At this point, I think it important to say that in Sierra Leone, traditionally women do not participate in any way in this ceremony. The bride’s father, brothers, and uncles speak for her. The groom’s family might send uncles, cousins, his brothers or male friends of his family to negotiate the terms of his family seeking to acquire a bride for him.
Getting back to our particular manifestation of this ritual, the groom’s uncle then began speaking to Uncle Kwame about the magnificent rose he had seen in our garden that he had come to seek for his nephew. They never spoke of the groom’s worth or personality, only of the respectability of the family. How they took great care of their own garden, of how my friend would enhance the beauty of their garden. This portion of the ceremony was very moving. Even as I sat there, silently, feeling as if I was not equipped with the proper appendage to participate in this conversation—my best friend from high school … the rose of all roses in all gardens in our neighborhood, the most magnificent they had seen … the metaphors were flying all around and talking about the thing without actually naming the thing … her … as if she were too precious—all these things filled my heart. But! It was still me sitting there. And I wanted my friend’s intelligence to be spoken of. I wanted her mother to be addressed directly. I wanted my friend to give herself, even in this symbolic way, to her fiancé.
After a while, Uncle Kwame informed our visitors that he would go into the back room to bring out the rose he believed they wanted. He left and we all sat and smiled at one another nervously … except for Aunt Betty. With her legs crossed, she kicked her booted foot out over and over, and chewed her gum in a very unaffected sort of way, as though she did this everyday. Kwame returned with a rather skinny girl, a scarf hiding her from the top of her head to just below her breasts. It was a friend of my friend’s who had been helping her get dressed.
Uncle Kwame: Here is the rose you seek, my friend.
Groom’s Uncle: Eeeeh … I don’t believe that is the particular rose that we are seeking.
(Lots of mumbling and “Nos” from the groom’s family.)
Uncle Kwame: What is this? Is there something wrong with this rose? This is a very beautiful rose, one of the most cherished from our garden. Are you saying this rose is unacceptable to you?
Groom’s Uncle: Indeed, friend, this rose is very beautiful. It is quite extraordinary, in its own way. But we are quite certain that it is not the particular rose we have seen. If we could see all of the rose we would be able to tell you.
(Grumbling of “Yeses” from the family.)
Uncle Kwame: I see. All right.
(He removes her scarf. “Oooooohs” and “Aaaaaaaahs.”)
They agree that, though she was very nice, she isn’t THE rose. We do this one more time with another of her friends from college. So much theater that one might almost have believed that the engagement had not already been entered into—that these acts might have indeed had the meaning that we were pretending. At last, Kwame returned with my friend. My brilliant, compassionate, patient, stubborn, romantic, kind, and, yes … beautiful, beautiful friend. Wearing a dress her future mother-in-law had made for her in Sierra Leone. All white with vibrant splashes of pink and purple and green and yellow. I notice that six years ago, she didn’t have child-bearing hips. I notice that six years ago, she would have never approached a boy she liked wearing a scarf that covered the entire upper portion of her body. And once that scarf was removed, I remember that six years ago, she never needed a broker for her affection. We have changed, both. Then, when I read romance novels like the mysteries inside would unfold and there would be the cure I so desperately needed, I think I might have missed the messages I picked up on on this other-worldly night. And she would have done ever so much more than whisper a feather-light, “Hello,” when her face was revealed. She would have been the most vocal woman in the house. But, on this night, she was not the woman I knew. She was a beautiful rose. And that’s the problem with beautiful roses. They stand in the middle of the room for people to admire or touch or smell or use as decoration. They speak nothing. They do not consider their situation. And though I don’t have a problem with the metaphors, playing them out as we did, left me extremely disquieted.
Perhaps the most significant portion of the ceremony was when my friend’s mother, untraditionally, was allowed to speak. It was after we returned from having taken the calabash into the back room to inspect the bridal gifts they were offering (needle, thread, fabric, a bible, her engagement ring, the dowry money, and other things that I can’t recall).
Mother: We all know that every rose has thorns. What will you do when my rose presents her thorns, as she sometimes does?
Seriously, the most beautiful sentence I heard the entire night … and do you know what happened to it? It was ignored. The groom’s uncle said some rubbish about being sure to take care of all the roses in their garden, fertilizing them, watering them—whatever they would need. Excuse me but … what? Here was the chance for all my hang-ups surrounding the entire ceremony to be completely forgotten and soothed. Had he answered this question with even a modicum of finesse, of poetry … I might even have craved this Sierra Leonian tradition for myself. But … he did not. Alas, I do not.
The idea of it, the possibilities there are for a bit of poetry and theater to be added to something that is already a forgone conclusion (my friend had already accepted his proposal months before) are endless. I was thrilled to participate, loving, as I do, the sight and experience of things I have never seen or experienced before. Portions of it were quite beautiful … so beautiful, I shed a few tears. But on the whole … I sit absolutely astride the fence of reconciliation about this ceremony.
Beautiful and archaic.
Poetic and common.
Romantic and silencing.
Symbolic and … I can’t help but be afraid … somehow … distressingly real.
(Part 1) | Part 2