I believe in one of my very first posts about my site, I mentioned the fact that the cercle (equivalent of a U.S. county) in which my village is located celebrates all of its weddings at the same time every year – a collective marriage.  When I first wrote about this tradition, May 2011 seemed like quite a while away, but it has come and gone, and so too has wedding season here.

Within a matter of days, everyone that is getting married during the season goes to the mayor’s office to get their marriage certifications.  I returned to my site from a Bamako trip on the afternoon of this mad rush.  When my bus drove into town, I could feel celebration in the air.  Everyone was wearing their best clothing, and many people were wearing outfits made out of the fabric that is designed specially for this collective marriage each year.  In the days following, this spirit continued – music played, animals were slaughtered and prepared for the masses and you could always find a place where people were dancing.  I was invited to several different wedding parties and took pictures at one of them.

Although I really enjoyed the party aspect of the collective wedding, I struggled to accept what a wedding and a marriage means for many of the young women in my cercle.  For example…

A man that I know, invited me to his daughter’s wedding party.  I went to his house and spent the afternoon chatting with friends and family members and drinking tea.  As neither the bride or groom were at the party, I asked to go visit them after the late-afternoon prayer. Several women from the party led me to the concession where the bride was staying.

We walked into a small, mud-structure hut and, on the right side of the small room, was a white cloth tent.  When we walked in, the bride peeked her head out of the tent, a piece of cloth on her head covering her face.  I introduced myself, recited the wedding blessings and then asked the other women to tell me more about this tradition.  They told me that during the first week of marriage the bride stays in this tent.  When asked what she does during this week, they replied that she sits and listens to the radio and waits for her husband to join her at night.  I had heard about this tradition, but had yet to see it in practice.

We chatted for a bit more, and then I asked how old the bride was, hoping that it will be older than I was assuming.  But it wasn’t.  They answered that she was 15, and her new husband, 25.  As you can imagine, I felt an incredible sense of helplessness sitting in that room. All I could think about was what I was doing at age 15 – running around the soccer field, taking dance lessons, playing tennis, doing homework and filling my free time chatting on AIM.  While I was processing, the other women in the room continued talking a bit about the typical ages of brides in my cercle (14-18 years old, according to them).  I was glad when one of them said to me, “An ka taa (let’s go).”

I asked if we could go greet the groom too, partially because I wanted to see what he was up to while his bride was sitting in that white tent, listening to the radio.  One of the women said she would go with me, and while we walked I told her that I was asking so many questions because it seems that marriage traditions in the United States are very different from those practiced here in Mali.  I told her that most of my friends and family members have gotten married in their 20s or 30s and that their partner, which they pick for themselves, is usually fairly close in age.

I told her that the weddings I have attended, have brought together a bride and groom, along with their family members, to pledge their love and faithfulness to one another.  This ceremony is followed by a big party, and then the bride and groom take a vacation together. She seemed interested and, quite frankly, a bit surprised.  I think that she thought marriage traditions were the same throughout the world. I have to say, I am glad that is not so.

After our short walk and talk, we arrived at the groom’s “holding quarters” signified by white paint around the doorframe of the concession entrance.  Dressed in all white, the groom was lounging on a chair, hanging around with his friends and drinking tea.  The woman that I was with, walked with me into the concession to greet everyone and told them what I had said about weddings being different where I am from.  They laughed amongst themselves and continued what they were doing before we arrived.

Cross-cultural exchange is certainly part of my job, but I find it very hard to prevent myself from hoping that my telling them about our traditions will make them want to move in a more progressive direction.  I hope that in time, Malian men and women will get to choose their partners for themselves and that an exchange of vows of love and respect will replace the exchange of money.  I hope that young girls, with the support of their parents, will choose to stay in school rather than get married at age 15 to a man 10 or 20 years their elder. I hope that women and men will be equal partners in their marriage and that responsibilities around the home will be shared.

I think I can hope for these things and believe that someday they will change, because it wasn’t that long ago that young women in the United States were forgoing education for marriage and once there, were expected to manage the home without the help of their partner.  I hope that what I’m sharing will plant a seed and that the future will hold for Malian women, opportunities that are similar to those that I enjoy as an American woman.

Still speaking of weddings, but on a lighter note…

When I retuned to Mali from the States, right after Royal Wedding mania swept the States (and the world), I was wondering if people in my village would even know that there had been a Royal Wedding.  So, when I got back and was doing my first round of hellos, I asked my neighbors, two 20-something women, if they had heard about it.  It took me a bit to get across what I was asking, because by the time I got back to site, the wedding had taken place nearly three weeks before, but I finally got through to them that I was talking about the BIG wedding in England.  And they were like, oh yeah, we watched it!  I couldn’t believe that these women in my village turned on their TV and watched, just as I had with my friends in a living room in Florida.

A fellow PCV mentioned that he was in Bamako at “West African Fried Chicken” (a little restaurant by our Peace Corps house) and the Royal Wedding was on television.  Everybody was asking him to translate it for them, haha!  The Today Show said that they estimated one-third of the planet watched the wedding, and I think this proves that fact.  If people in little villages in Mali were watching, a ton of other people must have been too!

I know that wedding season is also in full swing in the States – enjoy all of the good times with friends and family and safe travels.  Ala ka furusiri men (May God bless you with a long marriage!).