September 11 and 12: Lisa and I were invited to a wedding in Libreville. The groom, Hervé, had been working for Smithsonian at the Rabi Forest Monitoring Plot on the botany team, and would be leaving soon to pursue a Ph.D. at a university in the USA. Cheryl and Hervé planned to marry on Friday afternoon in a traditional Gabonese wedding at the bride’s family residence in Owendo, a port town south of Libreville along the Estuaire du Komo. On Saturday, the civil wedding would take place at Hotel Ville de Libreville, followed by a church wedding in Libreville at Notre Dame des Apôtres. The church wedding would include the baptism of a new family member. Later in the evening, a soirée and dance would take place at Arche de l’Alliance.
Day 1. A traditional wedding is very theatrical, with lots of waiting, as the bride and her family arrange to receive the groom and his family. We arrived at the carrefour in Owendo at 11am, and waited for an hour to gain permission to arrive outside the bride’s family home, where we waited for another hour for permission to enter through the gates and into the garden surrounding the home. Once seated in the garden, the uncles representing bride and groom began a formal but lively conversation on center stage, to determine the value and extent of the dowry needed to promote the wedding.
The bride arrived partway through the negotiations between bride’s and groom’s uncles, taking a seat on her ceremonial stool facing center stage. She sat quietly among her family until both sides came to agreement on a suitable dowry, not only for the couple, but for related villages and families. It took several hours to accumulate the food and drink, cooking utensils, fabrics, hand tools, and money.
Once the dowry has been accepted, the groom’s family celebrates. The groom is finally allowed to enter into the ceremony, escorted in a lively, dancing procession. The groom eventually takes a seat with the bride’s family and the bride sits with the groom’s family. More celebrating follows, and picture taking, and later everyone sits to share a delicious meal.
Day 2. Following the civil ceremony at Hotel Ville de Libreville, the bridal party assembles on the steps of Notre Dame des Apôtres.
The groom’s mother and aunt take a seat in the front row of the church and wait patiently for the baptism and wedding to begin. The choir is practicing, filling the church with beautiful music. Children are playing outside in the neighborhood, their laughter drifting in through church doors. The bride and groom, newly married in the civil ceremony two hours earlier, now wait in the air-conditioned comfort of their chauffered vehicle until everyone has arrived. I, on the other hand, have been wandering through the church and garden, looking for moments to capture, watching who is arriving, investigating the balcony, appreciating the choir practice, listening to children’s games…
An hour or so after our arrival, servers and priests appear at the church entrance, and the wedding party lines up for a procession down the center aisle to be seated at the front of the church. A baptism, a church wedding, holy communion, another procession to present gifts to the church, and now the third wedding in two days is complete. The wedding procession returns to the steps of the church for pictures and refreshments.
Thinking we had several hours to relax and perhaps take a nap, we were intending to take a taxi to our hotel, but were encouraged to accompany the groom’s mother, by chartered bus filled with joyous singing and clapping, to her home for more celebrating and eating.
Later that evening, the soirée at Arche de l’Alliance, scheduled to begin at 7pm, began filling with guests around 9pm, with dinner served no later than 10:45pm. Cake (complete with mini-fireworks) and champagne followed, with partying and dancing into the early hours of Sunday.