A Sweli time was had by all

Rousing white wedding was a skop with beers and sweet, fizzy dop.

‘Whoop!” exclaimed the umfundisi, beaming mischievously – glinting eyes and shining teeth in a glowing round face.

“Umtshato!” yelled the congregation, also beaming, in response. “Wedding!”

And this was not the first time. The good priest brought it on every time he thought he was losing his audience – which was quite often – and it was very effective.

Many of them, in anticipation of revelries, were already half-cut and finding it hard to follow the plot.

A male Sweli was marrying a female Mantai in a small and unbeautiful church – the Apostolic Faith Mission, Bethel Assembly, in the so-called “location” of an historic Karoo town.

He was doing this because (a) they no doubt love each other; and (b) in order to legitimise their next offspring, due this month, and with any luck, by association, their five-year-old son.

It was, so-to-speak, a white wedding, but not in any of the traditional senses.

There were only six of us at the church on time, including the bride and groom, the said five-year-old, somebody’s uncle (nobody seemed sure whose), the priest and me. We raked up an additional few folk as the Swelis swelled in number and kicked off, a bit late, with a respectable 24 people – about a 10th of capacity – who fair raised the roof with their joyful song, swayed the walls with swinging hips and shook the floor with their stomping feet.

It was magic.

By my standards, it took a long time to get to the “I do” bit, but nobody seemed to mind. The Mantais are Afrikaans-speaking people and the Swelis are Xhosa-speakers, so the umfundisi’s words of wisdom were translated as we went along by a very helpful (and very bulky) woman who had, right at the beginning, told us that she was vyftalig and could translate into English too.

Thank goodness nobody asked her to.

We might still be there now.

Each family had appointed a spokesperson to say a few comforting words.

“We are Swelis,” said another uncle in Xhosa. He later pointed out to me that he was a refuse collector and was hoping for a good Christmas bonus.

“We are looking forward to making one family with the Mantais, we are peaceful people …”

A Mantai aunt – the Mantais being a family of formidable women – gave a suitable response in Afrikaans.

Everybody cheered. At least, those who had understood her did.

The umfundisi, who probably hadn’t, “whooped”, the audience bellowed “umtshato!” and off we went again into rousing song and barrelling dances.

We were led from the sidelines by a fabulously vocal, unrelated woman – known only as “Ma” – in a doek, with a tambourine and very few teeth.

Finally, bilingually, and at great length, with dreadlocked youths in tears, Ma chanting in the background, occasional “whoops” from the priest and ongoing shouts of “yes!” from a couple of drunken uncles at the back, the couple exchanged vows and were released into the world as indoda and vrou.

The cavalcade of hooting cars wove its way through the township and out to a river bank where a braai had been laid on and, more importantly, the beers and sweet, fizzy wine began to flow.

It was an occasion of huge and unadulterated joy.