Wedding Season!

Three weddings in eight days and as I write on a Tuesday evening I can still hear singing, dancing and partying outside, the final stages of another local wedding! Ethiopians really know how to party!

The first of our three weddings was our home help Tewabech, who announced about three months ago that she and her boyfriend Tibebu were getting married. The wedding would take place on the first Sunday after Ethiopian Easter, called “Fasika”. This period is wedding “high season”, which follows the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s 56 days of Lent, during which no animal products are consumed until Easter Sunday. Everyone wants their wedding as soon as possible after this, when they can eat meat again… a lot of meat.

Tewabech comes from the countryside about four hours from here, but she and her boyfriend both now live in Bahir Dar. So managing a wedding which involves two families so far apart needed thinking through. Traditionally, part of the wedding takes place at the bride’s house another part at the groom’s and finally the two families come together. Given that Tewabech spends so much time at our house, it seemed reasonable to offer it as her family’s base, which she happily accepted.

Even though we’ve been to two Ethiopian weddings before, we didn’t know what to expect, as the traditions vary according to the context – rural or town – and means. We had a broad idea of what might happen, but given that our grasp of the Amharic language is not good enough to follow conversations, every day brought surprises. Tewabech had written us an excellent plan for the wedding day itself, but omitted to mention some significant details, such as how many days the wedding would last!

Anyway, over to them for the planning, it was their day. We had been in England until two days before the wedding and arrived back full of nervous apprehension and excitement. The excitement was quickly shattered. Tibebu’s close cousin – who lived in the same compound and was himself due to marry his pregnant girlfriend the week after – had been killed in a car accident that morning. Worse still, another cousin had drowned two weeks earlier, and this new death had occurred on a drive to return some things from that first funeral. We know these things can happen anywhere, but they really seem very raw here.

At that point we didn’t know if the wedding would go ahead, as it fell within the first days of mourning. We didn’t see Tibebu, but Tewabech seemed very down. At best, the more lively elements of the celebration of the rite of passage, like dancing, music and the photograph party, seemed unlikely. In the end, the wedding went ahead, and things gradually relaxed as time went on. As the plans changed and adjusted, we got little briefing, so had more surprises – but that was going to be the case whatever happened.

Saturday was prep, and our unsociable dog Nala escorted off to her alternative “holiday” residence for the duration (thank you Emily). Tewabech’s parents and family arrived from the country to stay with us (bringing a wonderful gift of fresh honeycomb!). Chopping and cooking went on for most of the day – and much of the night. Lurching from sleep at 3 am on the morning of the wedding, we found Tewabech and her bridesmaids in the courtyard, crouched Macbeth-like around huge cauldrons that bubbled over open fires in the courtyard – all night cooking on the night before your wedding! At a rough count, there were 12 additional people including Tewabech staying in the house that night. Yards at both houses were prepared, with tarpaulins or sheets strung up for shade, along with banners and balloons for decoration and the floor strewn with grasses. Despite the sad circumstances, the groom’s family had made their compound welcoming.

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Sunday was the wedding, with make-up, hairdos, dressing and cooking being the major part of the activities at the “bride’s house”, as well as making sure the “tela” – the local home brew – was ready.

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Future husband arrived around midday with his friends in honking minibuses bedecked car. Under normal circumstances, this would have been preceded by much singing, dancing and drinking at his house, but the atmosphere had been muted in deference to the death.

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Arrival at the bride’s brought a change in tempo and it was clearly the job of all guests to dance, sing and be as rowdy as possible. Rings were exchanged and vows made, with blessings by the priest. Food and drink until mid-afternoon when about half the party clambered back into the vehicles. That is a big part of the celebration, to drive in convoy with horns blaring and little apparent thought for safety. It looked like the whole town was out, with so many weddings. At one point, our convoy stopped on one side of the dual carriageway – the main road from Addis to the north, something like the equivalent of the M1 in the UK – and bride, groom and entourage danced around the vehicles for a few minutes. Unfazed, the other traffic simply swapped carriageways, heading into the oncoming traffic. Then, we crossed the Abay River (the Nile), which greeted us with the sight of a pod of hippos from the bridge, and drove down a narrow lane to a park where a small green area had been hired for celebration and photographs.

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Again photographs, a traditional azmari musician and more dancing until dark. The photographs tell much of the story but it’s impossible to capture the atmosphere of the dancing and singing. The music comes just from simple voice (people take turns at leading) which everyone seems to know how to respond to, with the rhythm set by a drum or backing by the stringed masinko.

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The next day, Monday, most guests were invited to the groom’s house for lunch, where the two sets of parents met for the first time during the wedding. There was an exchange of gifts, with Tewabech’s parents bringing two hundredweight sacks of teff, the grain for the famous national staple injera, transported from their house in the country. During lunch, Tibebu mentioned that there would be another party at our house that evening, a little affair of 15 or so, gesturing to a sheep tethered in the corner of his compound, destined to be the main dish for the evening’s banquet – a present from the groom’s family to the bride’s family. The 15 turned out to be nearer 50. The bridal party arrived to much horn blowing preceded by the sheep, which was duly slaughtered on the threshold. I wasn’t expecting that and shot off to avoid witnessing it. Within an hour, it passed from bleat to plate. Again, singing and dancing etc! For those who have seen Ethiopian dancing, you’ll be able to imagine the scenes with “dance-offs”, mostly between same-sex partners. Amazing. One day this should make a “Strictly Special”!

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Finally on Tuesday we were invited to a coffee ceremony at the groom’s house, just close friends of the groom and helpers. Nala the dog was at last allowed to return home.

We just about managed to keep on top of things and had good help from Tewabech, the groom and their friends, especially Asamene – our guard Mulusew’s brother – who took on everything from furniture delivery to yard decoration to video recording.

The wedding drew quite a lot of foreign (ferengi) interest and support too. Other volunteers who know Tewabech (Hannah, Crawford and Katie) made a special trip from the UK to enjoy the celebrations. Also, our previous visitors from the UK who’ve met Tewabech wanted to hear all about the wedding, and it was partly the questions generated by my sharing “the story” and photos with them that made me get on and put this blog together. Finally, thank you Tewabech and Tibebu for letting us tell your story and show your photographs.

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1 Comment

  1. Jose (from rob)

     /  06/05/2015

    Wow Barbara. That was a very narrow escape!!


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