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Venue: Celebrations at the Bay, Baltimore, Maryland
Ours is a funny and adventurous story.
Seven years ago I was living in Laurel, Maryland. One day I had to run an errand for my mom at the library, so I put on my sweats and headed out with my 11-year-old brother Zack. My brother had a habit of pointing out whenever someone was looking at me in traffic. We parked next to a white car in the library lot, and Zack shouted loudly, "Hey Gracie, that guy over there is staring at you!" I heard a honk and I saw this guy in a car in the parking lot. I shushed Zack, and quickly walked to the library.
Suddenly I heard a honk and turned to see the guy in the white car looking at me. I gave him a rude look and hurried inside. I must admit, I was a little creeped out, so after a while, I asked my brother to see if the weirdo was still the parking lot. Zack pointed him out and so I kept waiting in the library, but the guy just would not leave the parking lot! Finally, I gathered momentum and I walked straight over to this man and rudely said "Why are you standing here waiting for me? What, are you a weird or something?" He looked surprised, and smiling, replied "Uh, actually my sister works at the library. I'm waiting for her." He pointed behind me and I saw his sister walking towards the car. I had to pick up my face off the floor. I was so embarrassed that I gave him my number.
That was in March, and then Yisa called me almost every day for nine months, often leaving messages. My roommate kept trying to convince me, saying "The guy who honked, he's hanging on strong, Gracie — I think you should call him!" I finally gathered the courage and called him back. He started driving me to work every morning, and we eventually started going out.
We got engaged New Year's Eve 2005 and immediately started making arrangements for the wedding. We found Celebrations at the Bay online — it seemed like an island resort, and perfect for us. Apparently it had just opened at the time, and the fantastic owner, Rob Goyena, worked with us from start to finish.
The most adventurous part of the wedding planning, though, was what I call the "Africa" part. I'm Kenyan, Yisa is Nigerian, and we planned to get married in the Euro-African style. However, in our cultures, the marriage is not recognized until a dowry is paid, and there were many important customs that we had to follow in order to guarantee that we'd be blessed by our ancestors.
The tradition dictated that Yisa's family had to come to my home and ask for an Agreement of Marriage, and they had to bring gifts for the mother, since she's "giving away" a daughter. The gift can be cows, or money, but if it's money instead of cows, then it must be of fair value. So, Yisa's parents and an entourage of family elders converged on my mother's house to begin the negotiating process. Yisa and I were not allowed to be in the same room while the families discussed the possibility of our marriage. Drinks were served but no food was eaten until the agreement was made and the elders had approved our marriage. The whole process took about six hours.
As the wedding got closer, a big issue was whether to wear African outfits or not. Both of our mothers went so crazy about the wedding, and they insisted on this, but Yisa was against it. For the guestlist, Yisa and I were allowed to invite 25 friends each, but our parents invited so many friends, family and colleagues, that we actually got to invite far fewer people.
Two weeks before the wedding, Yisa's family in Nigeria conducted an elaborate Nupe wedding ceremony in our honor, complete with a "proxy" Grace and a "proxy" Yisa. The people from Yisa's mother and father's village of Patigi and Tampafu (the two tribes of his lineage) got together for a huge celebration that lasted an entire week. Sadly, a week before this celebration was to commence and amidst all the excitement, Yisa's grandmother passed away.
West and East African cultures are similar in that they both have a dowry system. So, the Friday before the wedding, a bunch of family convened again at my mother's place for the dowry discussion. At first, they exchanged stories about the families, everyone laughed together, and then all of a sudden the mood got serious and they started talking about the dowry. The process was heated but polite — a battle of politeness, I would say. No one ever said "we want," but they certainly bargained in their own way. "Surely we would accept," they would say. Mostly the uncles — the elders — spoke, made proposals and decided on what was appropriate. The traditional way of conducting a dowry discussion was to start small — goats and chickens — and then the move to cows, since they are the true sign of wealth and respect in our cultures. Then the elders had to politely figure out the "exchange rate" of cows to the dollar. An agreement was reached that satisfied and honored both families.
Yisa was required to provide my mother with a portion of the dowry in the form of a monetary gift, but the remainder would be paid over time through various good deeds he was obligated perform for my mother. He has to give small gifts of appreciation and be attentive to my mother; a way to pay my dowry bit by bit. It's a traditional African way for a groom to maintain a relationship with his mother-in-law!
Finally the big day came, and everyone was running late. We had to distract the limo driver by offering him food. The weather was stormy, and there were these clouds that seemed to follow the limo to the ceremony — I could see them out of the rear window. Fortunately the weather cleared up and everything turned out beautifully. I guess the ancestors were looking out for me. As we approached the gate of Celebrations by the Bay, I saw Yisa's beautiful sisters in their elegant African dresses, and I broke down in tears.
After our beautiful ceremony, we were ushered into the Vista Ballroom to begin our reception. As we sat down to eat, the sky opened up and heavy rain fell outside. Everyone sighed with relief, because rainfall after a wedding ceremony signifies a blessing from the ancestors.
We both realized that the wedding was in many ways really for our parents, family and friends. Even though we had to accommodate many traditional requirements, in the end we were pleased that everyone enjoyed themselves and that our parents were proud of our efforts. Our wedding was a beautiful balance of the traditional and modern rituals that genuinely reflected our African-American cultures.
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