Attending a Kenyan Engagement Party

Note: Fridah is a former staff member for the organization I have been currently volunteering for. To read more about how we met, click here.

A 'tug of war' tradition

The long awaited day was here: Fridah’s Engagement Party. I was looking forward to seeing a Kenyan cultural event, however, it’s actually a bit unusual for people in rural villages; many who are ‘married’ never actually go through any ceremony. Due to monetary constraints couples often move in together and call themselves married. But Fridah wanted to have an actual wedding which meant an ‘Engagement Party’ was in order for her fiancé to meet her parents, friends, and neighbors. It was supposed to commence around noon, but in good Kenyan fashion, it actually started after 3:00pm. I was excited to see her family again and meet her fiancé, but was hesitant to meet her extended family and neighbors. I wasn’t sure if the ‘mzungu’ (white person) was going to be somewhat of a main attraction. I really just wanted to be a flower on the wall and observe a Kenyan tradition. I showed up before Fridah and her fiancé Chris arrived. Her neighbors were pretty mellow, but her younger cousins were stroking my hair and giggling. Overall, not too bad. Fridah and Chris showed up around 3:30pm. It was very awkward to watch. Kenya is very conservative when it comes to dating and rarely will you see a couple even holding hands unless you’re in the capital city of Nairobi. Chris brought two friends with him and I couldn’t figure out which one he was of the three. They walked around shaking everyone’s hands but none of them were shown any type of special treatment, even when meeting Fridah’s parents. We all sat down outside under a homemade tent and the festivities began. We ate lunch, which I helped to serve, and then a neighbor played host.

Most of the speeches and ceremonious talk was spoken in the local language Kikuyu. I would have enjoyed sitting there and just taking it in, except that nearly every speaker apologized for not speaking in English or they would speak half in English and half in Kikuyu. If I wasn’t there, no one would be speaking in English, so I felt a bit intrusive at that point. After prayers and talks that I didn’t understand, Fridah and Chris were called to stand. Up until this point, I still didn’t know which guy was the fiancé because Fridah did not sit or talk to him until they stood. Then Chris gave a speech in Kikuyu and tried to pull Fridah towards him (which I believe is a tradition). The guy and the girl pull at each other but in the end the girl gives in and is pulled towards her future husband.

Fridah gives in and is pulled towards her fiance
The happy couple

The best part was when we were going around the circle and everyone was giving what seemed to be a speech. Of course it was all in Kikuyu, and I had maybe zoned out a bit when Fridah’s father said (in English), “And now, our special guest can stand up and address us. And Fridah will translate.” Uh oh.
Since everything had been in Kikuyu, I hadn’t prepared anything to say, and I actually wasn’t even sure what they had been talking about. Fridah joined me in front of the crowd, and I whispered, “What am I supposed to say? Am I wishing you well?” Fridah just told me, “Tell us how you see the day.” Umm, okay. This was my moment to smile at the crowd graciously and stall for time. I started with how appreciative I was to share in the celebration of Fridah’s upcoming marriage, at which people giggled. Fridah had laughed and blushed whenever I talked about wedding or marriage so I guess that should’ve been expected. I’m not sure what words I fumbled over next but I made it short and to the point. And then smiled at the crowd. I sat down again relieved to not be the English speaking mzungu in the spotlight.

Fridah's mom addresses the crowd

But alas, it wasn’t over and Fridah’s father gave a speech about how grateful everyone was that I was there. Overall, I’m really glad I attended. It’s a bit of a gray, fuzzy line in a situation like this. Do I go to be supportive of my friend and experience a different culture, even at the cost of standing out and being a bit of a distraction? Fridah invited me to her wedding (not that I can afford to come back for it) but I’m pretty sure that’s an event I would feel really awkward attending. Maybe if I could just get a really, REALLY good tan…

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