We are now immersed into the blossom month of September where many holidays are reserved in the Eritrean calendar, Eid Al Adha, September 1st the national day to remember the beginning of the armed struggle in 1961, Geez New Year and Meskel or the Holy Cross. Beles, the cactus seasonal fruit and the diaspora called after it, are starting to return to their homelands.
Children are starting school, the weather is getting chillier in Asmara while the road to Massawa pleases the eyes with its green scenery. Through time, this period of the year has become the hub of wedding festivities where newlyweds and their guests dance under the heavy rain of July to August. Weddings in Eritrea are beautiful and, yet, a whole long process. Today, let us look at how Tigrigna tradition wedding is observed.
Looking into the city of Asmara, people usually are amazed to witness a number of wedding rental shops, tailors rushing to finish of the orders zurias or telfis, the traditional Tigrigna white dresses. Young men accompanying the groom going around the marketplace to choose the right suits which has to go in line with the bride’s choice of colour. Yellow, purple, blue, the “theme” of the wedding is very important for the bride as it will decide on the venue decoration, colour of the wedding invitations, colour of the car’s ribbon and the list goes on.
The bride and her bridesmaids, sisters, sisters-in-law is also out and about. Going to places to find the right jewellery, the traditional shoes to match the traditional dresses, buying hair extension used for braiding, making the adjustment of the wedding dress where usually the bride will have to adjust it a few time. As the wedding day approaches, she tends to loose on weight, similarly the groom too! Then comes the family members, brothers and sisters who also have to make sure that their outfit is one point is also another task for the future bride and groom.
Another stress to add on to the list! Friends are coming from abroad who wants to visit the country as well as spend time with the newlyweds has to be added in one’s schedule. The fathers, on their side, are making sure that relatives and friends are not forgotten from the invitation list while the mothers keep on adding people and asking the newlyweds “can we have more invitations please”. Always hard to say no to them that when you planned to have perhaps 100 invitees you end up with a thousand and yet, you couldn’t invite your own friends!
Another important process in this beauty of weddings is the food and beverage preparation. It is actually the most important part and most guests would say “suwa, mies and food were great, it was a wonderful wedding”, or if you are not lucky, “mmh no, it wasn’t that good, suwa wasn’t even drinkable” (although they would have danced the whole night). In fact, Eritreans are quite strict on such matters and it is part of the culture to always “say something”, you just get used to it. Therefore, more often, families prefer to hire a professional cook while friends of the mothers, aunties and grandmothers are present to give a hand.
Suwa, the traditional drink made of a mix of grains such as millet and sorghum; the making is long. It requires time and strong monitoring in addition to the wonderful chants of those women combined with traditional coffee to give some energy. Mies another traditional booze made of fermented honey and very appreciated by young women for its sweet taste. Suwa, especially, and Mies are “a must” in weddings. Then comes the injera making process, the yeast-risen flatbread is basic for Eritrean dishes.
The fermentation process usually starts about a week before the actual celebration. Then comes also the negotiation in finding cattle at affordable price and of good quality. The meat and xebihi (the traditional think spicy soup) would usually be cooked the night of the big day! Men of the neighbourhood and family members have the task of chopping the beef in pieces prior giving it to the ladies for cooking and preparing a delicious beef spiced stews.
People are brought together, elders are on the side of the parents. Youngsters, cousins and friends will be on the side of the newlyweds to fulfil tasks such as decorating the venue, driving around, getting the forgotten items such as flowers or the bestmen’ ties for instance.
The bride, on her side, is often asked to remain at home and to take care of herself starting a week prior the wedding. It can be a quite difficult time for a control-freak bride. Many would suggest “why are you out under this sun, you will get tanned”. I, personally, don’t see the issue in getting darker. The bridesmaids are also important the last few days before the wedding as the tradition dictates that the bride and also the groom shall not be left alone outside the house. This tradition goes back in time where in rural areas, the young bride to be would be seen as a treasure to other jealous young men for not being her “aspirant”.
As the wedding approaches, the bride to be will finalize her hairstyle, make up and take the time to a beauty care with her friends. Steam, hamam, tish (the traditional steam), manicure, pedicure, massage… everything to please the bride to be. The groom on his side, has less time for such treatment and instead will be the project manager of the wedding forgetting that he’s the groom to be! Good bestmen will force him to take some time off but remain a difficult task to achieve.
Friday, time for recap of the weekend celebration, timing, car reserved for the bride and her bridesmaids, similarly for the groom, the families, the transportation of the food and beverage; a stressful moment trying to remember every detail. The ladies will braid their hair and then stay home. The bride will try to fall asleep at 8pm so as to wake up at 2.30am, for her make up time. The mother of the bride will then help her to put her golden traditional jewellery set. The schedule, well, always stretched out. A car can broke down on the way or not enough plates are ready for the brunch time.
At 4am on Saturday, time for photos with family and finally the groom in his traditional white outfit accompanied by his bestmen and friends come to take the bride towards the church. A very early ceremony usually takes about two hours if it’s an orthodox church, thus, it requires patience. Wonderful choir of the church, where priests call in unison for the blessings of the newlyweds. About 8.30am, the bride and groom are officially married. Time for family photos, friends, colleagues all want to show that they were present. While those responsible of the breakfast/brunch rushed to make sure all arrangements are ready. Arriving at the breakfast, women of both families would greet the newlyweds through songs and hands clapping. The festivities are starting! Eating, drinking hot and cold drink and a lot of dancing until 1-2pm.
First part done but not yet finished. Families rushed home to change outfit and prepare the food for the Sunday big wedding day. In the Eritrean tradition, the family of the bride would make their own celebration on Saturday evening and the bride has to rush to change her hairstyle and put on the white conventional wedding dress. Often, the celebration will take place outside her parents’ home where a white tent decorated with the colour of the wedding will welcome guests. The groom’s family on their side would often celebrate on Sunday evening giving time on Sunday afternoon for wedding photo shoot.
Through time, however, celebrations became more flexible. Many young couples would choose one venue for both families, sharing the expenses and bringing both families under one roof on Sunday. It is a good way to get both families to know each other, being less time consuming and less costly. The celebrations would be coloured with flowers held by women, little girls would throw petal flowers upon the arrival of the newlyweds to the venue, popcorn and ‘elelelelel’, the ululation of women, the traditional instrument “koboro” would vibrate, while the singer or dj would play “metsikaley’do” or you arrived. Between food and drink, a good celebration is reflected by the vibe synonym to a full dance floor. The wedding cake time is also a very appreciated and respected time in Eritrean weddings. A few more songs before the closing one “esele”, where the bride is taking away and after taking the blessings of fathers, mothers, and elders of both families the newlyweds are saying goodbye by leaving the venue. It is the time where tears dropping.
A few days later, the bride will braid her hair again and make traditional hand and foot design with henna. She will wear a traditional dress. It is time for “hamawti”. In other words, the family of the bride, the women in particular, will come to the groom’s house to celebrate together and bringing offerings to the groom’s mother. Songs, dances are taking place again and the bride will offer to put perfume to the ladies. The traditional “ge’at”, a stiff porridge in a form of a volcano with spices in the middle, will be eaten. By the end of the day, the mother of the bride will take time alone with her daughter to check on her and give her blessings. The honeymoon officially starts after the “hamawti”.
Another process for the newlyweds, it is called “hitsinot” in Tigrigna, the honeymoon time. Traditionally it takes about 45 days in which the newlyweds stay at the groom’s parents’ home. Guests, cousins, friends come to greet the newlyweds every day. The bride will offer to put nail polish and perfume to the young girls and women. Many would come with a cooked chicken and its 12 eggs in a spicy sauce. Other would offer a ship. Some may bake a cake or bring gifts. Friends would usually spend the whole evening with them, drinking suwa, coffee and play games. A beautiful time allowing the bride and groom to be treated as queen and king, called “mbeitey” and “goitay” in Tigrigna. The newlyweds wouldn’t do anything apart from looking good, eating and drinking. It may seem wonderful but it can sometimes be a long time for usually active couples whom may try to sneak out a few hours to have dinner out or sip a macchiato. In today’s Eritrea, many would go down to Massawa during their honeymoon for a week to relax and get their batteries fully charged before starting working again.
After the wedding celebration, the newlyweds are given special treatment for a few months. Upon their return to their daily activities. Families would bring them food, fresh injera until they properly settled down. Many would come for a coffee and watch the wedding video together.
It might seem a long process, however, the beauty of the tradition makes the stress and fatigue swiped out by the happiness of families. Many would forget that weddings are not just the union of two people but of two families. Seeing parents enjoying and smiling constantly is what makes Eritrean weddings special and a reflection of the society’s collective values where the respect of relatives remains an important principle. Weddings also create new bonds and wipe out families issues, re-energize and re-unite long lost ones.