Ring-fenced by tra­di­tion

Joonji Mdyo­golo didn’t think she val­ued her wed­ding ring that much – un­til she lost it

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Ilost my wed­ding band barely seven months af­ter I got it. Af­ter all that fan­fare and all those scat­tered petals. When we bought it, my in­struc­tion was: “Noth­ing fancy, in case I lose it.” My pri­mary con­cerns were prac­ti­cal­ity and bud­get. I wear no jew­ellery be­cause I’ve never been able to keep it for that long. So I got a slim band with curvy edges in rose gold – to blend in with my skin tone. There was a last-minute splurge when my hus­band-to-be sug­gested I get a small di­a­mond added to it. Then he had some words in­scribed un­der­neath as a sur­prise.

So un­der­stated was the re­sult, though, that, even with the sparkle, my six-year-old niece’s only re­sponse was “It’s so small”, be­fore shift­ing back to the more im­por­tant busi­ness of sketch­ing and colour­ing stick fig­ures on a page. I also let my ring hang loose (which is prob­a­bly why it got lost).

I liked the idea of easy on, easy off, and that I could switch it up from one fin­ger to the next. It wasn’t to be the defin­ing fea­ture of my fin­ger, and there­fore, by ex­ten­sion, not the thing that de­fined me. So I’m sur­prised how sad it’s dis­ap­pear­ance has made me, when the ba­sic rea­son be­hind my choos­ing it was so that I didn’t have to miss it.

I thought I was im­mune to the Wed­ding In­dus­trial Com­plex – be­ing caught up in the crazy vor­tex of rings, flow­ers, dresses and debt that has made wed­dings and the con­cept of mar­riage not only a lu­cra­tive busi­ness, but one of the most stress­ful times in a woman’s life.

I was count­ing my­self above the women who are en­thralled by the size of their rocks, the length of their train and tiers of their cake, who war with their brides­maids – which is why I opted to have none – while the brides­maids gos­sip be­hind their backs in re­tal­i­a­tion.

I saw my­self as un­af­fected by the emo­tional ma­nip­u­la­tion ev­i­dent in many wed­ding web­sites: “Your wed­ding is one of the most im­por­tant days of your life, so you want it to be per­fect.” But ac­tu­ally, I’m no dif­fer­ent than any other woman – in the end I’m be­holden to the mean­ings be­hind ev­ery sym­bol of mar­riage.

It’s the same feel­ing I was left with af­ter my tra­di­tional cer­e­mony. So pared down was the lobola (I call it lobola-lite) and cel­e­bra­tion there­after that it must have of­fended one friend be­cause I got a lec­ture on its unAfricaness.

“Whose African cul­ture?” I wanted to ask, but by then I’d got into enough wed­ding scuf­fles with fe­male friends to take on another one just two months be­fore the big day.

The dic­tates of my girl­friend I could brush off, but not so eas­ily the emo­tions (pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive) that came up with the ac­tual lobola. The idea that an agree­ment was be­ing hatched on my fu­ture with­out my be­ing present was un­set­tling.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, though, it was won­der­ful to ex­pe­ri­ence the power of the rit­ual to meld to­gether fam­i­lies as cul­tur­ally dif­fer­ent as ours. What in my ex­pe­di­ency I saw as a quick nod to the el­ders – a swift tick on the box of tra­di­tion – ac­tu­ally ran much deeper.

What I am, you see, is “fauxm­biva­lent”, as de­scribed by Phoebe Maltz Bovy in her in­sight­ful ar­ti­cle in The At­lantic ti­tled “An Ironic, low-key, un­con­ven­tional wed­ding is still a wed­ding”.

Un­com­fort­able with want­ing the “tra­di­tional trap­pings of mar­riage”, we wa­ter it down, es­pe­cially the pa­tri­ar­chal para­pher­na­lia – the en­gage­ment rings, “so of­ten per­ceived as the ul­ti­mate sym­bol in wed­ding nar­cis­sism”; the lobola; the act of be­ing “given away”; and the vir­ginal, princessy frilly sweet­heart dress.

I hated, for ex­am­ple, calling my­self a fi­ancée be­cause it sounded old­fash­ioned, like I was in wait­ing.

There is a lot of crap to get­ting mar­ried, no doubt, much of which needs to be stopped. But as Bovy points out, “fauxbi­va­lence loses me, how­ever, when it amounts to re­fusal to ac­cept a ba­sic fact about wed­dings, which is that they ac­knowl­edge the uni­ver­sal in the par­tic­u­lar”.

The point she’s mak­ing is that no mat­ter how al­ter­na­tive, fem­i­nist or pro­gres­sive your nup­tials, you have bought into the “pub­lic sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship”, some­thing hu­mans have been do­ing since way be­fore you were born.

And it’s snob­bish and fool­ish to think oth­er­wise. Just as ab­surd as it is to buy a piece of jew­ellery you half ex­pect to lose, and still wear it loose. I am that woman who bought into mar­riage and, in fact, I in­sisted on it. So if you do find my ring, won’t you be so kind as to tell me. It’s gold, with a small di­a­mond bur­rowed deep and a sim­ple in­scrip­tion that reads: “Love, Mar­cus. 29 De­cem­ber 2013.”

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