Thursday, May 15, 2014

An Elephant Crashed My Wedding

An Elephant Crashed My Wedding

A True Story, Illustrated with Original Digital Artwork

(The events of this story took place three years ago, on my 20th wedding anniversary.)

Pre-Wedding, in Botswana, on a Safari Jeep

     I was being kidnapped, and there was nothing I could do about it. 

     It was evening. My husband, Richard, and I were on a trip of a lifetime to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary - a tented Wildlife Safari in three Southern African countries - and at the moment we were deep in the savanna in Botswana. We were returning to our lodge from a late afternoon game drive, tired and dusty, yet exultant from having seen lions and leopards, and giraffe and alligators, and so much more. All I wanted was a shower, some food, and my comfortable bed in our delightful tented hut. It was amazing, how beautiful the savanna and forest were, how utterly gorgeous our open-air camp was, better yet than the pictures in the brochures had promised. I was in love with the Lodge. It reminded me of a tree house, straight out of Swiss Family Robinson, or those old Tarzan movies.

Our Lodge

     As we drove up in the Jeep, I noticed a huge bonfire nearby, in a cleared-out area in the forest near the Lodge. This was new, there had never been a bonfire on the previous nights, so what was up? Stranger yet, the minute I climbed down from the Safari Jeep, a group of women surrounded me. Firmly and insistently, they took my arms and whisked me away down the raised boardwalk toward the lodge.

     "Richard!" I called over my shoulder.

     "Happy anniversary," he said, grinning.

     "It's a surprise!" the ladies said.

     One of them took me by the hand, turned me toward her, and said she was going to be my honorary Auntie for the evening. Ah! Aunties! I knew about them. Our guide, Samantha, had already explained to us that in this part of Africa, "Aunties" and "Uncles" assumed an important parenting role in a person’s life. They were advisers, go-betweens, and confidants. All very well - but why did I need an Auntie?

     My "Auntie" and the other ladies – my other female relatives, they explained – took me to a tent and presented me with a lovely brown-and-white, African-style dress. "It's for you," my Auntie said bashfully, "We made it! All day, we worked on it when you were with the lions. It is your wedding dress! We chose the fabric, we cut it out, and we stitched it by hand." She held it up to me. "It will be so pretty on you. Here is the matching head-dress. You will tuck your hair up under it. I will help. You are getting married tonight!"

     I gaped at them in surprise. Married? I was getting married again? Here? How had they known it was my anniversary? Richard must have something to do with this! He was always full of wonderful surprises. This one promised to be the most amazing of them all.

     "Put it on," said my Auntie.

     I held the dress out in front of me to admire the tiny stitches and to hide the tears that were starting to drip down my face. The dress was beautiful. They'd even set in a zipper on the back. I couldn't begin to think how much work that zipper must have taken, to do by hand. I held the wedding dress out in front of me and let it fall to its full length. And then my heart stopped. It was tiny. The dress was gorgeous but not in a million years would it ever fit me! Even so, the ladies urged me to put it on. Afraid that I'd rip the poor thing, I wiggled it over my head - carefully - but it was no use. The zipper gaped open, leaving a bare place the width of the Zambezi river running down my back.

     "Oh ... this is ..." said one of the ladies, biting her lip.

     "...not so good," my Auntie finished.

     "We will fix this. We will put something around her shoulders," said another lady. After a flurry of alarmed-sounding conversation in their own language, a dainty white shawl was procured. They draped it artfully around my shoulders, then stood back and admired their work. My Auntie smiled in approval and put an African headdress on me. She tucked my hair under it, then proclaimed me ready. But before I could be presented to my prospective husband, I had to be educated.

     My Auntie gave me a very solemn speech about the duties of a new wife:

     1)   I must always respect and honor my husband. I must always feed him first, kneeling, and keep my eyes averted in his presence at all times.
     2)   I must never question anything he does.
     3)   If he comes home six hours late from the fields and smells of alcohol, I must not ask him where he's been.
     4)   If he comes home with a second wife, I must accept it and not complain.

     I told her I'd do my best. Except for the second wife thing, I thought, keeping the horror of such a thing to myself. Did my Auntie have to share her husband with another woman? I couldn't imagine accepting such a thing. Oh, yes. You'd better believe I'd complain if Richard came home with a second wife.

Waiting for the Wedding

     When the ladies were confident I would make a good wife, they herded me to the clearing in the forest by the bonfire, where the others of the tour group, and Richard, my intended, were waiting. Richard had his own "Family" too, just as I had mine. He was dressed in a white knee-length tunic and a woven hat. He'd been educated by his "Uncle," but his education was along the lines of: "Treat her well. Her skin is perfect and un-blemished, like polished glass. She is delicate. Do not break her." Richard told me later he thought this was code for: "Do not beat her."

     The two family groups, Richard's and mine, began to dance and jump and sing. They were boisterous and energetic, so enthusiastic that it didn't much matter that we couldn't understand the words. Their singing got louder and louder until it dawned on us that they were trying to out-sing each other. We got a sketchy translation later.

     My family was saying: "You don't deserve this woman. She is worth a lot of cows. You can't afford her." 

     Richard's family argued back: "We already paid for her. Send her over so she can start serving her husband! What is taking so long?"

     The two groups eventually stopped singing and began arguing. Of course, we had no idea what was going on. Why was Richard's Uncle yelling at my Auntie? Why was one of the men on my side of the family stomping his feet, flapping his arms, and shouting? All Richard and I could do was watch and wonder. 

     Later, it was explained to us that since this was the first time the Lodge employees had ever staged a wedding for guests, it wasn't exactly clear how they ought to proceed. In a village, a real wedding would have many rituals associated with it, and the wedding would take place over three full days. Obviously, a good number of important things would have to be left out of our wedding. The other reason they were arguing (they also explained) was that the people playing the roles of our families were from several different local tribes, each with slightly different traditions - and everyone wanted to use THEIR traditions for our wedding.

      And I'd thought they were arguing because my husband's family was refusing to pay the ten cows for me!

      The arguing stopped. Consensus had been reached, the wedding could go on. My Auntie sat me in a chair and put a veil over my head. “You must sit here patiently and wait for your husband. Look at the ground!”

Trying To Be A Good Wife
(My "Auntie" and Richard's "Uncle" Are Standing Right Behind Us)

       I sat, studying the gravel below my feet. Then Richard pulled my veil up over my head and kissed me. Everyone hooted and clapped. Later, he told me his Uncle had adamantly told him: “under no circumstances are you to kiss the bride. It is not done. It is disrespectful. Don’t do it!” Richard had dutifully agreed. But then, to his shock, the very same Uncle led him over to me, still sitting there in my veil, still looking at the ground. He told him to lift the veil and kiss the bride.

     "Really?" said Richard. 

     Uncle shrugged, grinning. “We wish to incorporate some Western traditions! Go for it!”

      Richard did. We had our first kiss as an African husband-and-wife.

     After that, they sat us down and told me that my first duty was to serve a meal to my new husband. On my knees. I filled a plate with bush food for him - stewed meat and vegetables and corn mash. Then I knelt, as I'd been instructed. The ladies giggled. They thought my kneeling technique left something to be desired. Richard did too. At least I managed to keep my eyes averted, like a proper wife.

      And then came something no-one had planned for, something that made us all gasp, freeze, and forget all about the wedding ceremony. There was something in the jungle! And it was coming toward us, crashing and snorting and making a huge amount of noise. All heads turned toward the place where the noise came from. The lead Safari Guide reached for his rifle. I reached for Richard. For the first time, I truly understood what "my heart in my throat" meant.

     Crash! Crash! 

     An enormous bull elephant plunged through the surrounding trees. His impossibly huge head and ears and shoulders intruded into our little clearing, looking like a monster from a horror movie, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. The elephant stood there, wild-eyed, dazed by the firelight. After a moment, he shook his head, flapped his ears, every bit as startled as we were. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the Safari Guide level his rifle. Nothing moved for a very long minute. Then the elephant raised his trunk and trumpeted, backed up, and disappeared into the forest like an apparition fading into the darkness. All of us, tourists and guides and honorary wedding parties alike, stared after him in disbelief. It had all happened so fast, a matter of only perhaps ten seconds. 

     The elephant's visit was so frightening and unexpected that nobody managed to take a single picture, even though - as dedicated tourists and avid photographers - everyone but Richard and me had cameras around our necks. The memory would have to suffice. And what a memory it was.

The Same Elephant?
We saw this one earlier, from the Jeep, and he was none too pleased

     Richard's Uncle laughed, breaking the spell. “Good omen," he said, nodding. "Very good luck!"

     "That's the first time an elephant has ever come in here," said my Auntie.

     "They're usually afraid of fire," said another.
     The head Safari Guide inspected the surrounding trees. "It must have smelled the food." He instructed the other Guides to take up positions around the clearing.

     "Time to eat!” said Richard's Uncle. A universal sigh of relief went through the group. Everyone went to the bonfire to heap delicious traditional African finger food on aluminum camp plates. The last person to eat was the poor bride. According to tradition, she must wait patiently and loyally until the men, especially her husband, had eaten. Only then was she welcome to the leftovers.

     It was a wonderful evening. I’ll remember my African wedding for the rest of my life, and maybe the elephant will, too. Best of all, I am now properly married. I only hope Richard doesn't come home with a second wife.


  1. What a delightful story! Congratulations and many (more) happy years together.

    1. Thank you Cris! It's a great memory. Thank you for reading.


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