Sunday, August 8, 2010

Henna Night

Mariama couldn't believe this. All her unmarried childhood friends were gathered in her "little mom's" room. Little mom is the nickname given to the second or any subsequent wives or one's father. In a corner, half a dozen teenage girls were making music with an overturned calabash filled with old clothes. They were pounding on it with their closed fists and singing songs for the occasion. The best voice led the songs and the rest accompanied her with very rhythmic claps and a joyful chorus. One young lady held another calabash in both hands. The item was decorated with multiple cowry shells attached to three to five inches strings. She'd throw the calabash in the air twirling it three to four times clockwise and one time the opposite way. Her very coordinated hand tricks added a distinguished beat to the musical performance taking place.

Although some of the songs were about how the young bride would miss her teenage life and her family, Mariama was happy. She had butterflies in her stomach thinking about her new husband. Her hand was given in marriage a year before. Now 16, she couldn't wait to start her new life. The marriage was prearranged as was the case most of the time in her culture, but unlike most brides she knew her future husband. She had at least since him physically around town before she was informed she'd be marrying him. Also, in accordance with the rituals, in the past three months he visited her every fourth Saturday. They always met with a circle of his and her friends around tea and delectable braised meat prepared for the occasion. Any one on one exchange was under the watchful eyes of others.

She liked him. He was 23, unmarried and handsome. She couldn't believe how lucky she was. Most girls she knew went into marriage with their heart bleeding in silence, forced to live with someone they did not choose and whom they did not like when they finally got to see physically.

Sitting on a grass rug right on the floor of the now packed and noisy room, Mariam extended her hands and feet one after the other to a young lady who was creating intricate patterns on them with thinly cut adhesive strips. Once both palms and feet were covered with this artistic tapestry, three other young women joined the first one. Each one took a member and started applying thin layers of the henna paste prepared with henna powder, water and a little bit of sugar -someone suggested the sugar to add intensity to the color. When the application process was done, the ladies covered her hands and feet in plastic wraps, loosely tied strings at each wrist and ankle to secure the wrap, then slid oversize socks over them. She was then helped to the bed were she'd spend the night trying not to smudge the henna work by keeping her palms open and not moving too much during her sleep.

Outside, the street was blocked off. Dozens of mostly women family members, friends or simple acquaintances formed a big circle, some sitting on benches rented for the occasion, some standing. Two drummers energetically beat their djembe (pronounced jay'm'bay). Beside them a wood fire was burning. This was used every half hour or so to warm up the leather part of drum and sharpen the sound of the instrument. A professional singer was hard at work singing family praises and historic feats while women spontaneously entered the circle and danced. The singer was rewarded with a deluge of banknotes for the public. All the while, young girls walked around and served sweetened ginger juice refreshments and cookies made by Mariam's family.

The celebration went on until midnight. It was around 1:00 am when the last of the spectators dispersed. The same thing will go on again on Wednesday night before the big day on Thursday.

To be continued...

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