine is the emcee and invited me along. It’s my first Xhosa bridal shower. I speak very little Xhosa, an African language spoken by millions. I can ask for the toilet, say my name and exchange a few pleasantries. After about 30 seconds, my conversational Xhosa is over.
At 4 p.m. the bride-to-be arrives. If the women aren’t dressed in African traditional dress, they are dressed like guests of honor at a royal wedding. Sunday-best dresses, high heels, necklaces with matching earrings and clanging bracelets.
We begin with singing. There is always singing. No music, no instruments, just voices that sound like the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. They don’t sing in English and I struggle to keep up with their rhythm. Namely, they have it; I don’t.
The pastor’s wife is wearing an emerald, iridescent dress with gold high heeled sandals. The dress has ruffles sparkle like waves. She shimmers like an ocean current while she speaks about the importance of marriage. The young bride-to-be sits at a special table in the front of the room. She fidgets but smiles at the pastor’s wife.
I don’t see a gift table, so I keep my card in my purse.
We sing for about an hour. The refreshments are passed around. I take a marshmallow. I never turn down a marshmallow.
As the singing ends, I wonder if this is the end of the shower. Maybe it’s not tradition to give gifts. But I am ever so wrong.
The shower is just beginning. As I’m happily munching, a slender lady wearing a sleeveless coral dress seated by me suddenly bursts into song. She could have been a Grammy contender. As she’s singing, she stands, picks up a gift bag hidden beneath her seat and makes her way to the front of the room. Once in the open space, she proceeds to dance and sing. When she’s finished, she presents her gift bag, then gives a 10 minute speech to the bride.
I thought this was perhaps, a special presentation, a guest of honor or something. Then, to my left, another lady belts out a song. She sounds like Diana Ross. She sings, rises, walks to the front of the room, spins and sashays in her dress and presents her gift, followed by her speech.
The pattern repeats itself. Sing, dance, speech, gift. I’m realizing with a fair amount of horror, that if I’m to present my gift, I must sing, dance and give a speech.
FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S GOOD AND PURE.
If only I could sing, dance, speak Xhosa or heck, I’d even settle for knowing the bride.
There is something that Xhosa mothers teach their children before they are born. I don’t know how they do it, but they emerge from the womb innately knowing how to sing and dance. It’s in their African blood. It’s decidedly not in mine.
When Jackson was baby, as a new mom, I remember trying to sing him to sleep. The more I sang, the more he cried. When I stopped singing, he stopped crying. Point taken. I also don’t dance. Once I tried dancing in public and someone called called for a urine test and possible drug use. That’s the level of talent I’m working with here.
Nearly two hours later, I’m thinking I’m just going to slip out the door, unnoticed. Then suddenly, my friend the emcee, is standing at the front, speaking to the ladies, and making a copious amount of direct eye contact with me. I grow both suspicious and uneasy. For good reason.
She then translates to English: “Cristi, will you come up here and say a few words about marriage?” OH SWEET SASSY. Let the ground swallow me up or at the very least let me find the marshmallows and stuff them into my mouth to render my speech useless.
What am I going to say to a group of women I don’t know, in a language I don’t speak, in a culture not my own? I’m sure right now the bride is looking at me and wondering, “who invited awkward white girl?”
So I pray and ask God to give me something to say. In English.
It’s then that I realize what an honor it is to be standing here, at this celebration. How often do I make the effort, on a Saturday afternoon to get dressed in my finest clothes, actually spend time doing my hair, AND put on my high heels?
When is the last time I saw this kind of gathering as a reason to celebrate without inhibition, the beauty of transcendent time, the passage from girl to woman, from milestone to milestone?
When is the last time I sang so loudly that the melody carried out onto the street? When is the last time I let myself twirl and dance in an open space and celebrated with abandon the life of another woman?
There is something universally beautiful when women celebrate women. These women gave me the gift of a mirror on that Saturday afternoon– A mirror so I could see what celebration looks like and how I’ve lived a life reserved.
I always restrain myself out of a sense of propriety at the very moments in life when I should be celebrating with abandon. What is life if not to be celebrated? What is a celebration without a song and dance? These women know a depth of living that my cautious and controlled life can only watch from a distance.
Here, behind the homes built of tin and cardboard, these women gave gifts that matched the occasion, not their economic status. The silk of a new scarf, the smell of new leather, the surprise and delight of a new bride as she begins to unwrap her new life.
Here, where toilets don’t flush and faucets don’t flow, where the future is temporary; every event is worthy of time.
Each moment is felt, seen, heard, tasted. Nothing is wasted, especially not moments like these.
Having loved, they joyfully celebrate new love. Having lost, they knowingly celebrate new beginnings.
This bridal shower began as a gift to young bride and closed with a gift to me, awkward white girl.
*photo cred: I copied from someone else who copied from someone else somewhere off the Internet.