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Appreciation or Appropriation?

“Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power.” – Wikipedia Last year my husband and I married in Yirgalem, Ethiopia, in a traditional Sidama tribe ceremony. The whole thing cost us about $375.00 USD, including a cake, photographer, presence of village Elders and leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. (Where traditional Ethiopian traditions meet contemporary ones). To avoid a costly and time-sucking party at home, we decided to take our wedding abroad, alone. We looked at several different options; from sharing prohibitively expensive vows atop an ancient Mayan pyramid, to a shivering our way through a ceremony in Chernobyl, Ukraine. (Our proposed date was in January). After much discussion we discovered neither of us had set foot in Africa before, so we started looking at options. We settled on Ethiopia, then later, Aregash Lodge in Yirgalem for our ceremony. The lodge owner seemed quite excited – no “Faranji” (Amharic word for foreigner) had ever done such a thing before that they knew of. Ethiopia was amazing. Everyone was out to help us wherever we went, and we were embraced lovingly and as a curiosity, ending up in more than one local family’s home sharing Injera meals from the common dish and very black coffee. We arrived at Aregash Lodge to begin our stay in one of their beautiful thatch huts without knowing what to expect in terms of the wedding. Our wedding day dawned sunny and warm. The family who owned the lodge took us to town to shop for wedding clothes and to rent the traditional sash and shawl. They sent out an invitation by word of mouth to the hills and villagers started trickling in.

My groom and I were taken to separate huts and the party began. Women came into my hut and began dressing me and fussing with my hair. I was designated a “mother” and a “sister” to perform certain duties and rites of the ceremony. One woman even checked each room in the hut for any men that may be hiding underneath the bed. They began to sing and chant traditional songs and I joined in as best I could. It was all in Amharic, but one of the ladies we had met and visited with spoke English and she translated for me while she took video. Most of the songs had to do with how sad it was to leave home and start life with a new family, but how it is inevitable and also happy.

My husband was experiencing similar songs and teasing in his hut. The men had spears and performed traditional dances, singing of his virility. They led him on a march to my hut to claim me. Soon my hut was filled with dozens of chanting, dancing people with smiling faces. My groom knelt before me and kissed my forehead and we were led out to a common area for the outdoor ceremony. If you would like to view the video, please let me know. Ultimately, it was absolutely beautiful and fun, and we were embraced by the community. No one was paid or received any benefit to be there; they were there for the fun. We were told over and over that they adored seeing westerners embrace their traditions, and that not many could afford a traditional Ethiopian wedding so it wasn’t often they got to put one on. Stop right there. This is the problem, I am told. Not by anyone who actually attended our wedding, but by numerous online articles and even a similar blog post about an American-born Indian couple who traveled to India for a family ceremony. People had a problem with that. Apparently there is an issue when “dominant” American people come in and copy other cultures. One could also say there is an imbalance in the form of us being able to afford such a wedding when the locals cannot. (They just go to the courthouse). It could be especially relevant in a place like Ethiopia, whose citizens pride themselves on being the only African country to resist colonization. Was our ceremony appreciation or was it appropriation? Was it inappropriate? Was putting us in the center of attention, in the seats of honor a form of elitism? Is an American couple being honored among a sea of African villagers somehow disrespectful? The common consensus of our quibbling western society says yes! It is absolutely worth considering that this could possibly be disrespectful, as many cultures throughout history have experienced westerners not only "copying" their cultural practices, but watering them down and losing the significant meaning behind the original acts. (Here I am thinking of the hula as one example). But is this the same? Keyboard warriors aside, what do the actual people who "own" the cultural practices in question have to say about it? At the end of the day the Sidama people enjoyed showing off their culture and we had one hell of a party together. And we learned a lot about their traditional practices that would be difficult to otherwise take part in, other than chancing upon a National Geographic documentary. We left Yirgalem with a sincere appreciation for the customs and lifestyles of the Sidama people.

A few days later we headed to Bale Mountains National Park. While staying at the lodge we observed an Ethiopian couple in full western wedding attire (black tux, white gown) taking pictures after their own ceremony, which was a traditional western wedding. We had a good giggle over the cultural exchanges, and additionally were told that those who can afford a wedding are more apt to have a western ceremony. That doesn’t seem to offend westerners – we don’t seem to mind them “copying” us. Ethiopians are practicing western ceremonies more frequently these days. It was simply another reason the Sidama tribe was so excited to attend a traditional Ethiopian ceremony – they are few and far between. In the end we all saw it as mutual appreciation – and a good party. Everyone loves a good party!

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