As anti-government protesters in Haiti’s capital blocked principal roads and clashed with police last year, Stanley Joseph and Daphne Gerard used the city’s winding and potholed backroads to make it to church for their wedding, decked out in all their finery.
The bride had wondered if they should postpone their big day when it became clear a majority of their guests would not make it, due to the violent unrest that had gripped Port-au-Prince for months.
But they had spent a lot of money and time planning.
Joseph, 36, felt they could make it work, although that meant chartering a plane to bring Gerard’s parents up from the country’s south-east.
Such is Haiti, where couples often have to surmount seemingly endless obstacles, from unrest and hurricanes to power outages and, above all, poverty, to get wed.
But wed they do, and in style.
“We always have problems in Haiti. You can’t wait. You just have to get on and overcome them,” said Joseph, who wore a silver suit and lilac tie and boutonniere, matching the bridesmaids’ lilac dresses. “I was stressed but happy.”
Marriage is not as widespread in Haiti as in other Western countries, given the long-standing Creole tradition of ‘plasaj,’ an informal marital relationship that is common in rural areas but not legally recognized.
Yet marriage has greater prestige and is particularly favored by Haiti’s wealthier, cosmopolitan urbanites, according to Haitian sociologist Tamas Jean Pierre – not least because it is recognized abroad.
Protestant churchgoing communities also favor marriage, especially if a couple is expecting a child. Some religious schools will only accept pupils if their parents can provide a marriage certificate.
“Often the reverend himself puts pressure on the couple, saying it is the will of God, which you cannot disobey,” said Haitian ethnologist Isaac Ducléon.
Plasaj does not grant rights such as child support in the event of separation, or a share of a partner’s estate if they die.
“I fell pregnant and, as we are both churchgoers, we decided to get married,” said Johanne Jean, 38, who wed one month after giving birth, nursing her baby throughout the day.
Shindig on a shoestring
Still, in a country where more than half the population lives under the poverty line of $2.41 per day, only the wealthiest of Haitian couples can afford the full shebang of a wedding ceremony, lavish dinner reception, and honeymoon.
Most have to get creative. Sometimes multiple couples get married at the same time to save on church fees.
They might skip the reception or, in the countryside, offer a simple meal of bread, fried plantains, rice and coffee. Sometimes, the whole village might provide food. Disputes can occur when there is not enough for all those who turn up, or when guests try to take home dishes or drinks.
Usually the cake is not big enough for everyone to have a piece so it is put on display during the wedding and consumed later at home by the couple and their nearest and dearest.
The couple may hire a pickup truck or motorbike taxis for the day to ferry people around. Or they may just walk to church, sweating up and down hills in their wedding clothes in the tropical heat.
Despite tight purse strings, the showiness of the ceremony is the one element of the Haitian wedding that never lacks.
“It’s partly about expressing your social status,” said Jean Pierre. “Even the poorest women make an effort to have a beautiful wedding, which for them means a big eye-catching procession that people will talk about for a long time.”
The bridal procession in church can include friends playing the part of a king and queen, while the bridesmaids and groomsmen often dress so similarly to the bride and groom that it can be difficult to define, from outside, who is actually getting wed.
If a couple has relatives abroad willing to be the ‘godparents’ or witnesses, these will typically make a financial contribution to the wedding, including buying and shipping the bride’s dress, usually a bouffant white gown.
Reggae singer Mirla-Samuelle Pierre, 32, said her cousin who lives in New York and was her wedding godmother purchased her dress, shoes, gloves and tall sparkling crown.
“I wanted to be different to everyone else so I got the tallest one there was,” said Pierre, who married her drummer and composer bandmate Duckyns St-Eloi, better known as ‘Zikiki’.
She wed in church, mainly to please her parents. But the theme of the wedding decoration was ‘rastafari,’ reflecting the culture of the dreadlocked groom.
Zikiki, 38, wore a red, black, green and gold scarf over his white suit and surprised his bride as she arrived in church by belting out the jazz song “What a Wonderful World.”
Like all but the wealthiest Haitians, they chose not to spend any money on a grand reception or honeymoon.
“Instead, that same evening we went out to a nightclub,” said Zikiki, “and we had a lot of fun together.”