Although the Gamo of Ethiopia have made many adjustments to the intrusion of modernity, a look inside their marriage rites gives outsiders a clear view of their ancient traditions.
Modern tribe, ancient traditions
The Gamo are an indigenous tribe of weavers and hideworkers who currently occupy a few small areas of southwest Ethiopia, in northeastern Africa. While in many regards the Gamo wedding ritual can be seen as comparable to other matrimonial observances practiced around the world today (including our own), to truly appreciate what this social institution means to the Gamo people, one must see it as a ritual within a continuum of life-affirming rituals; rituals that define and connect each member of the Gamo culture both past and present-day.
In essence, the Gamo marriage process begins with male and female circumcision–whether a prospective suitor has staked his claim to a young woman or not. Circumcision, known as (katsara), though outlawed in recent years, remains an essential part of every Gamo man and woman’s life–a cultural thread that passes from parent to child and is woven into every young person’s private and personal life–and represents their induction into adult Gamo society. Thus, it is an unspoken prerequisite to Gamo marriage.
A patrilineal society
n times not so long ago, Gamo women had little-to-no say in choosing a mate. Tradition dictated that parents of this patrilineal, endogamous society (most often the father) choose husbands for their daughters based on caste (someone from the artisan caste, for example, must marry another artisan), social standing, reputation, economic means, and other factors of community and cultural significance. (In some cases, fathers choose wives for reluctant sons as well.) As early as nine years-of-age, Gamo girls are promised as wives–even before katsara–though in recent times the trend seems to be favoring a more mature age. In fact, it was once common for a young woman to know nothing of her impending nuptials until her mother or sometimes a close family friend pointed him out to her at the marketplace. Traditionally, a young woman’s marriage is arranged and guests invited before she is informed that a ceremony has been planned for her. Today, however, women often decide for themselves, having met and discussed the prospect with their ‘intended’ at social gatherings or the market, paving their own way for a life together.
The dynamics of marriage
As in many cultures, the dynamics of marriage can take a few different shapes. It appears that with most first marriages, neither the young man nor woman has been previously married. But polygamous unions in which the husband has lost a wife through death or divorce (and therefore remarried), as well as polygynous and monogamous marriages in which the husband has remarried at least once, also exist–though are not the preferred. According to tradition, however, once married, it is taboo for men and women to have sexual relations with anyone other than their spouse. An exception to this is in the polygyny option wherein a man is permitted to have more than one legitimate sex partner (thought we have no statistics to tell us how common this practice is). Additional taboos include marrying outside one’s group, marrying within one’s clan, and marrying traceable relatives–though this rule may not be rigid for distant relatives on the mother’s side.
Once decided, the young man’s mission begins to seek the young woman’s father’s approval–despite having been “pre-approved.” Gamo tradition, however, dictates that he does not approach the father himself. Instead, he must enlist an intermediary, often an old man known as a Lazantsa to speak on his behalf, but at times the boy’s father or older brother will assume this responsibility. Traditionally, the Lazantsa is served food and coffee at this negotiation. In the past, this phase of the process would have been conducted without the young woman’s knowledge, but today she is consulted, as are other family members. While in some cultures a gift or sum of money accompanies such a proposal, a “brideswealth,” there is no such tradition among the Gamo. Upon marriage, however, “brideservice” will obligate the groom to provide labor for his bride’s family. Should her parents agree with her choice, a date is then set for two years hence–deemed ample time to announce the impending nuptials to family and friends and plan for the elaborate celebration.
During the two year period while awaiting the big day, tradition prescribes that the future bride and groom (and his family) have no contact whatsoever. If the young woman has not yet undergone circumcision, she will do so well in advance of the wedding day. Otherwise, she will do such practical preparation as spinning cloth to make a special night blanket known as a gabiya, dresses (kutas), or a special wedding night blanket called a buluko. These purposeful measures and thoughts of the ordeal ahead will fill her days and nights until the week of the “appointment day.”
For a week before the wedding, the bride-to-be eats special foods, has no work responsibilities, washes her clothes in anticipation of moving into her husband’s house, and receives a special visit from her Jalay, the woman who assisted in her circumcision. This woman remains a very important individual in the girl’s life thereafter. Her Jalay traditionally brings her special gifts (such as blankets, a mirror and a hair comb), and provides her with special clothes for her new life. Likewise, the day before the ceremony, the Jalay ritually washes the girl’s body, dresses her in new clothes she provides, and presents her with store-bought perfume. This further strengthens the bond between the two and will require the new bride to work for her harvesting enset, an Ethiopian mainstay plant, or performing other valuable chores. As a final preparation, the young woman is expected to wash her hair and cut her nails.
The wedding feast
The day of the wedding, the bride’s father prepares a special feast (bulacha) to make the day memorable for all the friends and guests of the bride. (The groom-to-be attends a similar feast thrown by his father, honoring his son.) Fathers establish social prestige by how elaborate a soirée they can throw, so much thought is put into the preparation. Dressed in special, locally-made (derbader) clothes presented by her parents, the future bride sits on a special cushion (salena) made from plant materials, receiving guests and eating a porridge made just for the occasion known as shindera. Women attending will put oyssa (butter) or sometimes gelo marache (a special wedding butter made of intestines) and gata (grass) on the bride’s head as an observance of purification and protection. (Purity and avoidance of pollution are essential ritualistic concepts of the Gamo people.) In anticipation of the groom’s arrival to claim “his prize,” the women sing a ritual song called, “Exad Shempa,” which translates as “Come take her.” At a climactic point in the celebrations, the groom–dressed in store-bought Ethiopian clothes: white pants, coat, cape and shoes–and his procession, sets out to finally claim his wife (macha). As he approaches, he sings, “I’m coming to take her” while the bride’s family sings, “Emada shemifa,” (“They shall live together”). The groom counters, “Ekanaubosea,” (“We are going to take her!”) and “Emadd shempa,” (Give us now!”)
The critical event
Upon arrival, the groom’s sister presents the new bride with new clothes from the groom’s father, symbolic welcoming gifts to be worn in her new home. Then the bride is ceremoniously brought to the house of her father-in-law, sometimes by horse or mule. Carried into the house, the couple sits and shares a gourd of parsso (traditional wheat beer)–a virtual toast–surrounded by the groom’s friends and relatives, before being carried by her new husband to the house they will share. Once inside, the bride’s Jalay ritualistically undresses the bride while the groom’s brothers disrobe him. This begins their first night together as husband and wife. As with many patrilineal, bifurcate societies, the bride will permanently leave her natal household to live with her husband and his family (patrilocality), giving her fertility to her new clan.
In the morning, a critical event takes place. To verify the bride‘s virginity (gelaothea) and that intercourse had taken place, the Jalay inspects the marital animal hide for signs of blood and sometimes, semen. Tell-tale proof-positive is especially good news for everyone. After washing the new bride, the groom’s sister, or perhaps his best friend, takes the hide (or the wife herself) to her family to confirm the presence of blood. This occurrence means that the wife is now an official member of her husband’s clan. As such, she must now sequester herself to the seclusion of the dume where she will remain for the next one to three months, depending on the family’s wealth and ability to do without her contribution to labor.
While in ritual seclusion, the new bride is not permitted to speak to her husband’s parents (though she may converse with her husband’s unmarried sisters), cannot come out of the dume except to perform certain chores for her in-laws such as helping to prepare meals, after which she is expected to wash her legs and head then return to isolation. And while her mother-in-law does prepare food for her, she turns her face away when entering the dume. This temporal condition (part of the rites of passage process) continues until she is permitted to leave isolation and begin her new life as a married woman and member of her new clan.
Upon “emerging” from the dume, a sofay (public parade) celebration is planned–a trip to the market (in the old days a goat would have been slaughtered there), followed by a bulacha (feast) at the groom’s father’s house. Per tradition, the newlyweds first visit the marketplace where they sit on the ground drinking parsso while friends and relatives present gifts and money, then a feast is thrown by the groom’s father where both families and friends are invited, often meeting for the first time, each preparing special foods for the occasion. The groom’s father offers an ox to commemorate the day, while the newlyweds take center stage dressed in special clothing. Elders traditionally sit on chairs while family members introduce themselves, followed by formal welcoming speeches such as, “Today is a great day for all of us. That our daughter and our boy brings us together as one family!” It is tradition for the baltitas to put maracha (butter) and gata (grass) on the wife’s mother’s head; only butter on the wife’s since she has yet to bear children.
With her position now firmly acknowledged, the new bride may now speak to her in-laws–though not to her brother-in-law–and may visit her parents. Only for a few days at first (perhaps two), but longer (a week or more) as time passes. As a member of her husband’s clan within this patrilineal society, the wife is now expected to provide her labor (collecting water, firewood, and grass for the animals; processing grain and weeding gardens and fields) and produce children for her husband–birthing sons who will inherit the land and continue the lineage.