I had just hung up the phone with my mother. She had just informed me of Wisconsin’s devastating loss in the Big Ten championship game.
It was 7:00 A.M.. Seconds after I hung up the phone rang again. Maybe Wisconsin pulled off a miracle comeback, she did say there were a few seconds left.
I answer and it’s my friend Nezif. Disappointed and confused I was. Nezif is an elementary teacher. The antitheses of what you would picture of an elementary teacher, a masculine, competitive, sculpted man. He informs me his brother is getting married in Gore (A town 4 hours away from me and the closest town on a map).
I should come. These are the sort of odd spur of the moment requests that are common being a foreigner in rural Ethiopia. I decide this is a sign from god or, well, Allah, it is a Muslim wedding. I need to avoid my inevitable moping. I try to say yes to any cultural events no matter the mood I’m in. That’s why I’m here. It has included having 4 lunches in one day on the holiday Meskel and spuriously going to some caves.
I start to get dressed then realize, what the heck do I wear to a Muslim wedding in Ethiopia? I settle on a nice pair of slacks, black dress shoes (got them cleaned while waiting for the bus), a blue button down and a turban. My town is predominantly Muslim, including Nezif, they love it when I wear a turban. I grab a bus. I only wait 30 minutes, it’s market day so buses are fairly frequent. I get to Gore around 11:00 A.M.. I call Nezif and no answer. Shoot, what do I do?
I sit around and have some coffee then conclude Nezif is at the wedding and probably doesn’t have his phone on him. Oh well, they have a great fuehle (beans, oil, onions, salt) at this place, I decide to have lunch. As I’m finishing up fuehle Nezif calls. He tells me to meet him at the bus station. Silly me, educated Ethiopians are as attached to their phones as Americans.
He meets me with his brother Kamal. They are in matching dark blue suits. Both are wearing ties that abruptly stop before their belly buttons. Kamal, a police officer in the town over, is wearing a tie with different flavors of ice cream loped on top of each other about 20 high. I spot a mint chocolate chip, a rocky road, and a strawberry. Both also have matching facial hair of long beards with the mustache shaved, a popular style among Muslims. They look like they’re about to appear in an SNL skit of former ISIS members finally getting their harem of 40 virgins.
Another important fact about their attire, I’m dressed fine, phew.
As we walk to the wedding he lets me know the wedding is just a childhood friend, not his brother. Too late to back out now. We get to the house of the groom and it’s just gearing up. I make the usual whisper through a crowd. Whoa, a forengi (foreigner) is here, who knows him, where does he live, Lalo? No way. What is he doing here? I sit down and make the usual small talk to flabbergasted Ethiopians who are astounded I know Afan Oromo (still learning, not fluent, but improving).
After 10 minutes of small talk and 10 minutes of me sitting on a wooden bench being prodded by Ethiopians to talk the food comes out. My heart sinks. I’m full. I had just eaten a full lunch a half hour ago. I loosen my belt, in Ethiopia if offered food you eat and finish every bit of it. I wouldn’t even say it’s a sign of disrespect to not finish, it’s just implied. They would pester me about being sick if I left anything there. It’s a mad dash to the food. Good, I’ll blend in and maybe snag something towards the end. Disillusioned that thought was. Kamal quickly pushes a horde of Ethiopians to the side, grabs me a plate, and fills it to the brim for me. I can do this, I can do this. The dishes are Kyowatt (meat in a spicy, soup) and foonwatt (meat and potatoes). They are delicious. I proudly finish every last scrap. I feel wretched, full and incapacitated but I did it. The food was served with a wonderful drink I had never had before called beere. No alcohol, remember, Muslim wedding, but, a mixture of water, honey and sugar. Delightful.
As I’m wallowing in disgust of my consumption an Ethiopian sits down next to me. He looks about 60, he wore a slim fitting jacket over a white button down shirt, the only hair visible shooting out from his chin and striking, deep blue eyes. I greet him and start to talk to him in Afan Oromo, he is amused. He introduces himself as Ahmed. He stops me and says I know English. I’m a bit skeptical, this has happened before, educated Ethiopians know English to some extent. They can read and write well but speaking and more importantly listening is often lacking. Especially this remote, Gore is still a 2 day, and over 20 hour trek from the capital. I continue in my Ethiopian English of speaking defined, and slowly.
Turns out he worked for Ethiopian Airlines in marketing and has traveled to over 70 countries. Ethiopian Airlines is renowned as one of the best in the world. His English is perfect and I apologize for my tempo. It was enthralling to pick his brain. Ahmed had just retired 6 months ago. He talked about living in Saudi Arabia, working for a prestigious airline during politically ambiguous times, and what it was like to represent Ethiopia abroad. After about a half hour my weariness has evaporated with one conversation.
The melodies of singing and dancing start to waft into the sitting area. I’m feeling elated at the moment. Lets give the people what they want. An easy laugh is to jump right into any Ethiopian dance. They love it. I am horrendous, but I always try to heed the advice to dance like no one is watching. At least in the Ethiopian context. This is a life lesson I can take back to America. Life is a lot more fun when I have stopped worrying about social constructs and just not given a f—- about embarrassing myself. Is there a difference between confidence and lack of embarrassment? I hop onto the dance floor, where everyone is singing and dancing.
Everyone gets quiet and Nezif quickly pulls me aside outside of the house with the dancing. In my ignorance I had failed to realize the ceremony was completely segregated by sex. Only the women can sing and dance. Whoops, they don’t mind, I’m just a dumb forengi. In my defense any public place I go in my town is almost exclusively male, not because women aren’t allowed but because women just don’t go out in public a whole lot.
I go outside and laugh about my mistake. Other men find it hilarious. The groom in particular, Abujihad, a policeman from the town over. I later looked back and took solace a moment could give him a light hearted laugh on his wedding day. The singing and dancing then starts to get closer. I’m not falling for anything this time.
I seek out Nezif and ask him what I should do. He tells me not to worry, it’s time to go to the daughter’s house. About 20 girls ranging from ages 15-20 come out singing and clapping. This is a guess of their ages, they were completely covered in thick cloth head to toe and hijabs with only their faces poking out. I pondered if one of them would pass out from heat stroke it was 2:00 P.M. and the sun was out in force. It’s the hottest time of year here now, the dry season. In most of Ethiopia it won’t rain from September to March, here in Lalo it still rains about once a week and the rainy season, I’m told, is November to February. We are the exception, the whole rainforest thing. We walk about a half mile, I’m drenched in sweat, everyone else hasn’t perspired a bit. I am incredulous.
We get to a string of buses and minibuses (minivans). The entire wedding procession goes together to the daughter’s house. This is a big expense. The price for renting a bus for a day is about 5000 birr ($250 USD) and minibus is 3000 birr ($150). There are two buses and 5 minibuses, 25,000 birr ($1250). Huge money for Ethiopians.
I get a seat on the bus with Nezif. I look around and there is a copious amount of chet. I haven’t talked much about chet, but it is synonymous with western Oromia. It is a leaf that is chewed for a narcotic effect. It’s illegal in the USA but far from it in Ethiopia. The effect is marginal, but nonetheless an effect. I’d estimate two thirds of males in my region chew chet. It comes in bushels of branches. It has to be consumed the day it is cut for the narcotic ingredient. I chuckle at all the Muslim men chewing chet. They can’t drink alcohol but chewing chet? No problem. Nezif tells me we just pick up the bride and come back to the grooms place, then the ceremony is over.
After a brief argument about who gets to ride on which bus we’re off. The wedding parade swerves through the streets honking their horns as quickly as the drivers can mash the steering wheels. Every car is decked out in balloons and multicolored paper mache decorations. It’s quite a sight.
After a 45 minute drive into a rural neighborhood we make it. Everyone piles out and we go into the bride’s compound. At this point I’m realizing this isn’t just picking the bride up, I’m gonna miss my bus back to Lalo. My own fault, I should know better.
Once again the men and women are totally separated. The men of honor enter the house and sit criss cross apple sauce along the walls of the house. There’s about 30 of us. My gaze saunters around the room. I chuckle to myself in disbelief. 29 Muslim men and gangly me. I look at Abujihad, the groom, he is sporting a full beard and tuxedo complete with a bowtie. His attire is to the nines. His face is not. He is sweating, staring off into the distance. Culture, environment and experiences may be different but emotions are the same.
Two people come out with kettles and basins to wash hands. My heart sinks. Another meal. I accept the three rolls of injera and see the crock pot of Dorowatt coming out. Dorowatt is a delightful dish made of a copious amounts of onions, barbaree, and most importantly chicken. It is the meal made for holidays and celebrations. I get a full plate including a leg and thigh. I look like a fool trying to eat criss cross apple sauce balancing the plate in one hand and eating with injera in the other. As the last scrap of injera goes defiantly into my mouth I look up in triumph. No one has any idea my struggle and they are just wondering why it took so long for me to eat. Oh well.
The food gets cleared away and the coffee comes out. Today for the wedding coffee with butter. An interesting concoction. Nothing I’d order myself, the slimy butter on the back of the throat is not pleasant, but no problem to drink. I wander outside and spark up conversation with a local police officer Fikadoo. We are in a rural village and they have a mud, thatched roof house. But, they have one giant piece of concrete roughly 20 by 30 feet. It is curbed with drainage, looking like a small parking lot. It is littered with a green bean. I have seen these concrete parking lots at many other farms, but have never been with someone to ask them. Fikadoo informs me they’re drying coffee. C’mon John, you should have known that one.
In the front yard everyone is congregating. I head over. The gifts are being presented. There’s an astounding amount of goods there. Nezif is taking an inventory. 2 mattresses, 4 kettles, 2 coffee sets, 2 50 gallon drums, 12 cups, 16 coffee cups, 2 tables, 8 chairs and much more. I am astounded. Most Ethiopians don’t have these many items in their entire house. Abujihad has good friends and a better family.
It’s about 4 o’clock. Everyone packs back into the buses. I know there’s no chance of making it back to Lalo. Buses never run past dark. We get back to Gore. Nezif asks me where I’m staying. I remind him I wanted to get back today, but that’s out of the question. Nezif says oh, sorry, we’ll get you back today. Nezif talks to the bus driver, he charges an extra 50 birr ($2.50 USD) and off we go back to Lalo.
On the bus ride back Nezif and I lob questions about the wedding back and forth, where most of the information for this post came from. I’m confused by the lack of ceremony of husband and wife together. I expected something as a Mosque. There is none. As we arrive back in Lalo at 8 P.M., the latest I have ever taken a bus, he lets me know his wedding is next month. He says we will ride on horseback for the ceremony. I am quick to tell him I don’t know the slightest thing about riding a house. “No matter,” Nezif says “God willing you will learn, it will be the best day in Lalo.”
To be continued——-
P.S. I’m sorry about not including much about the women’s version of the wedding. Nezif was vague, saying they are together and there were no women I could talk to.