A long, memorable journey to a friend's wedding in Ethiopia

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By John Keller
Sept. 17, 2021

It’s the day of Nezif’s long-awaited wedding, which will take place in his home village in western Ethiopia. It is far from the village where I live and work as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I’m not exactly sure how to get there.

Nezif is a former student at the high school where I teach English. Like many of my students, Nezif had to walk several hours to get to school. Despite the distance, he attended regularly and did well academically, eventually becoming a teacher himself.

At 10 a.m. I get a call from Nezif, who is elated that I’m coming to his wedding. He has even paid for someone to fetch me.

He is overjoyed to see me when I arrive at the village after a 90-minute trip. I walk into the mud-walled house and join elder Muslim men who are sitting around chewing khat, a leaf with a mild narcotic effect. They speak Afan Oromo, a language I’ve been studying for eight months, but I can barely understand their rural dialect. I twiddle my thumbs while the old men chew.

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John Keller taught English in Ethiopia.

While it's an honor to be invited to the wedding, I'm a little worried about how the day will unfold. Nezif is one of the few people I can communicate with, but he is busy with the biggest event of his life — a daylong affair that involves traveling between his and his new wife’s house (there’s no ceremony with an exchange of vows, as in the U.S.).

At one point, a man stands by the wall and starts chanting in Arabic. Soon, the others line up and I’m shuffled to the corner of the room. It's prayer time. I sit awkwardly while 30 Muslim men pray.

After about 15 minutes the praying ends and I hear bustling outside. People are gathering. It's time for the wedding party to pick up Nezif's new wife. From what I can see, this is going to happen on horseback.

Despite growing up near the Polo Hall of Fame in Florida, I have never ridden a horse. Nezif leads me to the biggest horse in the group named Biti. Ethiopian horses are small. Despite getting the largest horse, I am still a head taller than it, at 6-foot-3. Biti has stirrups made of rope and a saddle consisting of a piece of cloth with a knob in the front. I swoop my long legs over the horse and try to get comfortable. Biti is a white stallion with one sky-blue eye and one dark-brown eye. I'm hoping it’s a sign of good luck.

The wedding procession starts off down the path, but I have no clue how to make a horse walk. A man behind me tries to explain how, but my knowledge of horse terms in Afan Oromo is nonexistent. About 50 Ethiopians look on. He finally whips my horse in the rear end. Off we go, across dense, uneven jungle.

We meander single-file until we reach a road. Everyone starts to gallop, as it's far — a 45-minute ride. I tentatively dig my legs into Biti’s sides and he begins to gallop. I bounce up and down like a skiff in hurricane waters. The wedding procession watches. After about 30 minutes, the constant pounding becomes painful, so I slow down.

An hour later, we arrive at the house of Nezif's new wife, where about 100 people have gathered. Inside the house elderly Muslim men line the walls. People talk and eat for about an hour, sneaking stares at me. In this rural area, people are very curious about me, a tall, white stranger.

Nezif grins broadly. "This is my wedding, but everyone is talking about you,” he says. He's not upset. He’s proud.

It's time to return to Nezif's house. Dreading this moment, I know it’s time to hop back on Biti. Heading back, the procession is now carrying all the gifts from his wife's family, including a queen mattress, chests and chairs — all on horseback. My job is to hold the small bridal bouquet. Given my slow, untrained pace, Nezif assigns me two chaperones while the rest of the group gallops off and leaves me in the dust.

Back at Nezif’s house, I’m led into a tiny, windowless room in the center of the house. One battery-powered light is a weak orb in the surrounding darkness. Nezif’s new wife and a dozen young girls are in the room.

I'm not sure I’ve ever felt more awkward. The girls wear face coverings, and their eyes peer out, staring at me. They don't know what to do, either. I turn to the girl next to me and try to spark a conversation. I quiz her on the English names of items in the room: chair, arm, blue, door. She knows all of them. The other kids quickly join in. Within minutes, the girls are playing and laughing. Boys trickle in and I am now entertaining 20 children.

I take out my phone and show them pictures of my dog. They giggle at the sight of a dog allowed in a house. I show pictures of Ethiopia, America, and everywhere in between. We laugh some more.

When music begins, taking part in the singing and dancing feels natural. The kids laugh as I flail around to the Ethiopian music. I'm more than content to bring smiles to their faces.

At 10 p.m., I realize I'm spending the night. I head into the adjacent room where roughly 20 others will also sleep. I share the queen-sized bed Nezif has been gifted with two other guys. My night is fitful and cramped, punctuated by intermittent screams from a child having nightmares.

At about 6 a.m. the next day, everyone is awake doing morning prayers. After breakfast, I tell Nezif I have to go. My original travel plans for the day are already in disarray.

Nezif says I can ride a horse back to town. My heart plunges, as my underside is still throbbing from the day before. I inform him of my predicament. He shrugs and says some people are walking back now.

I depart with Nezif’s two younger brothers and grandfather. About a mile on I am drenched in sweat, struggling up centuries-old paths to match the small group’s burning pace. After three hours on winding, hilly paths, we make it back to town.

Not a minute to lose, I set off on my next journey: an eight-hour journey by bus to Jimma.

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