Gladwell Jeruto exchanged ornamental gifts with her fiance while in the presence of her parents and other close relatives all of whom were donning masks that had muffled their congratulatory messages.
Jeruto’s traditional dowry ceremony known as “koito” in her native language took place in a remote village in Kenya’s North Rift region in August with strict engagement restrictions to avoid fanning the spread of COVID-19.
“I knew conducting the ceremony during the pandemic would be a challenge because our elders who are chiefly tasked with dowry negotiations are said to be the most susceptible to contracting COVID-19 but we could not continue postponing,” Jeruto said.
The pomp, color and dance synonymous with Kenyan social events such as weddings, dowry negotiations and birthdays have shrunk to modest celebrations, taking a shorter time and with just a handful of people due to COVID-19.
As the local communities attempt to reclaim their social lives, the changes are viewed as just but a minor bump on the road.
“When we finally decided to proceed with the ceremony because we had postponed it for a while, we had to revise a few things, first we drastically reduced the number of guests, secondly we brought in more tents to facilitate social distancing,” said Jeruto.
“The number of negotiators was seemingly depressed and I observed that they had maintained a social distance, made negotiations brief and were careful, particularly when they made skin to skin contact while exchanging gifts,” her fiance remarked.
The koito ceremony is a requisite observance for couples who want to wed in the Kalenjin community domiciled in the expansive Kenya’s Rift Valley region.
It includes a series of events including closed-door negotiations among elders alone, exchanging gifts between the two families, partaking of a traditional drink and finally culminates with a cake cutting ceremony.
During the onset of COVID-19, Kenya’s ministry of health suspended public gatherings and ruled that only immediate family members would be allowed to attend weddings and funerals.
A presidential directive that was issued in August revised the numbers upwards allowing more people to attend funerals and churches.
“In accordance with the recommendations of the interfaith council, the maximum number of persons permitted to attend funerals and weddings is reviewed upwards from 15 to 100 with all in attendance abiding by the ministry of health protocols,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said during a televised address to the nation.
Albeit forfeiting photos with all their friends and dancing a lot less than they would have liked, the couple’s dream of holding a beautiful conventional wedding remains alive, not to be thwarted by the pandemic.
Joyline Lukulu, a photographer whose source of income was hit by the economic downturn occasioned by COVID-19 said that things are steadily picking up as we approach the peak season of weddings in Kenya.
“I am getting more wedding and baby shower calls in contrast to five months ago. For me, the most visible change is the masks and the skeleton attendance,” Lukulu said.
Lukulu said that the police presence in these events has ensured that individuals adhered to the ministry of health protocols on public gatherings.
Robert Kilova Kiwia who recently attended a burial in eastern Kenya said the task of managing crowds in the rural area is more demanding.
“After the deceased was interred, people had to be literally chased away as they did not want to disperse because ideally what would have followed was the serving of food,” said Kiwia.
The provision of food during burials was suspended in line with ministry of health guidelines
“Denying village residents food during a burial ceremony is unheard of hence the apathy towards the government instituted protocols,” said Kiwia.
He said that traditional practices could fuel the spread of COVID-19 if they went on unchecked. “Business may pick up in December… However, this is a wait and see scenario,” said Richard Mwangi, a Nairobi based event’s organizer.