A Big Fat Ethiopian Wedding
By Samrawit Tamyalew
It’s January in Ethiopia and you know what that means – wedding season! Unlike the US, where wedding season is in the summer, in Ethiopia, it is at the beginning of the year to precede fasting season. Many Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia partake in a two month fast prior to Easter, which usually starts in February. They are vegan for those two months, which means they cannot eat meat–a large part of celebratory feasts. I was fortunate enough to attend a wedding within two days of landing.
Because of the communal culture, I went to the wedding of my father’s best friend’s niece who I have never met, and it was amazing.
I have attended Ethiopian weddings in the U.S., but they were the same as American weddings except with different music, (hundreds) more guests, and a much longer ceremony. I had the opportunity to learn so much about our culture from this six-hour event.
First, no one is on time, especially the wedding party. We showed up thirty minutes late, and we were early. When we entered the reception venue, it was arranged in an L-shaped configuration with a large green area. The seating arrangement was divided into two areas – the groom’s family took one leg of the L while the bride’s family took the other. At the corner was the dance floor and DJ. It was open seating and each table was equipped with Ambo (sparkling water), beer, and tej (local honey mead). Most female guests were wearing traditional Habesha kemmis (dresses) with their hair worn in the traditional kunano – cornrows that alternate in thickness between fat and skinny braids, top halfway on the crown, and are followed by big curls. Meanwhile, most men were in their Sunday best. I noticed the bride’s family side was filled, while the groom’s side was empty. My cousin explained when the groom’s family arrives, it signifies the wedding party will follow shortly. And so, they came (two hours late) and it was a party from the start.
In the States, the bride, groom, and their wedding party ride together in one vehicle. In Ethiopia, I learned the bride and groom ride in one vehicle while the wedding party takes a separate vehicle(s). When they arrived, the wedding party started singing and dancing around the couple’s car and it continued as the group entered the reception.
My cousins wore matching Habesha kemmis. I learned it was custom for women who are close to the bride, but are not bridesmaids, to wear the same dress to show their close relationship to her. They took so many photos together and I realized selfies and “doing it for the ‘gram is universal.” Once their photo session was complete, we got food. I saw the usual suspects such as kitfo, tibs, gomen, but then I saw a freshly slaughtered cow hanging with its meat served fresh – tire sega. As I looked at the meat considering taking a slice, the warnings about foreigners needing a few months to adjust to uncooked food echoed in my head, so I passed and promised myself I’ll try some around Easter.
After eating, the dancing begun. I saw different ethnic dance styles from the regions in Ethiopia. The energetic Gurage dancing, the Tigrayan eskista, and an Amharic wedding dance that likens to punching the air. The DJ even played “The Twist” but people Ethiopian-ized with a little eskista mixed with twisting.
I had the opportunity to improve my eskista skills and learn how Ethiopians here do weddings in such a big way. As the bride and groom danced to the final song, titled “Zelalem,” I realized how this beautiful ritual is emblematic of Ethiopian culture. Now that wedding season has ended, I know that the next big event, Fasika (Easter), will be as equally festive!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship the organization and the leadership.