The wedding procession will arrive shortly before three in the afternoon, by which time the women and girls that have been hired to prepare food for the day – mostly widows, orphans, and refugees (those who live on the fringes of this community, in short) – will have been on their feet for close to ten hours.
Yes, ten hours.
Since the point of cooking on days like this isn’t to preserve nutrients – surely no one comes to wedding receptions expecting to get the recommended daily dose of water-and-fat-soluble vitamins!
The point of cooking on days like this is to present a feast so exotic and tasty that common people will have no choice but to remember and discuss it for years.
Today’s tasks have been assigned according to a well-established hierarchy. The refugees and orphans are ferrying firewood, water, fruit, honey, herbs, and fresh spices from the nearby forest. They will light and tend to the fires throughout the day – their main responsibility being to ensure that the stoves and ovens are constantly fed with charcoal and hot rocks.
The widows will manage all the baking, boiling, frying, grilling, roasting, simmering, and stewing of food (not just for the soul, but for the tissues as well). But only those who bore children for their dead husbands will be allowed to access the main kitchen and serve food – something about fruit rewarding fruit. Therefore, only they will have the privilege of watching the well-timed approach of the showy, angled cars in the wedding procession. They will crowd around the large bay windows, which overlook the large entrance and larger compound, jostling for space in the nooks until they are squeezed in – trapped like wingless grasshoppers in a bottle.
Until then, all the widows – childfree and otherwise – are putting up a united front. Or, at least, pretending to. As per Bellden’s instructions (Bellden, a small woman that’s rumoured to be related to the bride, is in charge of the cooks today), the widows are preparing two categories of food – one (mostly plant-based) for the bride’s entourage and another (mostly animal-based) for the bridegroom’s entourage. Per the common saying: women will be docile, and men will be virile.
Thus, the bride and her entourage will nibble daintily on sweet potato fries, sun-dried beetroots, glazed carrots, cucumber and yoghurt salad, roasted red cabbage, goat cheese-stuffed grilled peppers, honeyed lettuce wraps, aubèrgines and mushroom soup, black bean sauce, sweet and sour fried rice, green peas masala, and ash-baked cassava bread.
While the bridegroom and his entourage devour the following:
Guinea fowl baked in garlicky, ghee sauce
Creamy bacon pasta served with sweetcorn
Roast goose with soursop wine gravy
Grilled chicken kebabs
Barbecue-style beef ribs with gooseberry jelly
Smoked lungfish with spinach pancakes
Lamb chops with raisins, lemongrass, and parsley
Side dishes of chilled avocado soup (drizzled with sunflower seeds and hot pepper sauce)
For dessert, duck egg pie with caramelized onions, pan-fried cherry tomatoes, and stir-fried noodles
And then, for the invited guests, the usual:
Stewed plantain, spicy yam cakes, bitter tomatoes in sour milk, and groundnut sauce (with a side dish of stir-fried pumpkin leaves) for the women. And for the men, Irish potatoes, plantain and gizzard sauce, and cow feet soup (with a side dish of silverfish in groundnut sauce).
The cooks are without the advantages of modern cooking equipment and facilities. For the most part, they have to rely on clay pots, cast iron saucepans, rusty handheld grills, plastic sieves, wooden mortars and pestles, and short bamboo skewers. Nonetheless, Bellden is pleased with the progress they’ve made. Although you wouldn’t know this from the brusque way she moves about while she’s inspecting saucepans for leaks, punching through dough, dipping her fingers into bowls filled with purée, and inhaling flavoured steam from the meat dishes.
Because her face is set in a permanent scowl, and her upper lip seems in danger of disappearing into her nostrils, one’s initial impression of Bellden will likely be that she’s unimpressed. In truth, her stomach is churning with all kinds of digestive juices: the wonderful, pungent smell of seasonings – of spices she’d never smelt until today – is making her desperately hungry. Yet she can’t, under or above any circumstances, show that she’s moved. She can’t ask one of the cooks to save a few pieces of guinea fowl or beef for her, either. Imagine how it’ll look!
And so Bellden carries on dutifully, walking stiffly around the outdoor cooking areas, with her hands clasped behind her back, as if she were an invigilator overseeing an end-of-year exam. Because you can never be too careful with people from the fringes. God knows what they get up to when you’re not watching. If you’ll believe it, they’ve been known to put drops of their menstrual blood and urine, locks of their pubic and anal hair, and dashes of their faecal matter, into food!
Whenever, by some miracle, Bellden allows herself to be called away or distracted by other duties, she leaves someone else (usually one of the armed askaris) in charge. The cooks use the opportunities presented by Bellden’s absence to bribe the askaris with large pieces of meat. That way, they are able to take intermittent breaks – not so they can flavour the meat sauces with their blood or hair, but to creep along the sides until they find a good vantage point from which to stare lustfully at the furniture and lighting that’s spread out on the lawn in front of the main house.
Considering that this occasion marks the first time many of the cooks have seen salad plates and wine glasses, there’s very little that won’t impress them. Wherever they turn their eyes to, there’s yet another thing or couple of things to fill them with strange and surprising feelings.
To begin with, there are the tents, which are covered by transparent canopies and topped with flags. Forget salad plates. Who’d ever have thought that a tent could be transparent?
And what about those luxurious floral arrangements that run the length of each table? —or the tall pillars of star-shaped flowers? —or the chairs draped in garlands of handmade lace and silk ribbons? —or the boutonnières to match the day’s orange, gold, and blue colour palette? —which all look too perfect, too pretty, to be true?
Most importantly, by what magic do round candles float in square, glass jars?
And all those children, dressed in their Sunday best, holding gold bowls, throwing fresh petals all over the snake-like driveway! —what bright futures they must have!
Yet all those things, magnificent as they are, are not what a wedding is about. As far as the cooks are concerned, wedding receptions are about the brides. So, although they are open-mouthed now, they are reserving their most amazed, most stupefied looks for when their eyes fall on the bride, who they’ve been reliably informed will arrive in the longest, shiniest car.
Soon after the bride steps onto the grass, which was carefully cut and watered this morning, she’ll raise a heavily jewelled hand to shade her eyes from the sun. Only after someone runs up to her with an umbrella will she fully emerge from the car. It’s all been carefully choreographed, beforehand, you see, for that is the way of rich people.
When the cooks finally catch a glimpse of the bride, well over three hours after the arrival of the wedding procession, they are so hungry and thirsty that they have to hold onto each other in order not to faint. Those that aren’t complaining of dizziness and nausea are making headachy sounds.
The oldest and frailest widows are practically shaking.
It doesn’t matter that these women have been up since five in the morning, or that their hands prepared the feast that will be unleashed on guests in a few minutes. The rules of well-established hierarchies exist for a reason: the cooks will eat last, if at all.
Be that as it may, the cooks are not without hope. If anything, looking at the bride is, in a way, very much like ingesting food.
The bride is seated quite far away, on the highest table, in a chair labelled “Wife.” Yet not even distance can dull the magnificence of her outfit, which is a cross between a mushanana and a sari. (The fabric of the mushanasari is hand-woven, a substantial brocade with gold and orange geometric designs.) Or the luxuriousness of her expensive jewellery – the thick, gold ferronnière encircling her forehead; the emerald jewels sewn into her hair; the snake charm bracelets clutching her wrists like frightened children.
The bridegroom, on the other hand, has failed to excite the cooks. The colour of his skin is much lighter than they expected. But what is even more surprising is his size. They’d assumed that, like most foreigners, he’d be slender. But, no, the man is so large that he looks like a small city.
His saving grace is his pleasant-looking face. That and how he keeps turning to look at the bride with what looks like love and longing.
After a few minutes of watching the bridegroom’s face, the cooks decide that his size isn’t such a bad thing, after all; that, perhaps, it is a representation of generosity, sympathy, and tolerance. His tight, ill-fitting suit, and the slanting M in the “Man” label affixed to his chair, start to seem like good-natured jokes.
What a happy coincidence that Bellden is so wise! If it wasn’t for her insistence that food is served before the speeches, there would probably be only a handful of guests left seated under the tents right now.
As things stand, even those who didn’t get official invitations are sated. Hence the general willingness to be patient with the bridegroom. For twenty minutes, guests have watched his slow and clumsy movement from the elevated platform on which the high table stands, down to the ground level, and then across the grass to where the microphone stand is mounted.
After another twenty minutes, when the bridegroom is finally as close to the microphone as he needs to be, there’s a collective sigh of relief.
“Invited guests, ladies and gentlemen, good night,” the bridegroom’s high-pitched voice echoes out of the microphone.
Although “good night” is the appropriate greeting, since night fell a few hours ago, there’s some restrained laughter from the guests.
“With all protocol observed, I’d like to recognize the following people, who are very special to me,” the bridegroom continues, restrained laughter regardless. “Please stand up and wave when I mention you.”
The bride’s name isn’t the first, second, or third one that the bridegroom mentions.
Those who are present, those watching with their own eyes what’s happening, will say that long before the bridegroom mentioned the bride’s name, she’d started wheezing. But that it didn’t matter to him that she was having trouble breathing; that he insisted that she stand, wave, and walk toward him so that everyone could see what a lovely bride he chose.
“I have full confidence in her,” the bridegroom announces in a pinched voice, when he finally gets round to calling his bride by her given name. “She gets up while it’s still dark, and provides food for…”
The bride stands and waves, alright, but doesn’t get very far. She waddles to the edge of the platform and then stops as vomit erupts out of her in violent streams.
Since a first aid kid is the last thing people think anyone will need at a wedding, there isn’t one in the main house or nearby houses.
The bride collapses before a medic is found to check her pulse.
A few of those who are present, those watching with their own eyes what’s happening, will say the bride collapsed because of three reasons: one, she was heartbroken by the bridegroom’s failure to name her first. Two, the stress of wedding preparations got the best of her. Three, her marriage to the city-sized man was arranged by her parents; so, she swallowed rat poison to spite them.
But most guests will claim that everything, including the wheezing and collapsing, was carefully choreographed beforehand. For such is the way of rich people.
Let the record state that this is neither the first nor last time. The bride, Azza, has [almost] died many times before, and will [almost] die many times after. She has an undiscovered allergy to aubèrgines, you see, which is what triggers the wheezing, vomiting, and fainting spells. Like most allergies, it can be easily managed through vigilance and the proper medications.
But, in places like this, it is much easier to believe that Azza has been bewitched – perhaps by a stepmother or a malevolent, childless widow; witchcraft narratives are infinitely more interesting than tales of medical complications. Further, discussions about witchcraft tend to be democratic: you don’t have to have or be a PhD in witchcraft to speak boldly about its motivations or effects.
So, over the next few days, weeks, and months, community members will happily debate and weigh a variety of beliefs and judgments about who bewitched the bride, and why.
Meanwhile, Azza will slowly but surely recover in the ICU of the region’s only referral hospital. Lying in bed, she’ll think about the quiet, orthodox life she’s lived – a life which has culminated in a marriage to her father’s business partner, a man twice her age.
Although Azza has had many near-death experiences, there’s something about this one that promises to change her life. This is the first time she’s actually been afraid – the first time she’s ever allowed herself to consider the possibility of a different path.
All her life, she has done exactly what’s expected of her. But what if she doesn’t have to anymore? What if the most recent episode of her body’s hypersensitivity is the universe’s way of telling her to try a different track, beat her own path?
It’s unclear if the bridegroom believes in witchcraft. What’s clear, though, is that he intends to demand an investigation into “possible irregularities.”
The bridegroom will, of course, receive a detailed police report confirming that, yes, indeed, X number of “questionable activities” happened in the kitchen because of Bellden’s failure to perform the supervisory duties assigned to her.
Naturally, Bellden will be arrested (although she won’t spend more than a few days in the women’s wing of Murchison Bay Prison), and the widows will be heavily fined (as restitution to the bridegroom for “unplanned loss of honeymoon time”).
For that, interestingly, is the way of rich people.
Davina Kawuma is a Ugandan natural scientist, educator, administrator, editor, and storyteller. Her poetry has been published by platforms such as Brittle Paper, African Writers Trust, and FEMRITE. Her short stories have been shortlisted for the Afritondo, Gerald Kraak, and Short Story Day Africa Prizes. Her creative non-fiction, whose subject is racial justice trainer, community organizer, and systems change strategist April Michelle Jean, was published last year in a cross-cultural anthology by Ugandan and American women titled This Bridge Called Woman. Her flash fiction is forthcoming in the eco-literature and eco-art edition of the Global South Journal.