Sunday, 15 January 2012

Severin and Conforte

Rice. Hot, spicy rice. My guess: cooked in water with a generous amount of red palm oil, Maggi cubes, and ground red pepper. A carefully measured portion of salty deep-fried fish laid on top. Lavender-blue plastic plate. No fork, knife or spoon. Well, there are two spoons in the house, but that is not quite enough to go round. The house is this one room, 3 by 4 metres. Spotless but completely bare. The colour scheme is African earth red. The walls have been smoothed to a beautiful finish by the bridegroom. Broken only by a little ledge on which lies the Bible. Light comes in through the door, framed by a flowery linen curtain. Furniture has been brought in piece by piece as the guests of honour arrive. A kitchen chair, a stool, a simple bench, one after the other. We number about 15. Outside the village waits and watches. Drummer boy leads a procession of more guests to the house.

We talk. Or rather, everyone else talks. In loud, animated Adja. What are you talking about, I ask in my best French, at a certain point, when the laughter peaks. About Guillaume’s forthcoming marriage? The room explodes. Amazingly, I have understood perfectly. It’s kind of a running joke. Guillaume is one of my favourite elders. Not quite as blind as elder Moïse, but getting closer all the time, as his progressive eye sickness inexorably moves towards its goal. (By the way, yesterday before church council, blind Moïse wanted to try riding my bike. So he did. First time he drove into the bushes. Second time he hit the church. But he had as much fun as we did.)

No, today is not Guillaume’s marriage. Today Severin and Conforte were married. Guillaume is celibatair. His fellow elders are constantly threatening to marry him off to the first desperate village girl to be found. They have just told him that at the next culte ensemble, when the elders are introduced at the beginning of the service, Moïse is going to announce that Guillaume is looking for a wife, and that after the service applications will be received.

But today is Severin and Conforte’s day. Last Thursday evening I had visitors. ‘There’s a petit mariage in Ayomi next Sunday’ I heard. ‘And we are here to ask you to conduct the service.’ Gulp. You mean me? ‘Yes, monsieur Pasteur.’ At this point I am thankful that 8 weeks in Africa have already greatly enhanced my negotiating skills. The upshot is, once the negotiations are over, that someone else will lead the service and hold the sermon, and that I will perform the actual wedding ceremony. I remember having seen, in Gerrit’s files, a version in French of the marriage form we use in Holland. I expect, with some adaptations, to be able to work with that: to offer some wise counsel, to take the marriage vows, to pray for God’s blessing, and to pronounce His blessing.

Okay. But what is a petit mariage? you ask, as I did. That is the kind of marriage which has to suffice in cases such as this one. Severin and Conforte do not have the means to hold a traditional marriage, with days of feasting, registry at the courthouse, exchange of bride price and all sorts of other expenses. Severin is a simple tailor, widowed several years ago when his wife and baby died in childbirth, if I have been well informed. Conforte is a young single mother with little education and few prospects; I discovered today that she had been working in Nigeria some years ago, fell pregnant and was promptly abandoned by the father. Having returned to Benin, she knows she is hugely blessed to have found a husband in Severin.

And as I see them before me right now, I know that is true. They are obviously very much in love, poor as they are.

The bride rode with us to the church this morning from Dogbo. The service was to begin at 9.00, but we arrived at approximately 9.30. Not by design, but because for the first time in Africa, this morning of all mornings, we woke up to a flat tire on the HiLux. That, was fun. Really! I knew where to find the jack, more or less. While trying to work out where to place it, I was joined by the first person from neighbourhood. And you know how seagulls somehow sense that someone has left a lunch bag open somewhere and appear in great numbers from nowhere in no time? Well, it was a bit like that. I had lots and lots of help changing my tire. The spare turned out to be not quite inflated, but that was solved as well, and we got to Ayomi by 9.30. Which was in plenty of time, because as we drove up, the groom walked off. Something had been forgotten, something had to be arranged, I didn’t exactly discover what.

The service eventually began at about 10.45. It was brilliant. Song and dance and prayer and preaching, as exuberant as usual, but even more so. The predicateur, Bertin, had a really good sermon, based on Mark 10.6-9, about the institution of marriage, the relationship between husband and wife in marriage, and the indissolubility of marriage. There and then I decided to leave out the first part of the Marriage Form. No need for it. And that saved time as well. Which was a good thing, because we didn’t get out of church until quarter to 2. With no complaints from anyone, man, woman or child, all of whom were there in great number. I remember thinking: this is Reformed worship! Joyful and humble at the same time. Not only SAYING that the service is everyone’s worship, but actually making sure that everyone – man, woman AND child – has such an active role that there is no fidgeting or scribbling or sleeping or counting of lightbulbs.

Severin and Conforte were married well. And here we are, eating rice in their house. With our fingers. An unexpected surprise. We had counted on going home after the service, but no, the leading elder informed us that now we were going into the village for the blessing of Severin’s house.

I’m not sure of the liturgy for such an event, but I was happy to go along. What a wonderful practice! And as it turns out, not a great deal was expected of me. We read Psalm 128, and I pronounced the last verses of the psalm as a blessing.

And then it was time for drinks. The master of ceremonies came in with a crate of twelve bottles of Coca-Cola. He quietly said that the groom had not had enough money to buy more, and if we could please share, two person to a bottle.

Severin and Conforte proudly watched their guests drink. They took nothing themselves. Marijke asked: what about you? And they shook their heads. So we found two cups and poured Coca-Cola for them as well. We talked to them about wedding customs in our country and in others. I remembered having seen, somewhere, a bridal couple offering each other something to drink. So we showed them how to do it. The reaction was overwhelming: everyone in the room started laughing and clapping, the family came crowding in to watch Severin and Conforte share their drink, and we were thanked again and again…

Around 4 in the afternoon we returned to the HiLux. At the head of a joyful procession.

It was a good wedding. There was not enough to drink. We did talk about how turning water into wine would have been great. But we agreed that shared Coca-Cola is fine too.


  1. What a special, joyful experience!
    And we're very proud that you were able to perform the wedding ceremony in French already!

    We love you!!
    xoxoxoxo Ghislain and Hannah

  2. Mooi Papa.


  3. Argh - you're making me tear up again. What a beautiful way to make not enough money for enough to drink into a happy and fun occasion. I will pray for the couple too - God is good!

  4. Ach, nice, Joe! That's a heartwarming story! Coba

  5. A beautiful story,Its awesum news to know that You have settled in nicely and getting to know the locals,may God be praised for the work done there...All the best

  6. tears here too!
    Love you guys!

  7. Mooi verhaal!! Prachtige ervaring!!