During my first 7 months of being at site, I made great strides in my language skills as well as my level of integration within the community, but I still felt like I something was missing-- that my neighbors still didn't consider me to really be living there. Other volunteers from my stage had regaled me with stories of being invited to weddings, circumcision parties, and famadihanas (the "turning of the bones" ceremony that honors a family's dead ancestors), and I felt envious of their invitations, because I hadn't received an invitation to anything. It was beginning to weigh heavily on my conception of how well I was truly integrated.
In early December I had a language learning session with my neighbor and Malagasy tutor, Madame Titine, and she mentioned that another one of our neighbors, Madame Priscaline, was getting married in town in a few weeks. I'm close with many members of Priscaline's family and talk with them on a daily basis, but none of them had mentioned the wedding. Later that day I stopped by the epicerie that Priscaline's mother, Madame Marcelline, runs, and I mentioned hearing about her daughter's upcoming mariazy (wedding). She clapped her hands with delight as a smile lit up her face, and invited me to come. And just like that, I finally had an invitation to my first Malagasy cultural event!
The wedding was a big deal for the people of Ampasy, my neighborhood in Vaingaindrano, and on the morning of Saturday December 15th, people were up and about getting ready. My teenage neighbor Sonia wanted to braid my hair for the event, so she came over at lunchtime and gave me a beautiful set of braids that, if I wasn't quite so white, would have made me fit right in with the other women in my town. My 8-year-old friend Marinah, sister of the bride, came over afterwards and we did our nails together. And then I put on a nice dress that I rarely wear and headed out to the main road to meet the rest of my community before walking to the church. The sense of joy and excitement was palpable, with little girls giddily dressed up in their finest dresses just for the occasion, wearing swipes of lipstick courtesy of Sonia, our glamour goddess. I brought my camera out and took lots of pictures of everyone dressed in their best, which made it truly feel like a special occasion. About a half-hour later, we all walked to the FLM (Lutheran) Betesda church and stood outside while we awaited the arrival of the bride and groom. I passed the time by taking more pictures of everyone-- an activity that never fails to entertain, and about a half-hour later a silver Peugeot decorated with flowers pulled up in front of the church. Here comes the bride!
I shouldn't have been surprised at this, but my eyes began to water just like they normally would at a wedding back home. I am a serial wedding-crier, and I can't help it. This was at the same time both a regular wedding like you'd see in a America, but also not normal at all, because an occasion like this is truly special. These are people who hard incredibly hard and don't often have the chance to dress up in nice clothes and celebrate a special occasion. So when I saw beautiful Priscaline step out of the car, resplendent in a gorgeous white dress and veil, tears began to stream down my cheek because not only was this a wedding, but it was her wedding, her special day, and I was so happy that she got to experience a day of joyfulness of her own.
Her fiance, Ralahady, followed next, walking arm-in-arm with his regal-looking mother. At first I wondered to myself who this young man in a white suit was, but then it hit me that it was, in fact, the grooom. (Is this a sign of my advancing age?) And then the cute little groomsmen/ring bearers tromped in behind them-- little 5-year-old Totona, my neighbor, as well as another boy who I presume was Ralahady's relative. After the rest of the family entered the church the guests streamed in and took our seats. I sat with some of the children from my neighborhood and kept us cool in the sweltering church by using my paper fan. The wedding ceremony processed pretty much as it would in America, albeit in Malagasy instead of English, with one exception: the FLM Betesda church choir sang two beautiful hymns, which is something I've never seen before in a wedding. It was lovely and so fitting to this wedding, where it truly felt like the entire community was there to bless the union of Priscaline and Ralahady.
After the vows were taken and kisses were exchanged, the bride and groom walked out of the church, followed by their families, and formed a receiving line outside the exit. The main difference between an American and Malagasy receiving line is that here you do the customary one-two-three cheek kiss on every person on the line, so it takes a while to go through. Afterwards I met up with Madame Titine and we walked to the nearby Tropic Hotel for the reception.
I wasn't expecting much for the reception because these are not wealthy people, but I was duly impressed by the care that the hotel proprietor had taken to make this a special event. A large white tarp was draped over the open area south of the hotel building, forming a sort of tent, and underneath it were about 20 tables (borrowed from the middle school across the road), each bestowed with a tablecloth, bottles of soft drinks, and bowls of snacks. It took about an hour for the wedding party to finally arrive at the reception, at which point an emcee took to the microphone to make some speeches about the couple that I couldn't understand. Titine, our tablemates, and I all ate sambos and kaka pigeon while the speeches were being made, and then lined up to give our gifts to the couple and receive a piece of wedding cake. Malagasy tradition dictates that you give an envelope of cash as a wedding gift, and I silently worried that I hoped I'd included the right amount of money-- I didn't want to give too much and look ostentatious or wealthy, but I didn't want to give too little and look like a miser.
After giving our gifts and receiving cake, Titine and I walked home because it was getting late. It had been a 5-hour event and the sky was darkening. I was happy to be getting home, but I was also curious if there were other wedding events. There was no dancing and no alcohol served (probably the biggest difference from American weddings), though I'm not sure if that was indicative of all Malagasy weddings or just this particular family. But I walked home with a big smile on my face because I was so thrilled and so honored to be included in Priscaline and Ralahady's special day. Unlike American weddings where people gather from all over the country (or the globe), this felt more like the coming together of an entire community than a collection of various friends and relatives who don't know each other. Indeed, it really felt like everyone from Ampasy was there, and my inclusion was a watershed moment for me in terms of feeling like a true member of the community. I wasn't there as a special guest or token white person; rather I was included because I'm just a friendly person living in the neighborhood. And one of the main things I strive for in my Peace Corps service is to be seen as just that.