“I now regard Asmara as my home away from home”, US Professor
By Ted Papenfuss
I am now back in Asmara. This is my third visit to Eritrea. After a long journey from the University of California my flight landed at the Asmara Airport at 1:30 AM on 25 August 2017.
Originally, I had planned to return to Eritrea sometime in future, but in June I was invited to attend a wedding ceremony by Nahom Nagasi and his future wife Winta Habtom who are friend of Mr. Futsum Hagos, director of wildlife conservation.
I thought the wedding ceremony would be similar to an American wedding and would last about two hours. The wedding was scheduled to start at 7:00 AM the day after my arrival.
On Saturday, I had an early breakfast at the Sunshine Hotel and I told the hotel receptionist that I would be back shortly after 9:00 AM. Little did I know the Orthodox Church ceremony was only a small part of a traditional Eritrean wedding that would last for two days!
After the Orthodox Church ceremony, I stood on the steps of the church along with several hundred guests while photographers took photos of us together with the wedding couple. After about an hour, we drove to Techno Garden on the edge of Asmara. Here we were served breakfast while we sat at tables placed on the lawn shaded by trees. Several other wedding parties were already at the park. Around noon we left the park. A large tent had been erected in the street in front of Nahom’s home. There were benches set in a square around tables. Groups of eight people sat at each table. We were served ingera to eat and suwa, a type of homemade beer, to drink.
I stayed for several hours enjoying the company of many friendly Eritreans, some of whom I had met on my trip to Eritrea last year. Every person that I met welcomed me. I think hospitality is a natural characteristic of the Eritrean people, because where ever I go I find the same characteristics. I was very tired from my long journey to Eritrea, so I left to return to my hotel in the late afternoon. Futsum told me the next day that the guests continued celebrating in the tent until after midnight.
The next morning the celebrations continued at Hawakil Park, which is located a walking distance from the Sunshine Hotel where I am staying. Here more photographs were taken by many people in the beautiful gardens. After about two hours in the park, Nahom’s good friend Futsum suggested that a nice way to remember the event and at the same time to contribute to the “greening” of Eritrea would be to have tree planting ceremony for the newlywed couple and a dozen friends. The Ministry of Agriculture manages a nursery called Beitghiorgis on the outskirts of Asmara along the road to Massawa. Futsum and I first went to the nursery to make arrangements. We met Mr. Mike, the head of Ministry of Agriculture, sub-zoba Asamra. Mr. Mike and Futsum selected 26 seedlings and provided us with tools and buckets of water and drove with us to a nearby hill where a reforestation site was established several years ago. Mr. Mike told me that this tree nursery produced each year over 100,000 seedlings of more than 30 species of trees. As I learned from last year, the greening movement has been strong in Eritrea since the end of “the Struggle”. After a hundred years of colonial occupation by Italy and rule by Ethiopia, more than 90% of the original forests were cut down, but since independence many millions of trees have been planted or regenerated through protected areas, according to Futsum’s information.
Soon the bride and groom arrived with a dozen other guests. Each was given a tree seedling to plant. We carefully watered the seedlings before leaving the hillside. This event really impressed me. The final events of an Eritrean wedding celebration take place at two locations arranged by the family of the bride and the family of the groom.
We first went to the home of Winta. Her parents and relatives had ordered a huge tent that had been erected in the street in front of her home. Again, benches had been arranged around tables that each seated eight people. Soon, nearly 1000 or more guests had arrived and we were treated to ingera and suwa. A professional Eritrean band played music, and we all danced in the open space between the tables. A highlight of the entertainment was the arrival of a troupe of traditional Eritrean dancers. One of the dancers wore a headdress that was made from five bottles of Areki (Zebib). Somehow the man was able to dance with the rest of the troupe without losing his balance and the bottles never fell from the top of his head. This was really amazing to me. On my first visit to Eritrea I had seen a young lady dance with a single bottle balanced on her head. At that time I thought she had glue on her head, but she did not. I would have never imagined that dancing with five bottles was possible!
After several hours we left this event and went to the Expo Compound where Nahom’s family had rented a large meeting hall with seating for more than 600 guests. I was among the first to arrive at about 6:00 PM. Over the next hour hundreds of guests arrived. At Expo, the seating was arranged along a table with benches that sat ten people on each side of the table, filled with several glass jars of Suwa and Mies, a wine made from honey. We listened to traditional Eritrean music and were again entertained by the dancing troupe, including the same man with five bottles of Areki balanced on his head. I stayed until about 10 PM and finally returned to the Sunshine Hotel, but the event continued until after midnight.
This wedding ceremony was not the typical two-hour event that is common in California but an event that started at 7:00 AM on Saturday morning and continued with almost no break until Midnight Sunday night for a total of about 41 hours. Not only that but four days later Nahom’s family arranged a lunch invitation for family members and friends, I believe the last feast is a sort of congratulating each other for the achievement of the wedding. Many of Winta’s family joined the ceremony. Similar to the wedding ceremony in Winta’s home, people were enjoying the event with suwa and injera plus traditional music and dance.
This has been a wonderful experience for me as I continue to admire the culture and hospitality of the Eritrean people. I look forward to making new friends as I travel to different parts of Eritrea conducting biodiversity surveys with my colleague Futsum Hagos, director of Wildlife Conservation, and the staff of the Forestry and Wildlife Authority of the Ministry of Agriculture.
I wrote last year, “Do not believe what you see on the internet about Eritrea. Come visit and see for yourself.”
Since then several foreigners, both tourists and people who come for business, witnessed to what I wrote and remarked on the peace, stability, and hospitality that Eritrea offers.
I now regard Asmara as my home away from home as I start my third visit to Eritrea.
Note: the Author, Theodore J. Papenfuss, Ph.D, from University of California is a Reserch Specialist of Amphibians and reptiles Intensively engaged in research on the marine resources of Eritrea since 2015.