America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

Traditional Weddings in Zanzibar.

After interning with the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) in Stone Town, unofficial ambassador Margaret Lamb explores Zanzibari culture and customs at a traditional wedding. 

It is terrifying to admit that I have now been in Zanzibar for three and half weeks, meaning that I am now closer to the end of the program.  I have said this before, but I can’t believe how fast the time has gone. I wish more than anything that I had more time here… I feel like I have only scratched the surface of this culture.  Last weekend, however, I had a chance to delve into Zanzibari culture in the most real way possible: through parties. So, what exactly does it mean to “party like a Zanzibari?”  That’s a more difficult question to answer.  In some ways, Zanzibar is a thorough contradiction: despite being a genuinely foreign and African community, it is also a top tourist attraction.  The culture cannot be fully explained without understanding both of these aspects.  I was fortunate enough in the past few days to attend parties for both groups: a traditional, Zanzibari wedding and the epitome of a European beach party.

When I left for Zanzibar, the last place I expected to find myself was a wedding.  I think I was fifteen the last time I went to a wedding in the States; it’s not something to which you expect a last minute invitation! But, like everything else in Zanzibar, weddings are much more low-key and welcoming here.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when I came home to learn that we had all been invited to the wedding of – wait for it – a cousin of a distant work connection of one of my roommates’ mother’s.

I chose to wear the traditional clothing style to the wedding.

I chose to wear the traditional clothing style to the wedding.

I soon learned that the fluidity of the guest list is the smallest of the differences between American and Zanzibari weddings.  Even getting ready was exciting! The woman who invited us, Miriam, was eager for us to fit in.  She brought friends to help us with our henna and make up (a lot of eye-liner!) and brought us appropriate dresses.  For the actual ceremony, we didn’t need to wear a hijab, but simply wore our scarves as a somewhat decorative headpiece.  The dresses and the make up were all so colorful… all the women at the wedding wore beautiful, multi-colored and often sparkly dresses.  In some ways, I feel as though Limited Too would probably have been a big hit over here.  The “ceremony” itself was only a few moments long and only in the presence of the immediate family. There was a big moment when the groom arrived, with an entourage of all the other men.  The men waited in one area while the couple signed their vows, then all the men left again.  The groom was probably at the wedding for about fifteen minutes.  For the rest of the party all of the women sat on mats, simply dancing and chatting.

The bride came and joined the party for an even shorter amount of time than her husband.  She wore a beautiful, green dress (the traditional Zanzibari wedding color).  For most of the wedding, she sat inside while guests came in to take pictures with her.  We took a picture, even though we never learned her name.  Here, it is unusual to bring a wedding gift; instead, you contribute some small amount of cash after you take the picture.  Afterwards, she processed through the crowd briefly and went back inside.  With that, the wedding ceremony was over.

The reception, however, took place several days later.  It was supposed to start at eight… we arrived at 8:30 and, in the typical hakuna matata style, were among the first to arrive.  Again, only the women were there and there was a lot of music and dancing.  People were dressed much more elegantly for the reception, and we all were asked to wear hijabs. The dresses varied greatly, but I was personally surprised to see how flashy most of them were.  One woman who wore a somewhat backless and low-cut dress with only a piece of tulle covering her back and shoulders especially intrigued me.  She looked beautiful, but I doubt her outfit would have been approved for the Villa Walsh fashion show!   Again, the bride and groom were present only briefly.  Their arrival (at about 11:00) was the most “western” part of the wedding… two little girls in white dresses led the bride who wore a beautiful gown that could have looked like a typical American wedding dress but for the fact that it was bright blue.  The groom and best man processed in just afterwards.  They took pictures, and everyone left.  I have to say if I were the bride I would have been utterly bored by the whole event.

Kendwa Rocks Full Moon Party.

Kendwa Rocks Full Moon Party.

There are no specific points of comparison between the wedding and the full moon party.  Both were fun but appealed to entirely different emotions and senses.  We rounded out our time watching football in a Stone Town bar… needless to say, it was quite a weekend!

All in all, a Zanzibari wedding was one of welcome and kindness.  Everyone was tolerant of the clueless mzungu and the party favors from both parties were food.  The women, however, usually rather reserved when met on the street, were loud, boisterous, skillful dancers at these weddings.

To compare this to the other party of the weekend, however, seems almost impossible.  The Kendwa Rocks Full Moon Party is ranked one of the top five full moon parties in the world.  It takes place every month throughout the year and is basically a massive beach party.  Theoretically, it should have been just like Barcelona… a nightclub on the beach.  However, Zanzibari tourists are very different from Spanish tourists.  Almost no two partiers at the full moon party were dressed in the same way.  Some were very dressed up and could easily have fit in at Barcelona while others were still wearing backpacks.  Still others, the Masai warriors, were dressed in their traditional clothing.  Before the party started in full swing, there were several performances that embodied East African culture, including one that involved a large, terrifying snake.  The party was also the only thing in Zanzibar that was expensive.  I saw every American I have met in Stone Town at the party and encountered Americans and Europeans from all over Tanzania, in town for the weekend.  In short, the full moon party was fun, transient, and designed perfectly for tourist appeal.

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