Weddings in Ethiopia are as big of a deal as in the U.S. I attended my first complete wedding — that is, I helped with the food preparation and stayed until the gabi came home (more on that later) — this past weekend. While traditions vary based on religion and region, here’s how it all went down:
In towns like mine, weddings are held in the home — or, rather, in two homes, those of the bride’s family and the groom’s family. Since Kim lives on the bride’s family’s compound, we got to see their side of the story firsthand. The week before the wedding is dedicated to getting the home ready to host dozens of guests.
The men busy themselves with manly things, namely killing animals (or taking them to the butcher) and erecting a tent for the ceremony. Then they return to sitting around while the women work, as men in this country are wont to do.
The women of the house are occupied for hours on end with food preparation, as well as cleaning and decorating. They chop kilos and kilos of onions, peel potatoes, and chop up a cow (or sheep) or two’s worth of meat. They make whatever dishes they like, but meat-filled wats are the centerpiece. The wedding I attended this past weekend also served french fries, veggie balls, baked pasta, and several dishes I couldn’t quite identify.
Preparations take place from early in the morning until late at night, and friends and neighbors come to lend a hand — or some plates, or some benches. Everyone pitches in.
Part 1: Here Comes the Groom
When the food is cooked and the house is decorated, there’s nothing to do but wait. The bride sits in a comfy chair looking miserable, as to look happy is considered an insult to the family she’s leaving. Her bridesmaids and friends sing, dance, and clap around her, as if at a pep rally for one. (N.B., Protestants in Ethiopia aren’t allowed to sing or dance except in praising God, so it’s safe to say all the songs weren’t addressed to the bride so much as to the Big Man Upstairs.) The older women bustle about, making sure everything is ready. The groom is late, but no one seems too worried: after all, we’re in Ethiopia.
All of a sudden, and with a great deal of honking, the groom rolls up with his posse in a few rented buses. His buddies are also clapping and singing, much more raucously than their female counterparts. They parade up to the house and the groom, baring flowers, enters to collect his bride while her parents sit in the aforementioned tent. He hands her the flowers, and they process back outside together. They sit at the front of the tent, with the bride’s family and friends on her side, the groom’s on his.
A quick benediction, then it’s time to eat, beginning with the bride, groom, and immediate families. Everyone else lines up for food as best as people can line up in this country, and grabs a bottle of honey water, or brrz (I swear there aren’t any vowels in that word) on their way to sit down. After everyone’s eaten, the bridal party is clapped out of the compound and back onto the buses.
Part 2: For Richer or Poorer
At this point, in terms of Ethiopian culture, the couple is married. But God hasn’t weighed in yet, so we head to the church. There, we sit through a ceremony just like most Protestant weddings in the U.S.: the couple exchanges vows and rings and lights a unity candle. It felt very familiar, which is strange in its own way.
Then back to the buses. At this point, the groom takes the bride to his family’s abode. In Afaan Oromo, the word for “married” is different for men and women: for men, it literally means “he has taken,” i.e., a bride. Fun, no? Anyway, they party there, I guess. We were with the bride’s family, so we missed that part.
Part 3: About Last Night…
The next evening, the newlyweds return to the bride’s family’s house. To show that there are no hard feelings (I mean, he did take a daughter…), the groom comes baring a sheep and a gabi, which is a traditional shawl. With more clapping and singing, the couple enters, some men slaughter the sheep, and everyone sits down and has dinner while some women butcher the sheep to prepare tibs (i.e., second dinner. They didn’t warn us.) Everyone drinks more brrz.
Finally, guests present gifts to the bride and groom, and, with more clapping and singing, they’re off to their new home.