Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how lucky I am. This weekend, though, the wedding of my counterpart to my favorite health extension worker reminded me how incredibly fortunate I am - to be in Peace Corps, to have amazing friends, and, yes, to be in Ethiopia.
When I found out that Brihan (my counterpart, who is intelligent, motivated, and has a great sense of humor) was going to marry his long-time girlfriend Aster (a self-assured, incredibly bright young woman), I was stoked. Even though I don’t understand most of what they say to each other (Amharic is their primary language of communication), you can tell just by watching them how much love and mutual respect underlies their relationship.
Then, Aster told me I’d be part of the mize, the bridal party. I thought she was joking, at first. She wasn’t. As has become the norm for me, I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but decided to go along with it anyway. (Is this a habit that will help me when I’m back in America, or is it a recipe for disaster?)
I’ve written before about the extensive preparation that goes into a wedding. I joined a bunch of the couple’s female friends and neighbors on Friday, primarily chopping onions and washing out old glass soda bottles that looked like they’d been in circulation since the reign of Haile Selassie (Has anyone in Ethiopia seen a Fanta bottle with a blue label?), which were then filled with a non-alcoholic honey drink called brrz. (Maybe there are vowel sounds in there, but it doesn’t feel like it.) On Satuday, I arrived a little late to help make the wat (that is, the meat stew), but the one Muslim woman who was helping had left by the time they added the salt, so they needed me to taste the Muslim stew to make sure they put enough in.
Then, it was round one of the wedding. People started showing up at noon for lunch. After I ate, I went home to change out of jeans and into a dress, then came back to hang out and help where I could. I spent time with some coworkers who were boiling buna, then was happy to help them drink it. I poured water for people to wash their hands, and cleared and washed some dishes. Mostly, though, I got to hang out with friends and neighbors.
The rain had loomed ominously around Mettu for most of Saturday afternoon, but it waited until the evening to hit. When I showed up at the couple’s house on Sunday morning, it was incredibly muddy. After eating a little breakfast (leftovers from the day before), I went with Aster to the beauty shop. I chatted with the hairdressers while they pinned fake curls onto her pulled-back hair. Aster said I was going to have my hair done to match the other bridesmaids, but the hairdressers decided that it looked fine as it was. I tried not to show my relief.
We went back to the house and got dressed, but we were running late. I quickly donned my bridesmaid dress, which was a modern take on a traditional Ethiopian style. Of course, 30 seconds before we were leaving, one of the very kind women who had been feeding guests as they arrived shoved a plate into my hands and insisted I have some food before the long journey. I had barely begun eating when the bridal party started leaving the house. I licked my fingers, threw on my hiking boots, and ran after them.
Of course, when we got to the nearest main road, the bus that was going to take us to the rural area hadn’t arrived yet, so we stood around waiting for it for a while. I had time to run home, use the bathroom, and wash the rest of the wat off of my hands. While we waited for the bus, we clapped and sang spiritual songs (well, I clapped, anyway, and joined in with the chorus when I could). Protestants in Ethiopia are forbidden from singing and dancing except in praise of God, so while we were with the couple, everyone refrained. On the bus, though, while Aster and Brihan were riding in a separate vehicle, their friends of different religions let loose a bit. We sang some Ethiopian wedding songs and even danced in the aisles.
About 10km outside of Suphee, we caught up to the car Brihan and Aster were riding in, which had pulled over to the side. We all got out, a little confused — was this our destination? I asked Aster. “The road disappeared, but there’s another car waiting for us on the other side,” she said. Disappeared? I thought. I turned around, and, sure enough, there was a huge hole where the road apparently used to be. It was as if Carmen Sandiego had come and just snatched it right out of the ground.
We trekked through about a kilometer of woods, then met a pickup truck on the other side. It took the bridal party, the soda, the mosoob, and the sheep Brihan brought. (The groom brings the bride’s family a white sheep as a sign of respect. Brihan informed me that because it’s wedding season, now that Ethiopian Lent is over, white sheep fetch a premium at the market.) The plan was for the other guests to start walking, and the pickup would return to drive them the rest of the way.
We’d nearly arrived at the turnoff to Aster’s house, after which we’d have to go by foot, when the truck came to a stop. Not one, but both of its back tires blew. We waited around for a bit, but when the remaining guests started arriving, we decided to walk the rest of the way. Some loitering kids were recruited to carry the heavy stuff, and we continued down the muddy road, across a soccer field, and between farms to Aster’s family’s home.
When we arrived, singing songs that thanked God for bringing us together, the first order of business was to kill the sheep so that it could be eaten that day. It was pretty gruesome. One of the groomsmen was splattered with a lot of blood (though as it turns out, he’s a doctor specializing in emergency medicine, so I’m sure he’s used to it). Then we entered the house and greeted Aster’s parents and the other elder friends and relatives. We ate our first lunch of doro wat (chicken), k’ai wat (spicy meat), and alicha wat (mild meat). As I was finishing up my food, a friend from Mettu asked me when I was going to go make the t’ibs from the sheep, because that’s the job of the bridal party. I laughed, and said to her husband, “She’s joking, right?”
“No, it’s our culture!”
I turned to the other bridesmaids. “Really?”
Then Brihan chimed in. “Traditionally, it is the mize’s job to make the t’ibs.”
“Are you all in on this joke?”
They weren’t, and we started talking about whether I could do it if I needed to. T’ibs is really just meat sauteed with onions, hot peppers, oil, butter, and sometimes some rosemary. One of the women vouched for my onion chopping abilities, and we decided I could at least help the other two. We headed back to the kitchen, but the women in Aster’s family assured us that they had it under control. So we hung out for a bit, then returned to our seats.
One of the groomsmen read the marriage certificate aloud, and the couple exchanged rings. Once that was all taken care of, everyone seemed to relax a little bit. We took some pictures, and the bride’s family and friends presented gifts to the couple. The gifts were cash and household items, including an electric stove, a wide assortment of cooking pots, drinking glasses, plates, and various injera holders. One of Aster’s brothers bought them a refrigerator!
Next, it was time for round two of food. This time, though, the food was served on communal platters and the atmosphere was much more relaxed. Everyone was encouraging each other to eat, and feeding each other bites of food by hand (a tradition called gursha; it shows love and respect). I had a little 11-year-old sitting next to me who fed me progressively larger bites until I caught onto her game; everyone at the table was laughing about it as I struggled to swallow the final one.
As we finished the t’ibs, one of Aster’s relatives laid a new piece of injera and scooped some more wat on our plate, and one of the elders gave a blessing. He fed the couple, then her parents, then the friends who were representing Brihan’s family. Each in turn fed the groom and the bride. Then the same thing happened for the mize; the elder fed each of us, then we fed the couple. “It is a way of sharing the blessing,” Brihan explained.
It was about 5:30 by the time we left, carrying gifts (including the refrigerator) and empty soda bottles. This time, we were in a vehicle that took the long way around, through a town called Algee, on a road that still existed. Driving with a group of people in good spirits as the sun and a sliver of the moon both set in the west, I felt a sense of belonging that’s hard to find in a country where you stick out like a sore thumb. I felt like I was a part of something. And I am.
(Pictures to follow, once I figure out how to get them off of Kim’s camera!)