Guests were to come from as far as Sweden. Many more were to drive from Nairobi, all the way to Marsabit, to witness Stephen Basele, a software engineer wed Gumatho Illo, a banker, in an elaborate traditional and church wedding.
Basele, who has crowd-pulling abilities of a politician, was expecting 800 guests drawn from all over the world for his wedding. This writer, along with his bosom buddy, Sydney Obachi, was supposed to drive a Toyota Hilux, double-cab, in a road trip of a lifetime to Loglogo, Marsabit County go witness Basele graduate into a Rendile elder.
Like most young men and women, Basele had been cohabiting with Gumatho, and most recently had been blessed with a son. But from the get-go, he was supposed to formalize their union according to the Rendile customs. But in between a demanding job, that renders Basele peripatetic, and a wife holed in Nairobi with a demanding job, the wedding took longer to arrange.
But over the last one year, Basele and Gumatho have been working hard at their wedding. For Basele, who has numerous friends in Nairobi and across the world, the biggest logistic nightmare was how to get all of them to Loglogo, 300 miles (482 km), Northwards, from Nairobi. Whereas the road is one of the best in the continent for a long drive, most guests were first-time travelers, whose safety and comfort were the bride and groom’s responsibility.
Starting December, he set for Saturday, April 4 to be their big day and sent out invitations. If guests and friends were excited about the prospect of roasting meat in the world and toasting to the Baseles, in the village, it was all systems go.
“I had planned everything in great detail. By March 1st, everything was in place, and I confirmed to the guests that everything was set,” Basele says.
But by March 1, the Coronavirus pandemic that started in China, and seemed distant was ravaging North Italy with astonishing savagery, and Europe was beginning to feel the heat. Down here in Africa, it was life as usual. However, within the first week of March, common sense dictated that our first case of Coronavirus was to come from Europe. Even as everyone was anxious by planes landing from China, it was a matter of days before we recorded the first cases, that will change our lives forever.
Around early March, the world was going crazy with the short supply ventilators. America didn’t have enough, now imagine Kenya. Basele thought for a moment what would happen if the disease landed in Marsabit, one of the most historically marginalized parts of the country. Basele says this early realization that the wedding was likely to be affected by Coronavirus. He could not risk exposing the innocent countryside folk to Covid-19 when Cholera was already creating problems in the county.
And so, with the mid-March closure of our borders and the recording of the first cases, he opted to postpone the wedding, before internal lockdowns began.
He would have opted for a simple traditional wedding as stipulated with the new regulations but having involved so many people and many people were excited, he postponed, so that they could get to attend the wedding, if the world goes back to normal, if ever…
A Rendile Wedding
The Rendile are a Cushitic tribe that lives in Marsabit County, the largest county in Kenya. Largely pastoralists, their many years of interactions with the Samburu, a Nilotic tribe to the South, their cultures have become increasingly indistinguishable.
“Most of our traditions are quite similar, though there are certain unique aspects such as a preference of camels for bride price among the Rendile, and cows among the Samburu.
Among the Rendile, the bride price is paid on the material day of the wedding. Nearly all of it, but you cannot pay everything, as you must remain in debt of your in-laws as it is common across Africa. Among the Rendile the bride price is eight cows or camels. Those inclined into the deep Rendile culture like Basele prefer camels to cows.
On the day of the wedding, the day starts early, with the slaughter of a bull, whose meat is not supposed to consumed by the groom and his age set. The slaughter is a ritual that signifies, the permanence of marriage.
“There is a saying in my community that ‘marriage is like a grave’, meaning that once you get in, there is no going out, there is no divorce, even if the woman left you and went and got married elsewhere, she will remain your wife,” and the slaying of the bull signifies that.
By 9 a.m. as the cows go to graze, people head to church for a reception that will take much of the day until the evening when people return to the home of the bride for more festivities. These festivities include dances and feasting on a meaty diet. The Rendile whose proximity to their Ethiopian cousins and Somalis, have rich culinary traditions and guests like me, knew what to expect having indulged in all Somali meaty servings.
However, unlike the Bantu tribes where the groom is supposed to be served some special diet, the Rendile do not have such exception. If anything, the groom cannot eat the bull slaughtered earlier, just like any of the marriage age, or his age set. After the wedding, he was supposed to spend three days at the bride’s home, as he formalizes the wedding and receives her officially, before going home for more festivities.
All these never took place, because of the Coronavirus pandemic. He had paid the service providers, tents, catering, and sound systems. And he is not in any rush to demand his money back since he hopes to do the wedding, two weeks after Coronavirus is contained if we ever contain it.
But how has Gumatho taken the disappointment after the elaborate arrangement?
“She has been most understanding. It is no longer an emergency because even so, we already live together,” Basele says.
But even so, they are disappointed because of the intense planning that is involved.
Now, he is still not yet an elder, according to the Rendile culture, because, after the wedding, on the fourth day after the wedding, he is supposed to go back home, which is like 70 kilometers, and set up a hut, followed by a small tradition, that he believes, was borrowed from the Samburu.
Once you get circumcised, you are now allowed to eat at home, but after this ceremony, you become an elder and can resume eating at home. And if he was to die, God-forbid, he can be buried at home, unlike now, if he died, he would be buried within hours, in a cemetery or far away from home.