Wendy Turnbull is PAI’s Sr. Policy Research Analyst. She is in Kenya with other colleagues working on PAI’s latest documentary.
The small, one-room primary school building in Kibera has broken windows in a few spots, but is otherwise in good shape. Located in the heart of Nairobi, Kibera competes with Soweto, South Africa to lay claim to being Africa’s second largest slum: it is home to more than one million people.
Colleagues from PAI and Pathfinder International and I are in Kibera to film and participate in a Muslim bridal shower. We’re here in Kenya for the week producing a short documentary about the vulnerability of married women to HIV/AIDS. Because the bridal shower is a women-only event, our male filmmaker, Nathan, is unable to attend, so we’ve lined up a local female camera-person. We women have been advised to “bling up” and wear as much gold, sequins, and makeup as possible. We do our best to comply but we’re utterly out of our league in this crowd. Jeans are a no-no.
As we’re setting up the camera equipment and lights, a steady stream of
women arrive with plastic basins overflowing with food they’ve prepared
for the celebration — lots of sweet breads, samosas, and all things
fried. In one corner, a few young women practice their DJ skills with
the boombox brought in for the occasion. From this point forward, the
dance music rarely stops.
A traditional Muslim bridal shower celebrates marriage and imparts
female wisdom to the young bride on what it means to be a wife, how to
keep the home, and how to ensure her husband’s happiness. Obiya, the
bride-to-be, strikes us all as quite young, maybe early 20′s, if that.
She wears a full-length white gown reminiscent of a formal wedding
dress complete with tiara and shimmery eye shadow to accentuate her
incredible eyes. Obiya’s two bridesmaids sit on either side of her
during the festivities, adjusting the curls framing her face, laughing
and whispering in her ear.
The bride’s grandmother wields the microphone with authority and
proceeds to outline Obiya’s wifely duties in detail — embrace and kiss
him when he returns home from work, always see to his comfort and never
complain, don’t let other women in your bedroom, as they will surely
try to seduce him. The bedroom, she declares, is a sacred place for
husband and wife only; if you become so ill you are bedridden, don’t
even allow your friends to visit you. As if on cue, one of the old
aunties sitting in the front row shouts out crude interpretations of
the marital advice, setting all the women cackling.
The significance of the bridal shower is not lost on us: not only is it
an important rite of passage for the young bride rife with sexual
instruction from her “aunties,” it is a rowdy and joyful party for
women only. For these women, this represents one of the few
opportunities to get together for much dancing and singing. “We are
free to enjoy ourselves here, with no worries about our usual household
duties, or the children,” explains one older married woman.
Kibera Primary Academy has turned into a crowded private disco
throbbing with African pop music. And it is the only kind of disco that
most women here — Muslim and non-Muslim — will ever experience. Bars
and pubs throughout Kibera, are the domain of men, as are most public
spaces throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
“The man is the head, the woman is the neck — that’s the advice my
aunties passed on to me before my wedding,” comments another
middle-aged woman at the shower. This mentality prevails still, we’ve
As dusk settles over Kibera, we wish Obiya well in her new life and
take our leave. This all-women celebration has offered us a
fascinating and intimate view of Kenyan and Muslim culture. While it
remains to be seen how much of this footage we’ll end up using in the
documentary, many of the themes we’re dealing with in the documentary
are on display here — women’s low status in society, early marriage,
influence of religion, poverty, and the limited public space that women
occupy in African society — all of which play their part in
predisposing married women to HIV/AIDS.