A young Lusaka couple has just learnt the hard way that it doesn't pay to have a wedding on borrowed money. To protect their identity, I will call them Chali and Sandra.
But barely two weeks after their big day, creditors impounded everything they had, save for their clothes and a few pots and plates. All the expensive appliances Sandra had received as presents during her kitchen party were carted away in a truck while bemused neighbours looked on.
I wasn't there to see this drama unfold but I can imagine that the couple's embarrassment must have been overwhelming. If they'd imagined that they would have been reduced to a shameful public spectacle, they probably would have thought twice about entangling themselves in a web of debt. The finger-pointing has already started. Even as we speak, the two are playing the Blame Game and acrimony, not blissful romance, is dogging their first month together as husband and wife.
But from the reactions I have received so far to last Friday's column, Chali and Sandra's predicament is more common than many people think. In view of these developments, I think we need support groups and call centres to help young people planning on getting married steer clear of the superficialities and the extravagances that inevitably lead them into debt.
Such groups would go a long way in helping people like Alex, 26, whose letter to me reads: "When I read your article, I felt as though you were writing about me. Like the man you wrote about, I plan to marry before the end of the year, but I am still paying the K6.3 million I was charged as bride-price. Besides that, I need to finance my wedding, pay rent, electricity, water, transport and food. I work for a private company and my net salary is K2.8 million. I feel burdened by this tradition called lobola…"
But as a groom-to-be, JC's burden goes beyond lobola and he explains why in the extract from his letter I have reproduced below:
"Given a choice, I would gladly forego a fancy wedding and get married simply with the blessings of our parents.
But my mother has made it very clear that a wedding will give the family an opportunity to have its moment in the sunshine. Recently she said to me: all your sisters have brought me shame by bringing pregnancies home. At least with your wedding, I can redeem myself in the eyes of my friends. My point is, when it comes to weddings, the decision is no longer the decision of the couple. I am not against those who can afford huge weddings with honeymoons in the Bahamas. All I am saying is that has become very difficult for an average young man to get married in Zambia at the moment."
The weight of such pressures and what ought to be done to prevent young couples from falling into the debt trap is the subject of Francis K's letter. He writes: "If we can educate couples as well as parents about the importance of marriage instead of the prestige of the wedding, the unnecessary headaches we give to young men with good intentions of getting married will be a thing of the past. Look at how many young men who plan on marrying are stealing from banks and other employers just to show off their cuffs to their women. Every day you hear of a young man just married or about to be married arrested for fraud or is under investigation for fraud—just to please his bride's family who, more often than not, cannot even write a cheque for K50,000."
Pleasing others other than himself is a road that BM of Kaoma has walked but he draws the line at deficit financing. "I have seen a lot of people who had fancy weddings who are now living in misery and hardship because they got bank loans to finance their weddings. As an accountant, I know this a wasted investment but it has become fashionable for people to chase the wind when they know very well that their resources cannot support this luxury."
To be honest, I've been out of the game for so long that I have no idea what is trendy and how much your standard weddings cost these days.
In a bid to find out what's in vogue and what it all translates into in hard cash, I turned to the kind of expert who is known in the business as a "wedding planner".
Wedding planner? You heard. Truth be told, the whole idea of commercial wedding planning in Zambia is a relatively recent phenomenon. Back in the day, weddings were all DIY—as in Do It Yourself. If a friend or someone in the family who was creative, you gave them the responsibility of handling the decorations and mobilised the children to blow the balloons.
If folks reckoned you had the gift of the gab and could crack the odd joke, they shoved a microphone in your hand and made you Master of Ceremonies for the day.
Times have changed. These days, you leave everything to The Professionals. Like Trixie, the wedding planner I had a chat with earlier this week. She tells me that the cost of decorating the cars for the bridal party, the church, the reception hall and doing the bouquet of flowers could range from K6.5 million to between K12 and K15 million.
The most expensive quotation for floral decorations she has ever seen in Lusaka came to K22 million—and apparently, the wedding planner who put it together has carved a niche for herself catering to the extravagant whims of rich folks in the capital.
And wedding cakes, my investigations revealed, could set you back by K10 million—that is, if you want a 10-tiered mountain of a cake rich in fruit, exotic spices and brandy. And yes, there are brides who are prepared to borrow to pay for such opulence.
Today's urban brides want to be chauffeur driven in the hottest models of cars around. Chryslers, Bentleys and Hummers at a cost of between K1.5 million to K2.5 million per car per day. Some are prepared to pay top dollar to be driven in a horse-drawn carriage—just like in the movies, if one can be found.
Some have no problems settling for a rented wedding dress, but the large majority of brides want to buy their own, preferring to order them from the UK or the US. One bride, I heard, had her heart set on a wedding dress designed by Amanda Wakeley worth 3,000 British pounds. Amanda Wakeley, in case you just got off the boat, is an A-list designer for actresses Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez who, interestingly starred in a 2001 Hollywood romantic comedy with Mathew McConaughey entitled The Wedding Planner! In short, for a country this poor, the standards, not to mention the taste for the finer things in life, are very high.
I asked Trixie what some of the most outrageous demands she has come across in her line of work. Some want a line-up of between 15 and 20 people, with each person kitted out in two sets of attires and shoes—one for the wedding proper and another for the reception.
And then of course, there is a young woman getting married this December who wants 400 guests at her wedding because her father is a high-profile man. Says Trixie: "I told her the number was too large and that at most, she could have 250 guests, but her mind is made up, and under those circumstances, there is very little you can do. At the end of the day, it is her day, not her father's. It should be about her and her happiness. Those she should have around her are close friends, people who matter to her"
In Trixie's experience, mothers put the greatest pressure on brides-to-be, forcing their daughters to set their sights higher than is realistic.
"In view of all these challenges, I think we need women role models who will be able to speak to these young brides-to-be and instill in them a certain culture where they use more of their senses than what they see around them.
I may be in business, yes, but I feel very bad because you can tell many of these brides are literally drowning in debt just to impress parents, friends and workmates. As a Christian, I feel I have to be honest with them because I want a good family life for them after the wedding," she said.
Trixie shared some tips about how young couples planning on getting married could reduce the cost of their weddings considerably . "Venues gobble up the bulk of wedding budgets. Some of the premier venues in Lusaka cost between K30 and K40 million just for the reception. However, couples could hire a spacious, cosy garden in someone's home. A marquee could cost them up to K2 million. With lighting, that could come up to about K3 million.
Lawning could cost between K1.5 million and K2 million. If the number of guests are reasonable, you could spend about K4 million on food. All in all, the venue and the food could add to less than K10 million. So if you were planning on spending K40 million of money you don't have on a venue, you could save about K30 million and still host a modest and successful wedding," she said.
But where did this phenomenon of wedding planning spring from? To find some answers, I turned to an American sociologist called Kirstin Blakeley who has done considerable work in the area. The outcome of her most recent inquiry into the phenomenon was published May 2008 edition of the Journal of Family Issues under the title "Co-opting Feminism for Profit: Wedding Planners and the Commodity Frontier".
Blakely, who teaches at the Loyola University in Chicago, says wedding planners reflect the "growing supply of commodified domestic services designed to meet the competing demands of work, home and intimate life." She adds that wedding planners market themselves as "the solution for modern, career women who, because of excessive demands and the long hours of the work day, are too busy to cope with endlessdetails of planning and organising a wedding, without compromising the institutionalised feminist ideals of career, success, independence and equality in the division of domestic labour".
Her conclusionsare based on intensive interviews with six wedding planners and an assessment of 280 wedding planning businesses.
How relevant are Blakely's assessment to the Zambian situation? I don't know. But perhaps it should motivate local sociologists to find out why, in spite of growing levels of poverty, the shrinking of the job market and the uncertainty of the future, young couples would gladly borrow heavily for the dubious distinction of holding what they hope will be the wedding that surpasses all others in style and opulence.
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