Turkana Wedding Ceremony
Deacon Michael Eroo and Stella Akom were married, supported by a colorful crowd cheering in many different languages.
Sunday, February 16, 2014 marked a turning point in the life of two Turkana joined as a couple, serenaded, escorted and supported by cheerful Sunday service followers in the Camp.
The wedding ceremony began with a mass in the early morning hours at the Medhanealem Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Kakuma 1 and ended in the late afternoon at the family’s house outside of Kakuma Town. While the Ethiopian Orthodox Church hosts many weddings every year, this particular ceremony was unique as both husband and wife are from the local Turkana community.
Eleven years ago, Michael Eroo, the now married Turkana Deacon, first arrived at the Medhanealem Ethiopian Orthodox Church as a young boy, along with two friends. Father Fikremariam, a Monk at the church, recounts “They told us they wanted to be baptized in the Church and become deacons.” Since that day, “the boys brought many other friends, neighbors, and family members to join the Church” the priest explained.
According to Father Fikremariam, the congregation welcomed the three boys, giving them a house in the compound, food, and many years of training. In 2010, Michael and his two friends, now young men, were sent to Ethiopia to continue their studies and learn Amharic. They returned able to read, write, and speak fluently in Amharic, a skill that surprised and delighted the wedding guests.
In 1991, the first Ethiopian refugees settled in Kakuma. They brought little with them except for their strong faith and cultural devotion but somehow they managed to set up a humble church out of plastic UNHCR labeled tents, with a picture of Mary and Jesus. During holidays, the Ethiopian community invited all other tribes to celebrate together sharing what little food and clothing they had, and slowly their congregation grew as those from the Turkana community began attending services regularly.
Over the past 22 years, the single plastic hut has transformed into a large shaded compound with three ornate churches and several residences. In many ways, the Orthodox union of Stella and Michael was a confirmation of this union between the Turkana and Ethiopian communities that began 22 years ago.
Two to three months from now, Deacon Michael Eroo will become a priest, which coupled with his ability to preach in Turkana, Kiswahili, and Amharic, will enable him to serve all of the nationalities represented at the church.
In addition to their religious care for various communities in Kakuma, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church also supports about 30 orphans who live in the church compound. Many different people from all tribes have come to this church asking for help. “We can’t chase them away, we accept them and give them as much as we can,” Father Fikremariam told a KANERE journalist.
This hospitality was evident in the wedding ceremony that included a large meal of injera for all those in attendance from the many different communities. As the guests ate, three multinational choirs joined together to perform traditional singing and dancing in Amharic, Turkana, and Kiswahili. Several speeches were also made with all-inclusive greetings of “Endemenachu,” “Nyai,” and “Habari zenu” and “Good morning.”
In addition to the Orthodox congregation and Turkana families of the couple, several representatives of NGOs were in attendance including the UNHCR Head of Sub-Office, Mr. Girma Gebre-Kristos, as well as others from International Organization for Migration, Lutheran World Federation and Jesuit Refugee Service.
In the afternoon, the wedding party honked and shouted their joy as a caravan of cars circled around Kakuma 1 on their way to the St. Gabriel Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Kakuma township. This church is another symbol of the relationship between the Turkana and Ethiopians as a local chief, Joseph Kuchar, offered the land and vision for the building. Mr. Kuchar had tasted many faiths including Islam, Seventh Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness but after a dream in 2007, he felt called to become an Orthodox and eventually baptized his 4 wives and 69 children in this church.
After singing and dancing around the church in Kakuma Town, the wedding party made their way to the Turkana village where Michael’s mother lives. As they approached the house, singing in Amharic, they were met by family and neighbors singing traditional Turkana songs. Father Paul Vidal, a Jesuit priest in attendance, describes the event as a multicultural blending with different voices.
“This is a good reminder that culture is not really static. While their different songs embody a particular worldview, they seemed united by a common thread; joy was that common thread,” he said.
As a religious leader who seeks to promote peace and unity, Father Paul was especially touched by how this event brought together refugees and the host community, who have often been at odds here in Kakuma.
While there are undoubtedly many challenges of different cultures living together in such a harsh environment, events like this wedding offer a glimpse into what could be a more hopeful future of tolerance and friendship among diverse groups. Should the Ethiopians ever leave Kakuma, their culture will still live on as adopted by those in the local community.