It was like no wedding you’ve ever been to. Abou, our 31-year-old Senegalese guide on bike trips, married Khady, a 24-year-old hairdresser, on Jan. 30 in Mbour, Senegal. But when the knot was tied, neither the bride nor groom was present.
It all happened in the mosque (95 percent of Senegalese are Moslem). Abou’s male relatives gathered at the mosque with Khady’s male relatives. The agreed dowry (500 euros for Khady, a virgin) was paid to her family with the blessing of the Imam. Money was also paid to the Imam to buy treats for the wedding guests.
The celebration was a two-day affair. Late Saturday afternoon, Abou came to our hotel to bring us to his home where groups of women, most sitting outside on the ground, were busy preparing huge platters of food. Husband Bob and I were provided with appropriate Senegalese wedding attire.
Abou took the opportunity to show us his living quarters, a spacious room in a small building behind his parents’ home. The walls were decorated with numerous pictures of marabout (holy men — see below). He and Khady would live there together. He insisted we see the bathroom, complete with a western WC.
This was the day the party would be celebrated at Khady’s home – minus Abou. He would wait at home until Khady’s mother, sisters and aunts brought her and all her belongings to him late that evening. She would then go to his room where she would stay until morning when it would be time for more partying. We later learned that she would not be able to leave the house for a week.
While waiting for the bride, groups of men gathered on the floor in Abou’s quarters, listening to the marabout (holy man, clairvoyant and spiritual guide) who was present. Abou was very proud that the marabout came to his wedding, and he wanted us to meet him. Marabout Ousmane Mbacké told me that I would become a recognized journalist. “Everyone will read you.” He also said I would be offered two jobs, one by Russians who would pay me well to write about their country, and one by the CIA. No mention of money for the latter. He predicted good fortune for me and Bob. “You must always think back on what he said,” Abou interjected.
Outside, other groups of men were singing religious songs to the beat of drums.
The Islam practiced in Senegal is Mouridisme, a mystical branch of the religion. On a visit to a market with Abou, he pointed out herbs and animal skins used in religious practices, as well as shells used to tell fortunes. The marabout advises what is needed, he said. He lifted his T-shirt to show us two primitive belts of snake skin which he wears to ward off evil spirits.
In addition to marabouts in this African society, there are also griots, members of a hereditary caste who entertain with stories and song. At the celebration at Khady’s home, a female griot held her audience of several hundred guests, mainly women and children, spellbound as she talked about the couple and their families.
The crowd gathered outside around her in the dark. In this part of Senegal, there is electricity only for a few hours during the day. But, a big fire provided some light, as well as the illumination of cell phones. Almost everyone had one. The bride, lavishly dressed and made up, joined the group, all crowding around here. Later she would receive presents from the female guests, mainly fabric.
Soon it was too cold to stay outdoors and all moved inside, sitting on the floors of different rooms and hallways. Eventually bounteous plates of food were served, all eaten with the hands.
We did not stay for the meal, returning instead on foot to Abou’s home with his friend Alfa, whom Abou had assigned to be our guardian for the evening. The walk was an adventure, down roads of ruts and sand in the pitch black. I held on to Bob. Alfa led the way.
Back at Abou’s, his relatives served us couscous. Outside, speakers were being set up for the next day’s party which would take place there. We’re sorry we had to miss it, but we had a flight back to France.
For photos of wedding guests, click on “Link to Abou’s wedding guests” at the top. For a delicious soup with the flavors of Africa, see my recipe in the far right column. Comments are welcome. Click on “comments” below.