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The wedding, me and polygamy

“Now, I need to ask, does anyone here know of any lawful impediment that prevents this couple from being joined in holy matrimony?”

The minister paused to give the congregation a chance to consider the question; the guests in my area smiled and shrugged. During the moment of quiet, I imagined a film’s protagonist bursting through the entrance behind us and calling off the wedding. Not a second later, I was snapped out of my daydream by a woman flapping paper in the air as she confidently strutted down the aisle. The venue became deadly still as we waited for the minister to speak.

In my fourth year at university, I somehow found myself invited to the wedding of a classmate who was marrying into the Swazi Royal family. Her groom was a member of the House of Dlamini and a close relative of King Mswati III of Swaziland, himself. I was absolutely stunned to find this out, and then even more intrigued when I read (on Google) that the father of her groom had had 70 wives and 210 children. What an invitation – it was bound to be quite the experience!

Before the wedding I was told that, like with any other royal wedding, I’d be expected to attend in traditional dress. This sounded perfectly reasonable until I realised this meant wearing a reed skirt, beautiful beaded necklaces, a hat and a bare chest. For weeks before the wedding my fellow invitees at uni gave me tips on how to pull off a topless, traditional look as an umlungu (white person). They took me shopping, showed me pictures and offered to pick out my outfit. The week before the wedding, I was relieved to find out that they were pulling my leg. I was expected to wear traditional dress but I could absolutely cover myself in ways that fit my western views of modesty.

The wedding day started early. I insisted we get to the venue (a 5 hour drive away) at 1pm, as the invitation stipulated 1:30pm as the starting time. There was much grunting and disagreement from my group as I pushed everyone out the door. When we arrived I understood things a little more clearly – 1:30pm was evidently the time the décor crew and caterers would be arriving to set up and guests should understand that they’d only be needed many hours later. After much sitting around in the parking lot, I apologised to my friends as we were called to take our seats around 5pm.

The bride's entrance was magnificent – she walked down the aisle looking truly regal and breathtakingly beautiful. And as her day hit a bump we discovered that she also had the calmness, grace and patience of a queen. When the mysterious woman presented a supposedly false marriage certificate to the minister and suggested that the wedding would need to be called off due to her being married to the groom, the bride simply sat down with her bridesmaids and flower girl, and waited while the minister addressed the congregation.

At this point, much whispering had erupted. My group tried to translate the ministers’ words - none of them spoke Swati but they found it similar enough to Zulu to understand most of it.

“Apparently this woman has a child with the groom” translated someone.

“Apparently the child is that one – the flower girl” whispered another voice.

“She, that woman, insists she’s married to him already but the evidence is dubious” – there was some agreement and some disagreement with this translation.

“Wait,” I responded smugly, “This is Swaziland, a place where polygamy is completely acceptable, so how is this a legal issue?”

The whole group tutted. This was the moment that I learnt that polygamy is only ok when your first wife agrees to your choice of second wife. They all nodded. I was firmly back in my place, listening to numerous updates – most of which included arguments around the actual translation of words.

The wife/not-wife was escorted out of the venue and didn’t return for the rest of the evening, unsurprisingly. Lawyers arrived and gathered with important people, forming an indaba (meeting) in a separate room, and then left (not very promptly). The wedding finally continued, while our stomachs grumbled. Soon the bride and groom were declared man and wife – and the banquet commenced. It was an amazing celebration, filled with vibrant colours, beautiful dancing and singing, and emotional speeches. I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that it must have been hard for the bride to deal with such a weird interlude on her special day.

Later in the evening, when the alcohol had been flowing and I was feeling less out of place as the only umlungu at the wedding, I approached my friend to find out how she was really doing.

“Hey, I can’t let that woman ruin this day. I’m only going to marry the man I love once!”

“Did you expect her to cause such a fuss?” I asked.

“I didn’t. I know her and we have a hard relationship. But I didn’t think she would try to stop this day from happening.”

“You must be furious,” I continued.

“No. I don’t have space for that. I’m not going to let myself down – especially not on my wedding day. Also – you’ll remember this wedding for the rest of your life now,” she laughed. “You have a great story to tell.”

She wasn’t wrong.

The following day, news of the matrimonial interruption was covered in every newspaper in Swaziland. The headlines were sensationalist and the photographs showed dramatic images of lawyers marching in and an angry looking wife/not-wife/ex-girlfriend being escorted out. They didn’t mention that the wedding went on, that the bride was exquisite and graceful, and that the rest of the evening was a special celebration of the royal couple.

As I remember than day, many years ago. I reflect on the behaviours of the calm, wise bride. Life is unexpected and sometimes horrid things happen. We can’t control them. We can only control our actions and reactions. As the world continues to throw uncertainty at us, I’ve been thinking about who I want to be over this period, how I want to be remembered and what I want to feel proud of when I look back in many years’ time. I hope future me will be chuffed with how I managed myself and others during these challenging months.

(As always, I'd love to hear from you. Get in touch on: email, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram.)

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