Monday, May 3, 2010

The Killing of the Cow and Other Wedding Celebrations

I did not set my alarm yesterday and was pleased to sleep in past 6:30. I was less pleased when I saw the text message from Bernard saying I must be in Hokwe at 8:50. I rushed out the door with a banana and a handful of cashews. It was a strange morning. Normally the sun is out and gaining strength by 7:00 but it was nowhere to be seen. There was only a dense fog draped over the road and the fields. It created a dream-like sensation, walking down the road, seeing bodies emerge from the mist. I saw a group of women with impressively large bundles on their heads. Their wide bottoms swayed back and forth, keeping balance as they walked. I caught up with them on the bridge and greeted them in Changana. They were delighted.

“Dishile!” (“Good morning!”)
“Dishile khanimambo! U ya kwine?” (“Good morning thank you! Where are you going?”)
“Ni ya Hokwe. U ya kwini?” (“I’m going to Hokwe. Where are you going?”)
“Ni ya bazaar.” (“I’m going to the market.”)
They told me they were on their way from harvesting in the fields. One of the giant bundles was filled with lettuce, another with pumpkin leaves. I commented on how productive their fields must be. They smiled. I continued into town and walked into a general store where I bought two pretty capulanas. Then I went straight to the chapa stop and caught one headed to Chilembene right as it was filling up.

Almost an hour later I got off in Hokwe and asked some kids how to get to Bernard’s neighborhood. One of them pointed up the road and said “That way. It’s far. You should take a car.” Lucky for me a car came up the otherwise desolate dirt road right at that moment and I flagged it down. The driver, chief of the borough, took me out to the main highway and dropped me at a line of telephone poles leading off the paved road into the bush.
He pointed, “That way. Just keep asking people, they’ll show you the way.”
I got out and asked some women, their hands soapy from washing clothes. One left and came back moments later with an older man, his skin and clothes equally weathered from years of sun.
“He’ll show you the way,” she said.

The man’s name was José Machel and we made conversation in Portuguese as we walked. I followed him down the line of telephone poles then we turned off onto a worn path that skirted a grove of cashew trees. He indicated a line of people in the distance. “We mustn’t go that way. They are headed to the cemetery,” he said. So we took a different way, passing by compounds of small circular houses and tidy swept yards. The roofs were thatched with many layers of reeds and the mud walls were painted with geometrical designs, lines and dots. Neighbors called out to José, asking where he was taking the white girl. At one point he told me to put away the umbrella I was using for the sun and we navigated the narrow space between two barbed wire fences. After about an hour of walking, I was startled by the site of rows upon rows of tiny and identical cement houses spaced out among sandy yards dotted with mango trees. Turns out it was part of a foreign-sponsored re-housing effort after the floods in 2000.

We had only to say that we were headed to a lobolo ceremony and neighbors led us straight to the home of Bernard’s parents where a large crowd of men in slacks and button-down shirts sat in plastic chairs and women in capulanas and head scarves sat on straw mats. They were all under a make-shift tent. Bernard greeted me quietly, explaining that the ceremony had begun and I sat in a chair with the men. In the center the exchange was already taking place. One person read items off a list, things requested by the bride’s family to be paid by the groom. As items were read, they were placed on a straw mat and distributed to appropriate members of the bride’s family. Stacks of 200 metical notes were counted out. Suitcases filled with new clothes and capulanas were presented. Then came cases of beer and soda, jugs of wine and, tied to a tree behind us, a huge black and white cow.

The groom himself was not present during the lobolo for fear of being beat up by his future in-laws in case the gifts didn’t meet their expectations. Instead, he sent a substitute on his behalf. This was the man dressed in a suit and polished shoes who counted out the meticais. When the amount came up short he started sweating and dug around in the many pockets of his suit to make up the difference. He hit another snag when some of the old women began complaining about the cow.
“That cow is old!” they said in Changana. “He took our daughter when she was young, yet he has the nerve to give us a cow that is old?”
After much heated discussion they accepted the cow. The ceremony ended with singing and presentation of gifts by the other guests. Each family or group was called up in song and danced with their gifts before the bride and her mother, draping them with capulanas, waving new sets of flower-printed glass cups. When it was my turn, I awkwardly presented my capulanas, kissed the bride and her mother on the cheek and sat down.

The rest of the day was left to food preparation and sitting around. After the lobolo was presented the black and white cow was replaced with another. I had the opportunity to witness the entire process of killing, butchering and cooking the cow.

(Warning, the following is not for the faint of heart)
They fastened a strap around the cow's horns and tied the animal as tightly as possible to the trunk of a mango tree. When a man came over with a hatchet I held my breath. I thought maybe he’d go for the forehead, but instead he whacked it on the back of the neck. The animal thrashed wildly against the tree. Whack! Still thrashing… whack! On the third hit the animal dropped to the ground with a thud. After a few minutes, the muscles stopped twitching and the men began cutting off the horns.

At this point I was invited to get something to eat since it would be a long time before the real meal began. Somehow I still had an apetite and finished a plate of oily pasta and French fries then sat drinking tea with the women as they cut onions and sorted rice. After a while I returned to the scene of the cow slaughter. Several men were working simultaneously, peeling back the skin, scooping clumps of blood into a pot. The rib cage and gut were opened; organs were separated and removed for cooking. Step by step the animal was disassembled. At the end nothing was left but the grassy contents of its intestines, which were buried in the sand. Most of the rest of the animal was eaten – blood, liver, tongue, brain, bone marrow… They thought I was nuts for not eating it but were kind enough to prepare me a plate of fish.

The day went on into night. People ate their fill and ate some more. Music was blasted at top volume from speakers set up on the front steps of the house. They even had the TV hooked up to show music videos. A cake was presented and broken into bite-sized pieces to be passed around to all the guests.

The singing and dancing and drinking continued, probably through the break of dawn, but I took advantage of a ride with the one single car that had somehow navigated the long sandy paths out to the party. I squeezed in the backseat with a small child on my lap and we bumped along in the dark until we made it out to the main road again. An hour or two later they dropped me at the entrance to my school compound.


  1. a bit confused. Who is Bernard and how did you get an invitation to this wedding.

    Fabulous though.