Wedlock, Ethiopian Style

While couples exchange intimate vows to cherish and support each other in sickness and in health till death do them apart might appear as a fairly achievable proposal, as couples experience the every day intricacies of a wed lock, it becomes evident that more is needed to maintain the well-being of the wedding than just a wedding day vow. The importance of marriage cannot be underestimated as it is the bedrock upon which families, societies and nations are built upon. In this light, a happily married population makes for a more stable nation. It lays the foundation for engendering civility and peace among new generations.

Most wedding invitations start with a religious quote taken directly from the Bible or Quran. Doing so not only comments on the bride and groom’s religion, but shows that their upcoming marriage has received the blessing of God (or Allah). The wedding invite continues by stating the couple’s names, date and location of the ceremony, and that the receiver of the wedding card is cordially invited to be part of the festivity. These wedding invitations are written in the third person, as if the guests were invited not by the bride and groom, but by their respective parents – regardless of who actually paid for the wedding. Probably a remnant of a past tradition, when it was parents that chose who their children were to marry.

There are three very important stages in every person’s life. The first is birth, which psychologists promise is the most traumatic event of any person’s life. But, since no one can remember being born, its effect is minimal (if any). The opposite of birth is death – a welcome occasion to some, and an uninvited intrusion to others. It should put just as much a mental strain on an individual as birth, but by the time it occurs there won’t be any part left of us to put mental strain on. Marriage, like everything else, comes in between, and by both society and religion is considered just as relevant. The only difference being that, even though every single human goes through birth and death, some may do without being married.

It should be noted at this point that I don’t know much about marriage – few that never get married do. Then why attempt to discuss it? Maybe, because I find it so similar to governance: a government is married to its people just as a husband is married to his wife. In the former case, we call it governance, and in the latter one, marriage. Keep the analogy in mind while reading the remainder.

The Encarta Dictionary describes marriage, coldly, as a “legal relationship between two spouses”, whereby they “intend to live together as sexual and domestic partners”. This is an apt description, but since it comes from a dictionary it only describes the word and not the relationship.

Modern marriages start when two people fall in love. In Ethiopia, most couples stay together for a year or so before they bring their families together and tie the knot. Couples are for the most part still traditional, especially if they are living in non-urban areas, so they don’t commit to sexual intercourse until after they are married – like a government that stages elections after maintaining absolute power. Westerners follow a more complicated route. Dates are followed by sex, followed by moving in together and then finally, holy matrimony- like a government that stages an election before being allowed to possess power. As per the effects of globalisation, a growing number of us seem to be doing it (‘it’ being marriage) like the Westerners.

The events leading up to marriage are merry and frantic. The whole process is a one-stop shop to beginning a new life and new lives. A wedding day is an appropriate indicator of how intense a marriage is; of how much rides upon the union; which is why it is women, instead of men, that are more tolerant, and even enthusiastic, of the situation. Women are calmer and less inclined to make bad social choices, while most men prefer a no strings attached type of arrangement. Isn’t it always the people who are more eager for an election than the establishment?

While both men and women have different approaches to marriage, their goals are one and the same – durability. Whatever has been started has to last long, the batteries continually recharged. Otherwise, couples risk going off-key. They risk the outgrowth of animosity, or worse, boredom. When this happens, some get divorced, but most actually plough on mercilessly. And why do the latter? Why keep going when the enthusiasm and trust have disappeared?

Unsurprisingly, marriages are not just about the union of two people, but the union of two sets of people. A wedding may have two stars, but there are also co-stars that enlarge and convolute the plot. The bride and groom are joined by the maid of honour, the best man, his family, her family and so on. It is a symbolic effect upon the intrusiveness and complexity of marriage. There are lots of interests trying to adjust and intermingle; lots of diverse people trying to find a positive stamping ground. When two people move in together, they move in together with all their baggage, after having promised each other, under holy matrimony, that they would share everything. As a result, divorce becomes difficult.

As countries get wealthier, their people become lonelier. Wealth is, in modern times, a product of hard work. And hard work leads people to socialise less. An ordinary Ethiopian has so many more friends and relatives than his or her counterpoint in a developed country. But as the country becomes more economically prosperous, and work becomes a part of our culture (fingers crossed), another part of our culture will start to change. We become less perceptive of our social environment, less caring for social gains. We will have fewer relatives and friends. As less people are able to comment on our lives, our current traditional social consciences also start to deflate. There may be nothing else to stop people from getting divorced other than the mere fact that they choose to – nothing to hold civilians from booting out their government.

Marriages are more fated to end more easily than before. There was a time in Ethiopia when love was expected to grow out of marriage; when people married exclusively for status or privilege and were required to make the best out of their situation. This was called an arranged marriage, and is now considered illegal. This, many agree, is no way to spend a lifetime. Weddings for arranged marriages are like coup d’états to political governance; which is to say, they are sometimes for the best, but for the most part, unadvisable.

But this tradition is starting to be watered down, mostly as a result of human rights. What has remained is a diluted version; one where society and religion still play a very strong role and are more binding than any nuptial vows taken. It kept people from getting “fresh”; from jumping to conclusions or being spontaneous with life changing situations. This is modern Ethiopian marriage: some amount of choice and liberty, but kept at a conventional level. Of course, people do get divorced, but under circumstances that are excessively unbearable.

That is to say, the institution of marriage has gone through so many changes over the decades and centuries, and is so varied from people to people, country to country, it is almost impossible to pin down. At one time or another, except in the rare cases of Isaac Newton or Oprah, everyone gets hitched. This leads to family, family to society, and society to a country. A happily married population makes for a more stable nation.

By Girma Feyissa

Published on Aug 23,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 851]



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