I, amongst many other people, got married during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has impacted so many weddings in different ways. I’m going to share my personal journey of getting married in Ethiopia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We got engaged in January 2020 around the time the coronavirus became public knowledge. It wasn’t until March that COVID-19 was characterised as a pandemic. In Ethiopia the legal and religious parts happen separately. We never had a specific date in mind for the legal part but were hoping to do it as close to the religious ceremony as possible. The date we had set was 22nd June 2020 about 1 week after school finished for the academic year. My family in the UK were planning on flying out for the ceremony.
At the end of March when the first few cases in Ethiopia had been reported as well as the UK reporting many cases too. The school had transferred to online classes till the end of the academic year. Many of the expat staff returned to their passport countries worried that they would not be able to travel back at a later date due to borders being closed. There were rumours of lock down in Ethiopia – which never transpired since many people are reliant on day to day income, so would have been detrimental and would likely have meant that more people would die from starvation than COVID. With that fear in mind, we began considering getting married earlier so that if a lock-down were to happen we wouldn’t be separated. This was a comforting thought for my parents back in the UK. Unfortunately, by this time the local government offices (kebele) had closed, which meant we were not able to do the legal aspect.
We then started discussing the option of just a religious ceremony – although being the more important ceremony for us it meant sacrificing a lot. I wasn’t sure I wanted to rush the religious ceremony and with family being away it was painful to discuss. We checked what was required in order for us to live together in the case of a lock down. Being part of a Christian organisation, understandably, they wanted both the legal and religious aspects covered. Given that we needed both we decided to wait to do the religious ceremony until we could also do the legal signing. So at this point in time, we had no idea when we would get married as we didn’t know how long the offices where going to be closed for. This also meant we had more time to finish off our pre-marriage counselling course that we were doing with our pastors. (Which we would strongly recommend any engaged couple to participate in!)
At the end of April the offices started to open up again, however, they were only offering essential services which did not include marriages… the wait continued. My fiance visited the offices on a regular basis to ask if things changed, his mother also helped checking in on a regular basis. They even went to the sub-city office, where they said they were sending a letter to the local offices to start offering all services. It still took about another week before this letter seemed to be acknowledged.
It was on Friday 8th of May our local office opened up to begin marriage signings again. We went as soon as we heard and registered, showed our identification, gave some passport photos and paid. We then had to wait 16 days to allow time for people to give notice if they had any reason we couldn’t get married. 16 days landed on a Sunday so we returned on Monday 25th to sign the papers. This day was not advertised to many as it is too hard to explain to people back home that this process doesn’t feel special and is essentially just like renewing a form of identification.
We arrived for our appointment wearing our masks, with 2 witnesses each, all of whom had to have Ethiopian citizenship. My fiance went in to the office while the rest of us waited outside due to social distancing rules. He came back out with a piece of paper which we filled out with all our details and our witnesses details based on their identification. He went in again and eventually I got a call, asking me to go in to sign the papers. Once I had signed them two witnesses at a time came in (again distancing rules) to sign the document too. We then waited outside again while my fiance finished off the process, occasionally running to another building to get photocopies. I was asked to sign one more piece of paper and then some time later he came out and said it was all finished……we were married. It felt weird because we hadn’t shared any vows or spoken to each other much at all. Since this did not feel like a wedding – I refer to it as our ‘marriage day’. We went back to his family’s house to eat and celebrate. This whole process took 1 hour 30 mins.
Being Christian ourselves, we had made the decision that we would wait until the religious ceremony until we considered ourselves ‘married’. This felt right as that would be when we would make promises and vows to each other.
We already knew by this point that there was no hope of anyone flying in for our wedding with quarantine strongly imposed here and restrictions to gatherings of 4 people. This was upsetting, since I had hoped for my dad to walk me down the aisle – as a result I decided that if he couldn’t walk me down then I didn’t want an aisle to walk down at all, so I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out.
The pastor of our church had gone back to the US. This meant we needed to find someone else to officiate our religious ceremony. We spoke to various different people, some of whom we only knew through other people and were also leaving the country very soon. Finally, we found someone who could officiate who we new personally. This meant we could finally pick a date and plan…. in 2 weeks! Since we had to have a small wedding made my fiance very happy – he does not like big weddings! It was a dream come true for him! The date was June 13th – our 1 year anniversary.
I asked a friend to go dress shopping with me. Since wedding dress shops are so expensive and you can only rent the HUGE dresses here, I opted for finding a generic white dress from a regular shop. It turned out to be surprisingly successful – I was able to find a white lace dress that could have quite easily passed as a wedding dress! I found some shoes to match a few days later with my fiance and was also blessed with 3 pairs of earrings as a gift from the shop owner.
We had decided to get married on the compound at the school, again with rumours of lock down in our local area posing a threat, worst case scenario he could move on site in a different apartment, even the person officiating was temporarily staying on site too. Therefore everyone we needed was on site and it could go ahead as planned. We wanted a nice backdrop for photos so we opted for the lunch tent …. which sounds weird but there is some lovely greenery around, with beautiful flowers and is covered but open (handy since it was the beginning of rainy season). We borrowed decorations from the school banquet events and also an archway with lights and fabric from some friends who got married just over a month earlier. Friends on the compound helped us set up and decorate the lunch tent the day before – sweeping, moving tables, putting up fairy lights, rolling out carpet.
On the day, my housemate painted my nails and we headed off to another friend who has a salon for hair and makeup. She’d decorated her room with ‘bride to be’ and had donuts and fruit available for us to eat as as celebration. Meanwhile, my fiance was at Bingham getting the final things set up – checking the technology side of things, sound check with the singer and piano player (our worship leader from church) and lighting the candles. Also another friend had offered to make our cake for us too – we were very blessed by all the help and support of our community. I managed a short call with my parents once I’d got back from hair and make-up and hour before the ceremony was due to start. This was painful as it reminded me that they weren’t there in person but I was glad to check in with them beforehand.
I walked over to the lunch-tent with my housemate and our photographer (a student of mine). I waited in the hallway while I could hear our officiate talking with our families who had signed in on zoom to watch, telling them a bit about himself and what to expect. Unfortunately, we experienced some technical difficulties and our families could not hear the first couple of minutes (my arrival and welcome) – fortunately this was rectified fairly quickly.
The ceremony seemed to pass by quickly, we sang a couple of songs and declared our vows. We had a small talk by our officiate based on a passage of scripture we had chosen. We finished the service off with the unity candle which was difficult as the wind kept blowing them out! We had a cake to cut after the service which we shared with those who lived on compound who had come to watch from a distance.
After the cake, our friends packed things down for us and we headed back to the apartment for a bit and watched a video my uncle had sent which showed messages from my family and friends back in the UK wishing us well….. This is when the water works really started and the true extent of my family not being there hit home. Even a couple of months later I still find it emotional and hard to talk about.
Unfortunately the zoom video recording came out blurry so I’m still trying to find the courage to try and put something together, which is hard when it’s all still so emotional. It will likely end up being a montage of video and photos.
Travel wasn’t really an option at the time so we stayed in a hotel in Addis for a few nights so we didn’t have to go straight into moving apartments. A proper honeymoon will have to wait. We are hoping to have a small ceremony in the UK at some point, visa and COVID restrictions dependent.
My husband’s family also gifted us a matching Ethiopian traditional clothing too. It was beautiful.