Thursday, February 21, 2013

An Ethiopian Wedding

I’ve been to weddings here before, or so I thought.  Usually if I get invited, I show up in time for dinner, see the bride and groom arrive, do a little dancing, and after about 2 hours, gracefully explain I have a “program”and head home.  This past week (actually, 3 weeks), however, I got to see the whooooole picture; the behind the scenes, all the preparation, the entire wedding day, plus the 5 days of partying before and after.  The family who owns my compound announced about 3 weeks ago that one of the daughters is getting married and that (woohoo) all the festivities would be right here in our compound.  This was, of course, back when I was naïve about Ethiopian Weddings and thought it was just a one day affair.  WRONG.
Making Sewa

About one week after the announcement, the preparations began:  several huge tubs were brought in and washed to begin the ‘Sewa’ (a homemade beer served at literally every Ethiopian function I’ve ever been to) and ‘Mes’ (a really delicious honey wine, also homemade) processes.  Several women spent several days mixing, kneading, and storing buckets of grain slurry and gesho leaf mixtures to put in the sewa barrels.  Following that, clay vases big enough for a person to sit in were brought in and the red pepper-onion tomato paste was created and stored to begin fermenting (for the wedding main course “Taho’lo).  

Up all night cooking
Cooking the Onions...
About three days away from the wedding, friends and relatives started pouring in from all over the country and suddenly every night was a dance party, every morning was a lengthy Bunna (Coffee) ceremony and every afternoon included some sort of preparation.  Being the novel “Ferenji” in the compound, I was expected to join in for every activity and every conversation; if I didn’t, I would get stern comments of “Where have you been?”, “Why are you in your house?”, “Where are you go?”, “TECHAWATI!” (literally means ‘play’, but more meaning come talk and chat with us).  I really don’t mind joining in, talking with the out of town family once in a while, but Ethiopia has a different concept of personal space; explaining that I needed a couple hours to myself every day or that having music blasting that heavy Tigrinya beat loud enough to rattle the windows from 6:00 AM to 3:00 AM every day is overwhelming for me, didn’t translate- they simply assumed I was having as much fun as they were.  Here they are constantly surrounded by people and noise- Ethiopians seem to be able to sleep anywhere and through anything, and are used to being jostled and hustled.  I consider myself fairly adapted to the Ethiopian life and maybe even more patient than the average foreigner traveling around, but I will admit that there were moments when I was well over this wedding before it even started.
Dancing around the Groom's car

The day before the wedding the real preparations began, and all the women in the compound pronounced me “gobez” (clever)and “ambassa” (lion- meaning hard worker) as I sat down and chopped onions with them for 4 hours.  They were even more impressed as I joined in the dancing that evening showing off my Tigrinya beat shoulder-shake (I have been told I am pretty good… just saying.)  And I thought, hey, one more day and this wedding will be over- might as well enjoy myself! (Again, WRONG.)

The Band
That night the music did not turn off at the usual 3 AM, but continued all through the night; I sat in my bed with earplugs that not quite blocked what I now decided was a merciless music beat and felt sorry for myself (it also happened to be the day before my birthday), until the next morning when I discovered that all the women had stayed up all night preparing all the food.  Feeling sleep deprived and quite resentful of the unchanging music selection, I got dressed in my Ethiopian traditional clothes and went down to help.  I spend the next 5 hours being paraded around like a show dog to guests and my compound family gave me small chores like handing out cups or walking around and telling everyone to keep eating and drinking (So Ethiopian, but really..?).  And when I wasn’t doing that, it was like I was the hired Disney character at a birthday party and EVERYONE wanted a photo with the ferenji.  
Me and 3 of my compound brothers

Showing off the wedding clothes bought for the bride
The wedding officially started around 2 PM, and the number of people crammed in to that tent was overwhelming.  The bride waited in the back room of the house, as the groom’s wedding party showed up in their caravan of cars.  The bride’s wedding party welcomed them in by dancing around the car and escorting the groom to the wedding stand, and after some intense dancing, the groom, followed by both wedding parties drumming, singing, and dancing, went in to the house to claim his bride.  When the bride was claimed and everyone was in the tent, there was more dancing and dinner (dinner number 2 that is) was served.  What food does a traditional Ethiopian wedding have?  In the area of Tigray I am in we are known for our “Taho’lo”, which I’m pretty sure I’ve described before, but basically it is a clay pot filled with a spicy red meat sauce, a yogurt/bean paste, and other spices, in which you dip barley flour dough with a stick.  Delicious, but I had also had this about 4 times in the past 2 days, so I was a little taho’loed out.  For the wedding party, there was a huge buffet of several kinds of meat sauces (they bought a cow for this) rice, fried zucchini, fried meat balls, potato chips, beats, cabbage, eggs, fried kale, and so much more…
Claiming the Bride
Following the feast, the priest said a blessing, blessed the rings, and the bride and groom exchanged them.  I was really interesting to see the Ethiopian traditions that were also mixed with so much western culture; the rings, the bride’s dress, the wedding party, and even the cake and champagne were all very western, but the drumming, dancing, and food were very traditional.  After a cake cutting, and a bride and groom dance, the party began and dancing continued.  Even now, 5 days later, people stop me on the street and say “hey!! I saw you dancing at the wedding!”

Proof that I danced..
The Wedding Stand
I went to bed that night thinking, whew- good experience, but glad that’s over.  It also happened to be my birthday that day, but I really didn’t think it would be very tactful to mention it… but I guess I can’t complain about not having a party. The next day, however, the party continued, the drumming continued, the dancing continued, and that brutal Tigrinya beat continued to reverberate through the entire compound.  Around noon, I packed a bag and headed off to a nearby town for a little peace and quiet (and to eat something other than Taho’lo) but the next morning I returned to find that not only was the party still going (and I got my usual stern comments of “where were you??”, “Why did you go?”, “TACHAWATI!”) but today was a whole new party to celebrate the consummation of the marriage (awesome.).  I put on my party face for one more day, did some dancing and made the best of it, though I gave in that night and begged my site mate to let me stay at her place (the next morning I returned to a compound that looked like the aftermath of an intense frat party).

So there it was, 5 days of wedding celebration and today, day 6, the music has finally stopped J Don’t get me wrong, this was a truly fun experience and very few foreigners get to be so involved in the wedding.  I have a whole new appreciation for Ethiopians, their traditions, their sense of community, and most of all their endurance for a party!

The Priest's Blessing 
Even the Injera was fancy and dyed Ethiopian Colors!


The bride and groom in front of the cake and champagne...contraption. 
And the sparklers were lit and the cake was cut...

The Bride and Groom's dance
Champagne Cheers!
More Dancing
And finally it was time for the groom to take his bride away into the night


  1. Wow! I know you described this when I talked to you on the morning of your birthday, but the pictures really show the scope of the whole thing. I hope you're enjoying the relative "peace and quiet" now. Unbelievable that they could manage to party so hard for so long!

    It really is neat that you could experience something so cultural on such close terms (in spite of the lack of sleep!). Awesome!

    1. Oh and that "cake"... wow, just wow...