One of the advantages of having visited Mekelle previously (this is my 5th and Helen’s 3rd trip in 18 months) is that we already have some social networks in place. We have known Dr. Angesom Kebede (one of the Mekelle obstetrician-gynecologists) since our first visit and he has even been to see us in St. Louis. He is one of eight children and when he told us that his youngest sister, Senait, was getting married today and invited us to the wedding, we jumped at the opportunity to attend.
It is currently “the wedding season.” After the advent of Lent, the wedding business almost dries up completely. Most weddings here seem to take place in hotels, largely, I think, because the wedding ceremony itself is almost overwhelmed by the accompanying feasting and celebratory dancing—which goes on for hours (actually, it goes on for a couple of days in most cases).
This wedding was held at the Milano Hotel in Mekelle.
Angesom told us it would start at noon, so, being typical Westerners, we showed up about 11:45. There were only a handful of guests present. We slipped into the meeting hall, a large room that seats about 300 people, freshly painted pink and heavily decorated.
The room is organized along a central aisle which runs through four arches, with tables set on either side.
The aisle leads through the meeting hall to a raised dais at the far end of the room, upon which is placed a large elegant white couch with a small low table in front, and four chairs lined up against the sides on either edge for the bridesmaids and groomsmen. The “official” wedding photo is propped up in front of the table.
The aisle itself is strewn with sweet grass—a traditional Ethiopian custom—which adds to the charm. There are mountains of this grass for sale in Ethiopian markets, as it is used in coffee ceremonies, weddings, etc. It is a “must have” component for any important social event.
We sneaked into the back of the hall and sat down at a table to take it all in. I was pretty sure that this wouldn’t last very long. Because we were the only non-Ethiopians present, we were soon escorted up to the very front so we could have a clear view of all of the proceedings. This was great, but with one drawback: amplifiers.
No wedding is complete without a band, and no band is complete without the biggest, meanest, hardest-hitting amplifiers that they can afford. We were 15 feet away from this baby, and it definitely made its presence known.
The tables were all set with glasses, napkins, and bottles of talla in old Ambo water bottles.
Talla is a traditional Ethiopian beer which is brewed at home. It is part of the traditional wedding feast, but to me it looks suspicious. (I have had this before and it actually isn’t bad, but every time I see it it still looks suspicious to me and my gastrointestinal tract whispered softly to me “Do you really want to drink this?” As it turned out, I didn’t see anybody at any table during the wedding take the little paper cap off the talla bottle, pour themselves a glass, and drink up. Everybody was enjoying ice-cold brewery-bottled St. George beer. Saint George is the slayer of dragons and slaker of thirst. He gets more theological credit for the former, and more popular acclaim for the latter).
The hall filled gradually with guests. The band started playing: a saxophone player, a keyboardist, an electric guitar, and an electrified version of a traditional Ethiopian stringed instrument whose name I do not know. The band was good. They played for about an hour to warm up the crowd.
Without too much warning (certainly nothing like the organ striking up “Here Comes the Bride” in a wedding service back home) the bride and groom appeared.
Senait and her husband-to-be Goitom, walked down the aisle preceded by a crew of videographers with bright portable klieg lights filming the proceedings and two young girls (we would call them Flower Girls at home, but they were carrying the rings, not flowers).
Behind them were four bridesmaids in blue and four groomsmen in matching suits. As the bride and groom mounted the dais to sit on the sofa, the bridesmaids and groomsmen danced like mad behind them while the crowd clapped and cheered and the band belted out its dance music.
Dancing at a wedding in Tigray is communal and structured. The dancers move in a line which turns into a circle (or sometimes a series of concentric dancing circles) moving counter-clockwise. In Tigray, most of the dancing is actually done with the head, neck and shoulders, rather than the nether regions. Dancers move in the circle with series of small shuffling steps with the feet and knees, often partially crouched, while most of their attention is focused on subtle rolling movements of the shoulders and upper body. (Shake your shoulders, not your booty!). The dancers do not touch each other (except for the inevitable crush of the crowd if you get 50 people dancing in tight quarters). It is rather attractive and quite different from what Americans are used to. Still photos don’t do justice to the body movements involved. I’ve already started working on my rhythmic shoulder rotations.
Senait looked gorgeous. She was wearing a brilliant white wedding dress with an enormous hooped skirt that actually made it a little bit difficult to maneuver around the dais.
Once they were seated, the bridesmaids and groomsmen mounted the stage, the brides sitting on the left with the bride, the men sitting on the right with the groom.
The ceremony was surprisingly short. An Ethiopian Orthodox priest officiated. The ceremony was in the local language so I can’t tell you anything of what was said.
It began with the presentation of the rings, which were then blessed by the priest.
After the rings were formally blessed, first the groom and then the bride took a ring and held it aloft for the crowd—amid much clapping, ululation, and cheering.
Then the groom put the ring on the bride, after which the bride took a ring, held it up for the crowd, and then put it on the groom.
Marriage complete. Much wedding still to come!
The bride and groom then exited the dais, preceded by the flower girls and left the meeting hall. Out in the lobby, a huge buffet had been prepared. The members of the wedding party loaded up their plates and then the bride and groom, preceded by the flower girls, marched back up the aisle to their table and were seated, after which the assembled crowd was escorted out to the lobby to fill their plates and return to their tables.
The buffet was sumptuous and substantial.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the buffet was a roasted goat, complete, mounted upright (head, legs and all) from which a chef was carving tidbits for the wedding guests.
At American wedding receptions one of the traditional events is the cutting of the wedding cake, after which the bride and groom feed each other a slice. Here there was no wedding cake, but there truly was a feast. The staple food in the Ethiopian diet is a soft, flat, slightly sour, spongy pancake called injera, onto which is piled any variety of meats, sauces and accompanying foods. Injera is normally eaten by hand, a piece is torn off of the pancake, used to scoop up a portion of whatever sauce is desired, folded, and then popped into one’s mouth. The symbolism of groom feeding the bride (and vice-versa) is obvious: it is a commitment to nurture and support one another and injera is a much more powerful symbol of that commitment that a piece of wedding cake.
The feasting completed, the dancing began again. First the flower girls, bridesmaids, and groomsmen for a long set by themselves, followed by whoever from the guests wished to participate.
Helen and I left the wedding after four hours. Angesom told us it would go on for another three or four hours, before starting again in the morning.
Long life, health and happiness to Senait and Goitom!