My younger sister, Nelly, has been a rock in our family and in my life. I am 15 months older than Nelly. For as long as I can remember, she has always been at my side. We did so much life together-and  literally raised each other in our early teens. Our separation started when I left for boarding high school at 14. But we would see each other during school breaks. When I left for the US in 2011, Nelly took over the mantle as the oldest sibling and has been a rock to my other siblings and parents. If Jared and I – or any family member – needed anything done in Kenya, Nelly was our man.

Shortly after we came to Kenya, the family hosted an introduction ceremony for Nelly. Her fiancé, Jimmy, had decided to make things official. So the next step was his family coming over to meet our family.

This day was the highlight of our visit to Kenya. It was one of my favorite days in Kenya so far. Nelly invited many of family including cousins, aunts and friends to celebrate this day. We flew from Malindi on a Thursday, drove straight to Nakuru from Nairobi so that we could go shopping, clean and cook on Friday for the event on Saturday.

Jared and I never had a formal African introduction prior to our marriage. We’ve also never attended one so Nelly and I were not sure what was expected. She and I both have a copy of Facing Mt. Kenya by the late President Jomo Kenyatta – perhaps his greatest contribution to Kenya. In this book, Kenyatta gives an anthropological account of the Agikuyu (Kikuyu) way of life. Their customs are not too different from ours – Abagusii- so we took some notes from the marriage section. We also researched Kisii marriage customs online. We had lined up a play list and a plan to bring the bride in with a dance and in matching lesos but this was not to be.

In the end, only our obedience, cooking, serving and cleaning skills were needed. 

My father had organized for his cousin to lead the whole ceremony. (My father only had one brother who is now deceased. These events are usually dominated by aunts and uncles) All we had to do was show up when we were summoned, serve the food (in a particular order), introduce ourselves (in a particular order), sit or stand and so forth.

My sister Nelly was not ‘permitted’ in the living room where the larger family was seated. I might be wrong but by tradition, she should have been in my parents’ bedroom the whole time. However, she stayed in the servants’ quarters, and used the back door to come into the kitchen to chat with sisters, cousins and aunts.

The ceremony was very solemn. Once the guests (Jimmy, his parents and uncle) arrived and were shown into the living room, there was pin drop silence. My parents, aunts and uncle were in the living room. I wondered why they were not chatting and doing introductions like normal. I peeped and noted that the fiancé’s dad was taking notes. I wondered what he was writing. I really didn’t know what to expect. It turns out he was just putting his thoughts down on what he would say later during the ceremony. 

We had expected our guests at 10am. They didn’t arrive till 3pm. Even with African timing, this was a huge delay but we took it in stride and had to work 3x faster since they had to get back on the road 2 hours later. It wasn’t a leisurely visit – at least not for the young women in the kitchen. In our neck of the woods, once mothers have grown girls/women, the cooking and cleaning falls on us. 

We had prepared so much food which we had hoped to serve over a period of time – tea with mandazi, lunch with various vegetables, meats and carbohydrates and cake with soda. Instead we had quick 15 minute intervals to serve, and clear the table so the ceremony could begin.

The ceremony itself was my father’s cousin directly different family members to introduce themselves in a in a particular order. Next, Jimmy’s family had to state their reason for visiting (even though we all knew). His father – through his spokesperson – said they were here to ask a particular girl for her hand in marriage. Then my uncle had to ask them, “which girl”. It’s pretty amusing. Jared took some videos, I’ll have to study them to see what really happened.

After the ceremony, the family said they would visit again. Or maybe that we should pay them a visit to their home in Western Kenya. Jimmy – Nellie’s fiancé is from the Abaluhyia (Luhya tribe). According to their customs, his family has to pay dowry* to our family within a year of this introduction ceremony. Then they will be considered officially married. They may choose to do a white wedding in church or a small ceremony at the attorney general’s office. Here is a song by a Kenyan band – Sauti Sol – that gives a sense of what a dowry ceremony might look like.

I am an extrovert- not in the sense of being the life of the party – but in the sense that I draw my energy from being around people. I love company. So this was my absolute favorite part of our visit to Kenya. It’s such a rare blessing in my family to be surrounded by so much family from both sides- and to especially be with cousins and our special friend (and Nellie’s bestie Glaudyne). 

At the end of the solemn event, we cut a cake that we had bought for Nelly and Jimmy. We put it right outside the door since the guests really had to get going. We finally got the chance to sing and break down the formality a bit as we enjoyed cake. My dad’s cousin also insisted that after feeding each other, the betrothed had to feed the moms next, then the dads and then everyone else could get a piece of cake.

Africa has changed so much since the first missionaries and explorers landed here. But traditions like these warm my heart and make me want to attend more African dowry ceremonies (lobola in Shona Zimbabwe; ruracio in Kikuyu Kenya; and ekeragerio in Kisii Kenya)

Congratulations to my best friend Nellie on embarking on the married life journey. And, welcome to the family Jimmy Wanjala. We love you both.

Ps Nelly left for Poland a little over a week after this ceremony. Please pray for her as she pursues her MBA and adjusts to life in a foreign country. Pray that Jimmy joins her soon or that the two years go fast and they can continue with their life together.