08 December 2014

tanzanian weddings: hot dogs but no cake.

Ashley and I recently attended our first Tanzanian wedding. I would sum-up the experience as life-changing. Okay, maybe not that. But it was a ton of fun.

Who was getting married? The brother of one of my Tanzanian co-workers.

How well did I know the groom? Didn't know the man existed.

Why were we even invited? This is Tanzania. Don't ask questions. Just live.

Much like how I broke down the marvel that is a Tanzanian graduation, I'll take you step-by-step through the experience of an urban Tanzanian wedding.

Before we get into the various components, there are a few things to understand. In the United States, the wedding ceremony (the part that legally makes you married) and the wedding reception (the party that celebrates your lifelong commitment to one another) happen as back-to-back events on the same day, generally with the same cast of characters in attendance at both events. In the case of Tanzania, the wedding ceremony happened two weeks before the reception in a different part of the country (Dar es Salaam). So what we experienced was the latter - the wedding reception, or party to celebrate the marriage of the bride and groom in the city that we live (Mwanza).

Got it. So how do Tanzanian weddings work?

1. Creepily get handed a wedding invitation the same way a CIA spy would receive instructions for their next assignment.

I walked into my co-worker's office to ask to use the printer. Without responding to my request, she told me to sit down and she closed the door behind me. The solitary overhead light was turned off. She whipped out an unmarked envelope from thin air, slid it across the desk, and said, "Just read it." At that moment I assumed I was going to die. Then I realized it was a harmless wedding invitation. Then I remembered the horror stories I had heard about Tanzanian weddings and realized my assumption of death was actually quite accurate.

2. Pay to attend. Wait…what?

This was a tough one to wrap my head around coming from the United States where everything is paid for by the bride, groom and their families. In Tanzania, every guest has to pay a mandatory contribution in order to attend. For couples, the it was the equivalent of $36. Single? Just over $24.

3. Find out where the party is taking place, at what time and the super-specific dress code requirements hours before the event begins.

The original invitation doesn't say the date or location of the wedding. So when you agree to go and you pay, you actually have no idea when the party is taking place. That's because after you pay, you get a separate invitation card later that spells out the specifics, and it's this second card that gets you in the door come the day of the event. Oh, and the colors of this second invitation card dictate the colors you are supposed to wear to the party. I was handed this latter card the same day as the wedding reception. Unfortunately, seven hours notice didn't give me enough time to find the maroon shirt and gold tie I was told to wear, though I did appreciate they reflected the colors of our beloved alma mater. It also didn't jive so well with the blue and white dress Ashley had custom-made just days before for this wedding. We showed up anyway.

4. Show up at least 1.5 hours late because you know that nothing starts on time in Tanzania.

Invitation card said to arrive at 7 PM. In fine print at the bottom it asked all guests to carefully respect the time. So we showed up at 8:30 PM. Probably about 40 of the 150 guests had arrived at that point.

5. Upon arrival, present your invitation card and get handed a hot dog. Yep.

I knew this wedding was going to be awesome when four seconds after entering the venue I was handed a lukewarm plain hot dog on a folded-up greasy napkin (and a samosa). This wasn't a buffet line I accidentally entered. It was the Tanzanian equivalent to a coat check or receiving your table assignment at the front door, although instead of being handed a tiny piece of paper with a number, I was gifted a glistening hot dog.

6. Sit anywhere, and drink.

The three other co-workers from my office were also in attendance, so Ashley and I sat with them which was really fun. To my complete surprise, it was an open bar with beer, wine, soda and bottled water. Our $36 more than covered this, but still, we got more for our money than I expected. For most of the night together we compared and contrasted American and Tanzanian weddings with my co-workers.

7. Give an emcee way too much power and then buckle up as he completely takes over.

This dude was nuts. The emcee was so excited about his job he could hardly stand himself. Ashley and I found him rather obnoxious, but judging by the laughter, our Tanzanian companions felt to the contrary. But honestly this guy was given way too much authority and completely ran the entire event, speaking in what I assume was his normal voice along with Tanzanian female and Chinese impersonations randomly peppered in. It was awkward.

8. Chairman of the wedding committee says something not-all-that-inspiring and then the bride, groom and family members dance-process in.

Tanzanians LOVE to assign someone to be the mwenyekiti ("chairperson") of everything. Starting a small business? Pick a mwenyekiti. Running a small group in your church? Select a mwenyekiti. Where do you live? Doesn't matter. Your neighborhood has a mwenyekiti. Having a wedding? Who's your mwenyekiti?

9. Bride wears whatever-the-heck color she wants.

This bride wore yellowish-gold. Now we're told that during the wedding ceremony, the bride wears white, but during the reception the bride wears a color that matches the theme of the event. So she wore yellow to fit with the gold and maroon theme. (The groom wore black pants and jacket with a striped maroon shirt and a yellowish-gold bow tie.)

10. Bride and groom grab the mic and introduce family members in attendance.

One thing that was apparent is that, unlike American weddings where the whole affair is a bit more skewed in favor of the bride and her family, Tanzanian weddings give more emphasis to the groom and his family. So he takes the mic and introduces the never-ending extended family in attendance, and then the bride does the same but with less fanfare about it. Here it should be noted that, unlike American weddings, there is no wedding party that consists of a Maid of Honor, bridesmaids, Best Man or groomsmen. Instead there is the wedding committee (headed by the mwenyekiti) that is in charge of event planning and coordination. The bride and groom sit in a giant throne of a chair by themselves at the front and the family members of the bride and groom sit at separate head tables flanking the dance floor.

11. Set the cake on fire so no one gets to eat it.

There must have been about a dozen decorated cakes wrapped in plastic on display. After cutting a slice and eating from each other's mouth (yep), the bride put an explosive device on top of the biggest cake and lit it with a match. It immediately burst into shooting sparks and flames. Then some random people in the audience were gifted an entire cake, but to my utter disappointment, the guests did not get to taste any of it. What's a party without getting to eat cake? Major bummer. But during this segment, the emcee made the bride and groom kiss a few times which is the first instance in nearly one year in this country that I have ever seen two Tanzanians showing public displays of affection like that. Mind blowing.

12. Commence the never-ending presentation of the gifts.

At an American wedding, every guest is expected to bring (or send via Amazon) a gift for the bride and groom. Most likely this gift came from their registry - a pre-defined list of all the lovely things the bride and groom want to start their life together. In Tanzania, individuals do not bring gifts. Instead, groups of people pitch in for a gift and then present it to the bride and groom via a song and dance routine. Then, everyone is called to process up in a dancing motion to shake the hand of the bride and groom. What we did not know ahead of time is that this act is meant for the guests to place money into a basket on a table next to the bride and groom, much like how we place money in a contribution basket in church. Besides money, what kind of gifts did the newlyweds receive? Basically a lot of fabrics for making bed sheets, pillowcases or dresses. Interestingly, the mother of the groom also was presented with a bunch of fabrics and cash as a gift. Come to think of it, I don't recall the mother of the bride ever being mentioned during the entire event.

13. Emcee selects people at random to give a speech, and the white people must speak.

I knew this was coming. As soon as the emcee began making his way through the audience, it was inevitable that he would select us, the only white people there, to say something. Not knowing what is customary to say, I just grabbed the mic, stood up, rattled off some Swahili, and waited for the emcee to move on to somebody else.

14. Finally serve guests food, but only if it's after 11 PM.

We were prepared for this. Others had told us that dinner may not be served until midnight, so it was actually a pleasant surprise to be fed as early as 11 PM. Guests were called up by their table to visit a separate long table of food. What was on the menu? Rice, pilau, cooked bananas, beef, chicken, peas, cabbage, watermelon and cucumbers. It was all quite tasty.

15. Dance for 30 minutes to a mix of modern and traditional music and call it quits.

Dancing is really incorporated throughout the wedding reception, but it's more subdued. By this I mean whenever people get up to walk anywhere, they do it with a dance. But unlike our American wedding which reserved the final four hours for nonstop dancing, the only real extended open dance floor time came in the final 30 minutes of the evening. Music was a mix of modern Tanzanian pop and traditional Tanzanian village music. It was really cool to see how excited folks got when traditional music from their tribe was played - couldn't help but smile as we took cues from the locals on how to dance the traditional way. Also unlike American weddings, the dancing is all relatively calm - no booty shaking, no one trying to show off, no individual in the spotlight - just everyone respectfully getting jiggy with it together.

The party ended just after Midnight. Ashley and I were surprised at how much fun we had given stories we had heard from others. Sure the food came a bit late, but we were prepared for that so we ate a late lunch that day and it was no big deal. Aside from the welcoming hot dog, our favorite moments were seeing the super young and the super old alike smiling and dancing the whole night. It can be easy for us to get caught up in our cultural differences, but at the end of the day, a human is a human - we love to laugh, dance and celebrate with good food and good drink in the company of others.


  1. What an awesome evening! It's so nice that you got to experience this. And so interesting and amusing to read about the different wedding traditions.

    1. Yeah, it was pretty fun. The hot dog was hilarious. Have you been to any Tanzanian weddings yet?

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