There was a lot of work to do. They were fixing a feast for hundreds, prepared not by hired professionals but by their extended family, friends, and neighbors. And, of course, all these helpers also had to be fed.
As the week progressed, more and more relatives and neighbors gathered around the Molale home. Whenever a new group arrived, they new would honk their horns, sometimes rev their engines, and everyone would stop whatever they were doing and greet them with singing and dancing. At times, I started to feel that it was getting a little repetitious. Of course, to the person who just got there, it wasn’t a repetition at all, and people wanted the new arrival to feel honored and appreciated. As Godfrey said to me, “This is how we celebrate. Too many people. Too much noise.” For me, the car horns became annoying, but the singing and dancing continued to be fun and joyful.
The dancing and singing was often lead by Tsholofelo’s aunt, Motshidisi, one of the few who did not have an English name. Sometimes, it seemed to occur for no particular reason: perhaps, she finished some small task, or perhaps it would just strike her that things needed to be livened up. In any event, she would start, and others would join in. Sometimes, they would sing in English a verse made up for the occasion, about being a long way from home in America. Once while dancing, Motshidisi stomped her foot so hard that she broke her shoe. Of course, that didn’t stop her. “I could dance all night” she proclaimed as we finished one little stint.
Like most of the Americans, I joined in. My dancing is just an embarrassment, but I can sing. As I sang along, Godfrey looked at me with surprise, saying “You speak Tswana?”. No, but I have spent years in choruses singing in languages I don’t really understand, and I can imitate what I hear.
On Wednesday, the work began in earnest. Outside, there was a pile of rocks that needed to be moved out of the way. Some men had loaded up a wheelbarrow. Stephen decided he could help. To the surprise of the Africans, he took off his shoes, and, barefooted, picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow and took the rocks over to where they needed to be. (Apparently, the bottoms of his feet are used to this treatment. The Africans probably don’t realize how unusual this behavior is for an American.) Before the end of the week, they gave him a Tswana name, one that means “happy”.
Soon others had joined in, helping with various tasks. Work was strictly segregated by gender. Men took down fences, moved heavy stuff, slaughtered and butchered the animals. Anything having to do with vegetables was women’s work. (You might notice in the picture above, the only men cutting vegetables are American.) Women did the cooking. It seemed women had more to do.
Some of the older members of the extended family came but were frustrated in that they were not really allowed to help: there were not enough knives (dull as they were) to go around. This lady was actually not in the best of health, but, regardless of how she felt, she was not going to miss “the white wedding”.
Because of my grey beard, I was not expected to do much. The younger adults were expected to work, and once we started to act like members of the community, a lot was asked of them. One of the young American women, acutely aware of the relative status of women in the Tswana society, felt exploited. Another, more cognizant of the unique opportunity to get inside this culture, worked hard but enjoyed the experience.
Of course, there were kids around. Some were Tsholo’s nephews and nieces. Those who were old enough, played together, largely unsupervised, but adults were always nearby. Occasionally, some Americans would join them in play.
The Molales imposed on their neighbors in a way that would be unimaginable in my neighborhood. The street in front of their home and yards of their next door neighbors were taken over to supply space for the celebration. Fences were taken down. The rough gravel road was smoothed over.
There was some paid help. Certainly, the people who own the tent are running a business, and hired men set it up. However, the majority of the work was done by people offering their services as a gift. In this, there is an implicit exchange, not the quid pro quo of a business relationship, but a mutual interdependence and indebtedness that binds the community together. As one neighbor cleaning sheep intestines said to my wife, “If you don’t help them, then they won’t help you.”
As was evident in these days of preparation, this celebration was as much about building the community as about marrying the bride and groom. The frequent breaks for singing and dancing kept the mood joyful, and it was in this atmosphere that work got done. It was when we started to help that we began to truly join that community.