The day longed for in the distance finally arrives. It embodies every woman’s dream from when they were young and unimaginative about anything but this day. Dolls have had their fair share of wedding role-playing, and as time swings by, the doll owners have themselves, once or twice, been guilty of wrapping themselves in table cloths as proxies for wedding gowns and veils, with much delight.
The morning starts early, very early. Make-up artists flex their creative minds to make the perfect twists in the bride’s hair, fix the imported pearls and bling, and brush-in that flawless shade of mascara to blend with her facial complexion. She has not even started to wear the complicated regalia that makes the bride a bride. In the meantime, it is slightly a little more sleep, and then socks, pants, shirt and jacket for the groom. Add to it the perfect black shoes and cravat, although more expressive colors are entering the scene, you have a gleaming husband-to-be, all ready to look into his bride’s eyes and pronounce a life’s pledge.
It is much less fun for the decorators, photographers, drivers, comics, caterers and wedding committees, yawning in the wake of the wee hours of la-la land to ensure every detail is ship-shape – to the bride’s expectations, seldom the groom’s – and that every temperament is tamed. Every thought, effort and maneuver is hewn to make it a happy day.
It takes commendable labor and perspiration to make this day. For many, months of committee meetings, fundraising and expression of every emotion left in the world will have been invested into making this day materialize. On a Sunday afternoon, a quick walk through the battered blunt edifices left of Malawi’s primary and secondary schools reveals the aroma of sweat, the smiles and the mileage on heels that bring friends and family together to make some critical decisions about customarily two youngsters that are ready to tie the knot. Of course, elsewhere there are numerous other such meetings taking place under more glamorous shades in hotel lounges and pool sides that provoke the anticipation of more glittery nuptial ceremonies. The unifying feeling of this season is one of overwhelming business with a singular aim in sight.
An average Lilongwe City wedding now costs about MK3, 800, 000. In a wedding season that spans 26 weeks (typically half a year) for Saturday weddings and perhaps half (13) that constitute Sunday weddings, the total wedding cost for the ten high-end Lilongwe locations we sampled sums up to a good MK1.48 billion. In other words, among hundreds of thousands of economic activities in Malawi, ten well-off weddings in Lilongwe spend about 0.03% of the country’s GDP (2015 figures) or 1.1% of the government budget (2016-2017 fiscal year) during the wedding season. But the city’s streets are sprawling with honking bridal processions that are en route to numerous other locations, a select few with stopovers at roundabouts for photos to fill the wedding album. However, although their budgets are only a fraction of our sampled weddings, their combined proportion adds up to a significant sum.
If we add to these figures all the weddings – similar in number – for Blantyre, we are spending 0.06% of our GDP just to usher couples into what many sociologists cogitate is the smallest dimension of society. If perhaps we are tempted to think that a quarter, each, of this number comprises the number and corresponding value of weddings taking place in Mzuzu and Zomba cities and add to this the numerous budget weddings that are taking place across the country, it becomes less superficial to think that Malawi is easily spending at least 0.1% of its national income (or 3% of the national budget) on launching the institution of marriage alone.
The Nuptial Economic Effect
On the one hand, the Malawian youth population of 65% is likely to bring us a surge in nuptial activity. On the other, the figures above are astonishing, for an institution that is slowly losing its luster for keeping lovebirds glued to each other. Regardless of the paradox, they consolidate the belief that the family can still be perceived an important role player in shaping the sturdiness of our economy, and should become an economic policy issue worth pondering. Our considerations start on the distribution and commitments of labor in the wedding prep process. Wedding committees, to which many of us are assigned by family or friends, are never salaried. However, in a standard twenty-person committee, the coordination of activities, procurement and service out-sourcing, monitoring and budget management that is put into the preparations is enormous and complex. Ordinarily, everyone is assigned some task taking place over at least a two-month period for which the nominal value is never accounted, neither are their expenses on time, phone calls and transportation.
The second consideration borders on the working class characteristic of contemporary wedding committees. It is no doubt the execution of activities to make weddings happen usually takes place during the working week, during which committee members are also performing other work. The impacts befall hiring organizations in the phone calls, during a 60- to 90-day period, to reach and check on the readiness of service providers and the toner and paper that are needed to present copies of progress to the committees on Sunday. The collective bill on corporations, non-profit and public institutions, combined with occasional absenteeism that comes with committee membership can be colossal. Once factored into the cost of running a wedding, the aggregation of these costs adds some neat figures on the worth of weddings in Malawi, relative to national income and the public budget. It is no wonder that selection of committee members targets ‘those that one is confident in to run affairs,’ and that key positions of Chair, Secretary, Treasurer and Protocol Chair, to mention a few, are seldom accidental.
The third considers the dimension of cash that gets collected as monetary gifts. The rounds of perekani-perekani are clad with a mixture of some honest will to support the settlement of the newly-weds into marriage and elements of showing off one’s bounciness to wave the biggest buck. The consequence is the same – lots of cash to be handed to the couple such that it has become a security concern persuading organizers to rethink announcing the exploits at the end of the ceremony, changing this long-standing tradition. Experience has taught us that, although cash gifting commensurates the affluence associated with a wedding, these gifts range in the region of 40-80% of the wedding budgets and are insensitive to the denominations of the Kwacha being splashed. The smaller denominations are only as agonizing as those tasked to count them fare with the ordeal, but not the final figure.
Policy Perspectives on the Nuptial Effect
The foregoing analysis signals the significance of weddings in Malawi’s national income. It illuminates two main issues as we consider the economics behind the seemingly innocent exchange of vows. This sizeable industry exposes the velocity of money that has to exchange hands along the value chain that produces couples the weddings of their dreams. Every artist that can make themselves relevant to convert these dreams into reality is assured a place and an income to count on, with potential spillovers into non-connubial events beyond the season. This is an industry that has prospects for livelihoods of all manner of entrepreneurs, farmers, blue- and white-collar workers and institutions, and we are convinced that it should be leveraged, as a matter of policy, to provide for decent patterns of service for all wedding stakeholders. An important approach would be to offer the wedding market adequate socio-economic research and test the in rods for it to comfortably settle in the wider formal economy.
But is has also presented significant loopholes that need to be sealed if the economic system is to be efficient. The losses in productivity for particularly wedding committee members are worrying, as half of the year, every year, the ‘nuptial’ deadweight loss occurs, and gets worse as weddings get the fancier. We propose a solution that some only flirt with, but which we think quickly rectifies this economic anomaly. We need to bring event planning to scale, as an outsourced wedding committee product from the market offered by a competitive fringe of registered event-planning companies. As centralized systems of event coordination, these companies will specialize in work and maximize efficiency as they network with contractors, with potential dampening impacts on the total wedding budget. Weddings would likely become smarter, more enjoyable and easier to point fingers at one person when something falls at odds with expectations.
Event planning should be modeled to service a cross-section of budget constraints, while freeing up time of the conventional committee member to more productive investment of their talents. It should not go unmentioned that outsourced wedding committees will free up traditional committee members. But more importantly, they will also allow the closest friends and family to enjoy the ideal experience which normally passes them by as they juggle the complex tasks to deliver a well-organized wedding.