Melkam Gabicha

Melkam Gabicha – Happy Wedding
Why write about another wedding? It’s not quite “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”, but there are certainly common themes, indeed many of them can be seen in the Western wedding. However, Tewabech’s wedding, the subject of our last blog, was a city wedding. Our second of “the season” was very much a country celebration.

Our hosts were the family we stayed with near Debre Markos a year ago (see Mulusew’s story Tariku, the youngest of the 10 siblings, had surprised them by announcing his plan to marry. It is Tariku who will eventually take over the family farm; his bride comes from a house away across the fields. According to his brothers – Mulusew, our guard, and his older brother Asamene – Tariku was a star pupil at school, but decided against further education in order to continue his life in this familiar environment.

We arrived at around 10.00 a.m. after a four-hour drive and, after a tramp across the fields, were of course immediately offered food and drink, home-made ale “tela”, locally grown vegetable dishes, freshly barbecued meat, and the essential injera. We watched a steady stream of neighbours and family file in carrying every sort of container (baskets, sacks, the traditional clay pots, etc.), all with something for the wedding feast. Groups of women with long sticks stirred great vats and cauldrons on open fires outside the house. An ox had been slaughtered, and it was the job of the men, wielding their long knives, to reduce it to its constituent parts.

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The previous evening, the family had built a large overflow reception area a little way from the house. With a frame of newly sawn eucalyptus and eucalyptus branches spread around the roof and walls, it smelt beautiful. The floor was strewn with grasses and more eucalyptus trunks on the ground provided makeshift benches. We learned that family and neighbours had danced here into the small hours the night before, the start of three days and nights of Baccanalian celebration, well lubricated from apparently bottomless barrels of tela.

The most remarkable aspect of the wedding was the singing and dancing. Anybody who has spent time in Ethiopia will be aware of the enormous role of song and dance in this culture. Ethiopian TV consists largely of news and documentary programmes, interspersed with long sequences of dancing and singing from different parts of the country. Every region has its own traditions, which you can sample by spending an evening at a “cultural” restaurant or club here in town.

At this wedding, however, the roots of this tradition were very apparent. With nothing but the individual human voice and a single drum to beat out the rhythm, the dancers generate an energy and a sense of enjoyment that are palpable. A single singer would take up what we were told was a traditional wedding song, the drum would pick up the beat, and suddenly the mass of people crammed into the house’s main room would be moving as one. Then, the mass would move apart to create a space in the centre, the rhythm of the song and drum would become more frenetic, and a pair of dancers – usually of the same sex – would engage in what can only be described as a frenzied, pulsating competitive dance-off, ending only when the singers and drummer changed the rhythm to revert to the slower and gentler pace of the beginning. Then the process would begin again, with new pairs of dancers. It was a uniquely Ethiopian atmosphere, yet at the same time a reminder that, distinctive as it is, Ethiopia is a part of Africa.

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Outside the house, in the meantime, the groom and his best man Mulusew had brought the cows in from the field, and were preparing for the main event. Those not involved in food preparation, or singing and dancing in the house, were relaxing in the reception shelter knocking back tela from metal and plastic drinking cups.

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Then, at some hidden signal, groups began to move to the house, blowing hunting horns to announce their arrival. This was the cue for the groom and his entourage to go to the bride’s home. Although we were told it was “just over there” (for people perfectly accustomed to walking 20 km to market, most places are “just over there”), it turned out to be across a (not totally) dry river bed, then a good hike across the plateau, carved with deep crevice like ditches. Not ideal for somebody wearing totally unsuitable party sandals.

The walk was punctuated with bouts of horn blowing – a reference to the old tradition of announcing to the bride’s family that the groom was coming to fetch her – and occasional halts for more singing and dancing. Adding to the impressiveness of our group were the three horses, richly decorated with scarlet bridles and saddles, which were ridden round and round the party as we made our way across the fields. A quarter of a mile from the house, emissaries were sent ahead to announce our arrival. Once given the signal, our party moved forward, sticks held high to show we meant business. This raiding theme continued on arrival at the house as a mock battle took place at the door, with attackers overcoming defenders and the bride escorted out on the arm of the groom.

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Here too, a temporary shelter of eucalyptus had been erected next to the house, where we sat down to begin another session of tela and injera. Events were further complicated by the fact that not just one, but two weddings were being held here, Tariku’s and that of his wife’s uncle, who had not yet arrived but would be driving in with his new bride following a city wedding. Time in Ethiopia is, as you may have gathered, a somewhat elastic concept, and it was a long wait… When the second wedding party arrived, this time in honking cars and buses, there ensued a bout of good-natured, competitive singing and dancing between the two groups, before the new couple took their seats. It was a fascinating juxtaposition of immemorial and modern Ethiopia: one bridal party in simple clothes and modest accoutrements, the second in full city regalia, matching bridesmaids, white wedding dress, elaborate hairdos…

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By the time we had eaten again and it was time for Tariku to escort his bride to her new home, it was dark, but this did nothing to cramp the style of our companions, who stopped along the way for more dancing, singing and horn blowing, while the two of us picked our way gingerly across the fields and ravines by the light of a mobile phone torch. Back at the groom’s house, another night of eating, drinking, singing and dancing was about to begin. By then it was time for us to hitch a lift to the local town, Debre Markos and a comfortable hotel bed. No stamina…

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What made this wedding stand out was the sense of an entire community coming together to celebrate a rite of passage. Of course, a wedding is by definition such a rite, but few convey such a sense of sharing and mutual effort and improvisation. There was nothing here brought in from outside (apart from ourselves and our cameras) – clothes were mostly everyday wear, whilst the food, drink and entertainment were all homegrown, the contributions of people bringing what they had or could make, or simply their enthusiasm for celebration..

A final note, it was fascinating to see how the customs of city weddings – despite the introduction of certain Western customs, notably the “meringue” wedding dress – have been derived from country customs. The rural horse and hunting horns have been exchanged for cars and klaxons. Both types of wedding require two venues, the bride’s house and the groom’s, so that the age-old symbolism of the transfer of the girl’s allegiance can be enacted, even in the less clear-cut context of urban life.
Thanks to Mulusew and family for inviting us to the celebrations and letting us tell the story.

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  1. Jose (from rob)

     /  29/05/2015

    And thank you both for the marvelous story and pictures!
    We just saw the movie DIFRET in the cinema. It’s about abduction and rape of young girls in the rurals of Ethiopia in the nineties of the past century. Quite a difference. Traditions can change, however…

  2. Hi Glad you liked the blog, you are great”followers”! About Difret, saw the trailers when it came out last year, but hadn’t heard of anyone actually finding it in the cinema. In Holland? Let us know when you’ll be in the UK, be good to see you.

  3. Amazing wedding experience. You are very privileged. It is such a good report too! When we saw the horsemen with their decorated horses trotting along the roads in Ethiopia will they necessarily have been going to a wedding, or maybe they might have been going to some other sort of function?

  4. Lou

     /  06/01/2016

    betam amesegnalew. Very informative ,even for an Ethiopian like me.😀


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