What did a Meru bride wear to her wedding?
© Library of Congress / Unsplash
Under the motto “in order that you may know each other,” in 1925 Pope Pius XI organized The Vatican Exposition. My church gathered over 100,000 spiritual and ritual objects from the Americas, Asia, Africa, Oceania and Australia, for what is today the Vatican Ethnological Museum. The intention of the museum is articulated as to showcase pre-Christian religious practice to the faithful, now brought together under the one universal church.
I do not come to the discussion on repatriation of African cultural objects for academic theorizing; that world requires an objectivity I no longer allow myself. Nor do I come enraged by an awareness of the sanctity of the objects, for, truth be told, it is not the spiritual significance of the items lost that holds my attention. I am a Black African woman; I cannot afford fantasies about the old when-everything-was-better days. I have, in many ways, more liberties than any of my direct female ancestors. Nor am I hiding behind some grand altruism about what the babies and youth of today deserve to know, have and hold; this is about me. I come with a personal curiosity; a thirst that burns every time I am at a Meru traditional wedding.
Meru precolonial culture was more or less accurately recorded. In the 1960’s, Jeffrey Fadiman a white man from the USA in his early twenties, came to Kenya and interviewed hundreds of elders, men who, though not yet on their death beds, were desperately trying to preserve a record of “what it meant to be Meru.” They were acutely aware of being the last generation that valued, in an urgent, immediate sense, this particular kind of information. They wanted it recorded because they believed their grandchildren would one day care, even if their children didn’t. Had the missionaries treated African traditional religious practice as evil, then it would have been imbued with some power and thus persisted. They did something much more effective, when they declared it nonsense and hokum. I therefore, cannot help but read vain hope in that effort to record Meru traditions and culture: entertaining the possibility that the Christian project-cum-phase would pass in a generation or two.
Jeffrey Fadiman’s book opens by a hearth, where he is taking down an oral history from the last surviving member of Meru's oldest generation, Gituuru wa Gikamata. Gituuru happens to be my great-great-grandfather, so this book occupies a place of honour in my family’s bookshelf, and this is why I am familiar with it.
Quote: “God kept me alive so I can give you this information. Please write it so my grandchildren will know what it is to be Meru.”
Yet here I am, a great-great-grandchild writing about gaps, partly because the book, and Gituuru’s grandchildren, have no satisfactory answers for me. Much is meticulously documented in this book, for sure. But on the world of women in particular, there is great silence. Rites and rituals are exposited, but the book is light on technical descriptions. On the one hand, perhaps the elders assumed the tangible aesthetics would survive. Fadiman himself either made similar assumptions, or never considered it. Objects are described as ornate or elaborate, but he does not go into qualitative specifics. It just isn’t enough, for instance, to tell of a heavy beaded cloak: was it a woven fabric blanket, or made of leather? What type and size of beads were used in its ornamentation? What beadwork patterns? After all the effort Fadiman had expended in convincing the elders that confiding in him was the best way to preserve their world, he seems to have forgotten to actually describe their world, and instead recorded his impression of their world.
It is clear that nobody cared much about documenting the lives and experiences of women. The way the elders told it, to be Meru was “to live as a warrior when young, connect with the “nkoma” (ancestral spirits) as one aged, and then pass through the tunnel that led from life to death.” Clearly the elders interviewed did not have any granddaughters in mind!
Thus, I find myself at every Meru traditional wedding feeling more than a little underwhelmed. The elders made sure we knew how to marry. We know what ceremonies to hold, what songs to sing, what food to serve, how to speak, the specific phrases with which we must address our potential in-laws, who drinks what when—it is all there. However, we do not know what to wear to these ceremonies. Everything but the tangibles has the whiff of authenticity.
The more traditional the wedding endeavours to be aesthetically, the more underwhelming it actually is, because it has no reference point. When the bride presentation begins, it is a spectacle of appropriation. In the absence of verifiably owned tangibles, Meru brides have had to purloin several aesthetics. The bride emerges from a sea of young women all fully covered up in khangas; this we lifted from the Swahili. When the groom correctly identifies her, upon unveiling she is garbed in a brown leather dress adorned with cowrie shells, a Kikuyu vestment, and sometimes wearing Maa beadwork. By this time, I am wallowing in the awareness of the effort that has gone into hunting and gathering this quilt of cultural attire.
There is however a wedding I have knowledge of that can speak to these gaps, one which is passed down my family in borderline mythical proportion to the extent that folk beyond “us” reference it. When our elders sent their sons to the white man’s schools, my great-grandfathers – these self-same sons, came back from these learning institutions as Christians. I have often wondered how the old man reacted to that and what he thought of it. What could it have meant to learn that his children had abandoned the same forefathers that he had been working his whole life to join? Did he ever fully realize that it meant his children would never offer him libation, or was he too pre-occupied pondering what explanation he would offer his forefathers when he joined them? What I do know for a fact is that he was aware that he was the last in his line of faith and beliefs.
But back to the mythical wedding. When the time came for my great-grandfather to marry, he chose from the top of the pack. There is common agreement that she was a woman of exceptional beauty. It is also clear that this “beauty” refers mostly to her personal accomplishments. The only physical description of her bodily beauty are her ritual scars. The Meru practiced scarification and accomplishments were etched into one’s skin. And my great-grandmother was a beauty…!
There was however one problem; she wasn’t baptized. She enrolled in “Christian classes”, which were taught by a white woman whose name is somehow lost (never mind that the names of D.O’s and priests in the area made it wholesale into our oral history). When the day came, she walked up to the church, adorned in all her ritual finery of clan and rank. Her headpieces, necklaces, bracelets, waist beads and anklets are all mentioned in the tale, with specific mention of heavy copper bracelets and neckpieces, but no further accurate descriptions are availed. Besides all this, it is said that she had on the expected finery of a Meru bride.
Then she shed “ALL THAT WITCHERY,” was robed in white, baptized and, donning a headscarf, she went through the doors of the church to get married.
Much else was shed with that baptism. Her original name is also lost. All further reference to her, oral or otherwise, refers to “Selina who became Solomon’s wife.”
My family prefers a more romantic narrative where they fell in love and she denounced everything for him. I am sure there is some truth in that. But the women in my family are too practical for that to constitute a whole truth. Maybe it was the appeal of monogamy, or perhaps she understood herself to be marrying up—whatever the reason, she gave it all up to be his wife! Once she became his wife, she went on to craft for herself a reputation as a good Christian woman that matched, but never quite overshadowed, the accomplishments of her previous life.
The Solomon whose wife she became was a colonial agricultural officer, and often travelled away from home doing whatever it was that colonial agricultural officers did back then, so she had the run of her home, which was exceptionally well kept. I remember reading Margaret Mitchell’s (problematic) “Gone With The Wind’’ and deeply understanding the awe of her mother in which Scarlett lived. The tone with which my grandmothers speak of their mother can only be described as reverent.
When I read Margaret A. Ogola’s “ The River and The Source”, I could see that Selina was our Akoko; the family benchmark for all future female accomplishment. When my grandmother was particularly pleased with herself, she would remind us she was Selina’s daughter. When we did well, we were reminded that it was to be expected, as we were after all of her line. Her spectre looms large and is oft deployed towards whatever purposes best suit those who hold power in our family, an important one being to exhort women born into the family to buck the trend. It is also paradoxically deployed to subdue women who marry in to conform to “the way we do things.” Selina is a convenient all-purpose salve.
This is who is on my mind whenever I am at a traditional wedding. I wonder what exactly the woman who became Selina was wearing when she walked up to the church. I am also somewhat terrified that the day might come when I, despite my misgivings, may agree to don this ethnic fashion quilt and also become “a bedecked Meru bride”.
There is a museum in Meru, which is filled with pictures, horns, some pottery, lots of shields and spears. Most of them are authenticated donations from private family collections because when it was time to put the collections together, there existed in corners of our being remnant pieces of the lives of the foreFATHERS. But there isn’t a single museum that can show me Meru bridal finery.
“The secret of spoons” American gods, Season 1 (2017)
Bilqius,( one of the forgotten old goddesses depicted as living in modern day U.S.A by the TV drama, American Gods) visits a museum that has her ritual body jewelry on display. She calls to her jewelry and it call backs to her. It is the last thing surviving from her days as a goddess. She takes it in, searing it deeply with her intense gaze. Then, she walks away.
Watching American Gods (2017), I feel some kinship with Bilquis. My church keeps meticulous records. The Consolata fathers arrived in Meru in 1911. There were many adult baptisms. The symbolic shedding of culture was commonplace. When Pope Pius XI organized his exposition, boxes upon boxes were shipped to Rome. The content of these boxes were objects, together with comprehensive notes on their attendant histories and how they had been acquired. Some of these are still on display.
When Bilquis walks into that museum where her ritual jewelry is displayed, she focuses on memory of the grand ritual and life she led. It isn’t even properly displayed. The people tasked with displaying it chose form over function. Her breast piece and loin pieces are all jumbled up. This is because they don’t know it isn’t jewelry, it is dress. It was all she wore to the rites. She wills it to order. Then realizing she can’t have it, she walks away.
I too just want to see it. I accept that it probably may not be accurately displayed. I accept that I will learn little on what each piece means. I accept that the jewelry is now dead and that I, unlike Bilquis, do not know how to breathe life into it. I just want to know how it looks.
The records of the exposition, unlike many colonial records, were not the work of men looking to sell themselves as intrepid explorers, but rather of ordained priests responding to a request by the Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. Is there, therefore, a moldy, rusty box in a basement somewhere in the Lateran Palace, containing the complete garments and adornments of a Meru bride?