May 24, 2013
Our program director, Manyok, is to be married today. I’m sure there has been at least one marriage during each of my nine visits to this village, but this was the first one to which I was invited, along with Dau, Daruka, thirty-three ASAH girls, the older girls dressed in beautiful African attire, plus the kawajas (foreigners) me, Keiko, Rygo, Jessica, and Vika.
About five pm, we strolled toward the central village to greet Manyok and Leek Sam, our head teacher and Manyok’s best man. They waited with male friends and relatives at a shaded gathering at the entrance to the central village began. We greeted them, then walked to a nearby building with an awning where we could wait in the shade and see the dancers approach – our cue to go the bride’s home.
The older ASAH girls had deserted us half way to town, joining their extended families and the bride’s friends.
We heard the drumming and saw the crowd at the same time. First came the dancing men. Chanting and singing and jumping and dancing in a circle with Manyok and Sam, the best man. As they circled, the women and girls joined them and the momentum increased, the dancers jumped higher, the drumming intensified, the voices grew louder.
Several of our ASAH girls participated in the dance – Rebecca Achol, Martha Achol, Rachel Abuk, Athok Reech, and Martha Ayen. They all jumped and danced with grace and power, but Martha Ayen seemed weightless, her bare feet and ballerina toes inches above the ground. It was beautiful to watch. When she tired, she alternated feet, then began again, in the air more than on earth. There must have been fifty or more dancers trying to outdo each other. To the great pleasure of the other dancers and the crowd watching, Keiko joined in, dancing until she was exhausted.
After the dancing, Manyok’s uncle, Abraham Deng Akoy, and another elder from the family said prayers, and then the tukul door opened. Manyok’s bride, Nyanthiak, her girlfriends, and her best friend and maid of honor, Math Nya, had remained hidden from view inside the main tukul during the festivities. In the entryway, young women slipped into their sandals and emerged into the open one by one. It was like watching a clown car where the number of girls seemed to exceed the room available in the tukul, heightening the anticipation of the bride’s appearance.
To me it was obvious that the woman in the glorious veil and gown was the bride, until a taller Dinka woman emerged behind her. She wore the same veil, but her dress was bright white to her maid’s cream. The eyes of both women were downcast, their faces dusted with a brownish cosmetic powder, their lips bright red, their hair braided with extensions, twisted and decorated with colorful clips and flowers. A heart-shaped gold pendant hung from a gold chain that draped and encircling their heads. They resembled exotic ornamental dolls.
Throughout the activities to follow both girls continued to gaze downward without expression. Later I asked if this was a cultural expectation but learned that it isn’t required. Shy or nervous girls may look down, but they are free to make eye contact or look around or smile or frown if they wish.
The crowd of girls prepared for the transfer of the bride to her new family. An embroidered cloth belonging to the bride’s family was raised over the heads of the tightly-packed bridal group – the bride and her maid, the groom and his best man, and close girlfriends of the bride. The white shade-cloth was deemed to small, and it was quickly exchanged for a pink cloth. That cloth was exchanged for a yellow one that belonged to the groom’s family. When the bride arrived at the home of her in-laws – all her old clothing would be taken from her and she would be given all new attire from her husband’s family.
Two women walked sideways in front the the bridal party waving a yellow scarf back and forth in front of their faces. Taking one tiny deliberately slow step at a time, the procession turned a ten-minute walk into an hour-long journey. The ASAH girls ran ahead, dancing and singing, and then back and forth dozens of times on the way to the new family compound.
When they reached the in-laws’s home, Rebecca Achol, our oldest student at 17 a friend of the bride, and a member of Manyok’s extended family, picked the bride up in her arms and carried her across the threshold – another Sudanese wedding custom. The friends will sit her down and wash her feet.
The bride will stay at her in-laws with her friends for three or four days, then all bur the closest friends will leave, and she will have them to keep her company a few more days. The groom’s family will do all the cooking and she and her friends will have no duties except to amuse herself. Then she will be left with the in-laws. For a while she’ll be able to choose her chores – fetch water, wash clothing, clean house. She won’t have to cook for a while. Manyok is an orphan himself, so his uncle’s wife and his grandmother will teach his new wife their ways and train her in the preferred cooking style. She will live with them for a month or two before she is released to be with her new husband.
Deb Dawson, ASAH President