Atachi gets her man
“What brought you here?” asks Atachi’s mako, the chief delegate chosen to represent the bride-to-be in customary pre-wedding discussions with the potential groom.
Alato, the hopeful husband, stands nervous and proud, his eyes fixed on the beautiful Atachi, who stares at the ground, avoiding the heat of his stare.
‘We have come from a distant land in search of a beautiful girl,” Alato’s mako responds, a statement which, in the Shekacho language, holds subtleties of tone not unlike that of a 10-year-old asking his mother for the keys to her Ferrari.
Like many nationalities in Ethiopia, the Shekacho—also known as the Moc’ha or Shaka—are rich in communal and cultural values.
They live 400km south-west of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, in the heart of the green country. A smaller family within the larger Kafa ethnic group, the Shekacho mostly practise traditional religions, the wedding ceremony is one of the group’s trademark occasions.
Shekacho custom demands that Alato sends a team of elders, led by a mako, to lobby his fiancée’s family. As per elaborate ritual, when Alato and his delegation arrive at Atachi’s parents’ compound the first time they are not invited into the house, but sit on the evergreen field under the shade of ‘false” banana trees.
‘We seek your permission for this young boy to have the honour of having your daughter’s hand,” the mako explains, pointing to Alato.
Seemingly angered by this request, Atachi’s parents say it is not going to happen.
The potential groom’s mako responds with a traditional adage: ‘No one keeps a girl from marriage or honey from water.”
Alato Adasho (26) and his potential fiancée, Atachi Chorato (22), have been in love for months and are looking forward to making their dream come true by spending the rest of their lives together.
As shown in a recent documentary produced by Walta Information Centre and aired on Ethiopian TV, there are four types of wedding arrangements within the Shekacho society. Garo is an arrangement based on parental choice and shosa is marriage through abduction. Gapo is a marriage delayed by the man’s inability to present a dowry. The fourth type, eichiyo, is the type most of the world knows: couples in love agree to get married and in some way tell their family so.
Atachi’s parents gave consent to the appointment between the respective delegations, but Alato’s side received murky treatment from her family.
In a society where hospitality is given high priority this is simply meant to test the boy’s patience and ardour.
Alato is resigned to waiting for the next appointment set up by Atachi’s parents. While he waits, Atachi’s parents gather information on Alato—whatever dirt or edification they might find—to make up their minds.
The days drag on, but finally Alato and his delegation are invited back to Atachi’s parents’ compound. This time they are warmly received into the house and served a meal, signalling that a decision has been reached. Alato’s anxious face lights up—he is going to marry Atachi.
After consent is verbally given, the engagement ceremony, called wepeshom, follows. Instead of an engagement ring, custom demands that Alato places a glass-beaded necklace, known as shemayto, around Atachi’s neck.
The engagement ceremony concludes with setting a date to present the dowry, known as macho. A fortnight later Alato’s delegates return with the macho, which includes seven oxen and cows. Finally, a wedding date is set.
On the day villagers and relatives arrive at Alato’s family house, dancing and singing to share the grand joy with the new groom.
Life-nurturing sounds from the traditional horn-carved wind instruments and hand drums turn the quiet air into a kaleidoscope of ear candy.
Soon after Alato mounts the groom’s horse and, escorted by a group of relatives, neighbours and villagers, makes his way down the fertile, muddy trail to his bride, waiting at her parents’ house.
When the bride’s family learns of the groom’s arrival, they lead him and his company to a temporary shelter and prepare to entertain them. The bride’s mako has brought unprepared traditional foods for the groom’s party to cook for themselves.
According to Shekacho custom the groom and his company must prepare their own food and drinks and help themselves as long as they stay at Atachi’s parents’ house. They spend the night eating and drinking and warming themselves by singing and dancing.
The next day several chosen men move closer to the bride’s parents’ house, still dancing and chanting; this time their song begs permission to take Atachi away with them. The time for her departure has arrived.
The bride, decorated with beaded jewellery and local leather, is ready to be escorted by her maid and mother to the next ritual, known as kurea-karo.
During the kurea-karo the couple drink a mixture of honey and milk from a shared bamboo cup, signifying their union. They stand bare-foot on the wide leaves of ‘false” banana, offering up hope that the marriage be blessed with continual love and offspring. Then water, containing various leaves, is poured over their feet, a symbolic cleansing of their sins.
Then it’s time to give gifts. Atachi’s parents present her with gifts for household work and an ox. The groom gives his bride a cow.
The next day Alato’s mako presents a bar of rock-salt and a glass of honey wine to the bride’s parents. These gifts bring honour to the bride’s family because such an offering means that the bride is a virgin.
Once another ox is presented to the bride’s family from the groom’s family, the marriage is sealed with a final blessing of hope for a fruitful future.
Omer Redi is the deputy editor-in-chief of Fortune, Ethiopia’s largest English-language business weekly. He lives in Addis Ababa