My Nigerian engagement ceremony bridentity crisis

January 9 | Guest post by Alexa (aka Revedehautbois)

On the throne

I'm generally of the belief that your wedding is not always about you, but it should reflect you: your beliefs, your values, and your community. One of the comments that we heard most often about our wedding was: "It was so… you," and I loved it, because that was one of our goals in planning the event. I think that is why I struggled so much with my feelings about the Nigerian engagement ceremony that we had the week before our wedding. The entire event was just so not me, not at all.

This is me just before the ceremony: unsure about how I look and feel (and my ability to walk in those heels). Photo by Genevieve Burruss.
This is me just before the ceremony: unsure about how I look and feel (and my ability to walk in those heels). Photo by Genevieve Burruss.
Please understand, when I say it wasn't "me," I don't mean because I'm not Nigerian (although I'm not). I mean that the aesthetic was vibrant and over-the-top while I tend towards minimalist and quirky. I mean that there were repeated references to religious beliefs and cultural values that I do not share. I mean that the (American) food had mushrooms in it (which I don't like) and the accent color was pink (again, not a fan). I was in heels instead of flats with earrings that hurt my ears, and we almost completely missed dinner for a costume change. I spent much of the evening feeling like a life-size doll.

Allow me to explain with a summary of a Nigerian engagement ceremony…

(Disclaimer: This is my understanding after nine months of preparation, and one day of living through it, not as someone raised in the culture. It was a Christian, Yoruba ceremony.)

A Nigerian engagement ceremony is usually hosted by the wife's family and occurs shortly before the wedding. It is sometimes also referred to as the "Traditional Wedding." (For our ceremony, my in-laws planned and hosted it and it was the weekend before our wedding.) The focus is on the families (including extended family and friends) meeting each other, joining to become one family, and formally giving their approval and blessings to the couple.

Family greetings
The bride's family welcoming the groom's family. My husband's family generously procured traditional Nigerian garb for my parents, brothers, and aunts.

The ceremony starts with the bride's side in the ceremony venue and the groom's side petitioning to come in. There is money that exchanges hands and a lot of dancing, singing, and prayer (all of which continue throughout the rest of the ceremony). When the groom's side is allowed to enter, they greet the bride's side. Then everyone settles so that each side is sitting in chairs facing an aisle that leads to the dais where the couple will eventually sit.

Prostrating
The groom and his entourage ask the blessing of the bride's family.

The groom enters with his entourage of young men. They prostrate (lie flat on the ground) in front of his parents and ask for their blessing and prayers. His parents raise him up and he sits between them and hugs them. Then he goes to the bride's parents and does the same thing, except the master of ceremonies for the bride's family (the Alaga Ijoko) may require the men to prostrate multiple times or perform other tasks before they win approval. The bride enters, veiled, with an entourage of young women. She goes through a process similar to the groom's, except that she kneels instead of prostrating. Then she goes up to sit with the groom on the dais.

Bride waiting to enter
Waiting to enter. I was able to watch through the veil as my (now) husband asked for blessings from both sets of parents. This is when I was suddenly really nervous.

The dowry is brought in. The bride is called by the Alaga to look at the dowry and asked to choose a gift to open. After pretending indecision, she selects a bible, demonstrating that she values faith over material possessions. Inside the bible she finds her engagement ring. The groom is called down and puts the ring on her finger. Then he picks her up, carries her around to show off the ring and his strength, and carries her to their seat on the dais.

Claiming his wife
Claiming his wife — he had to pick me up and parade me around.

Finally the proposal letter from the groom's side and acceptance letter from the bride's side are read, either by the sisters of the couple or by Alaga if (as in my case) there is no sister. Everyone eats and the couple cuts their cake. Then everyone dances and celebrates late into the night.

So, how could I feel good about a ceremony where I didn't feel like myself and nothing else felt like me either?

In the end, it's really been a two-step process…

The first step was what I spent a lot of time doing both leading up to the ceremony and during the ceremony itself: focus on the positive things. First and foremost I focused on my husband-to-be and our relationship that I am so grateful for. I focused on how supportive and flexible my parents were being in all of this, and on how this was part of how his family showed their love. I focused on the importance of unifying our families, which is the central point of the ceremony. I researched to familiarize myself with the traditions around the ceremony, and was touched when my husband's family and friends were excited by my new knowledge. I reminded myself that even if the aesthetic wasn't one that I would have chosen, it was one I could appreciate, and it resulted in stunning pictures.

Getting skirted up

The second step is one I'm still working on. I have realized that the research, compromising, and negotiating that we went through for the engagement ceremony is just a sample of what will come. Now that we are married, our interactions with each other's families have become more complex, and the question of when we will have children has become the new focus of discussion. When we do (eventually) have kids, issues of race, culture, and compromise will become even more apparent and relevant. For now, I will try to adjust to the idea that I can't just think of our relationship as intercultural, I need to figure out a way to identify myself as intercultural as well.

  1. Wow!~ stunning on so many levels.
    wishing you all the best!

    18 agree
  2. This is fantastic. I'm sure your husband and his family appreciated that you made a real effort to engage with, not just pay lip service to, their culture. Great photos.

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    • Thanks! I've felt very lucky with how positive and supportive they have been. We are really happy with our photos from Genevieve Burruss. :)

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  3. It's so nice to see Nigerian traditions featured on here. I'm Nigerian (but not Yoruba) and the customs are a little different. I'm implementing some aspects of Ibo traditional wedding (palm wine carrying) but not a full blown event like yours. It's awesome that you participated wand I bet your husband's family really appreciated it. Best of luck in your marriage and Congratulations!!

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    • I'm glad to hear that you liked reading this. It means a lot to hear from someone with a similar cultural background to my husband. I'm so used to telling other American's that my husband's family is "Nigerian," but your comment is a nice reminder that other cultural distinctions (like Yoruba vs. Ibo) are important when talking about traditions. :)

      I always think it's interesting how people implement and combine traditions from different cultures. I'd love to hear more about the palm wine carrying and how you decided which traditions you wanted to include.

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  4. This is really inspirational. I think it's awesome that you worked so hard to be a part of your husband's family's culture. And it's fascinating to learn something new like this!

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  5. I think it's fantastic (and bodes well for your now-united family in the future) that both sides seemed to give so freely of themselves for this event. The bride's family happily engaged (har) in unfamiliar traditions and the groom's family did what looks like a very gracious and thorough job of providing traditional clothing for the bride's side and arranging everything. If you handle your future children's cultural education with the same sense of openness, I think you'll do just fine!

    Question about the colors: Is it part of the tradition that the colors be blue with accents of pink, or was that a choice the groom's family made based on something else?

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    • Thanks for the kind words and support! As best I understand, there are a range of color combinations that are common; the dark blue, white, and gold were chosen by my husband because they were colors we both liked and they matched the sapphire & white gold in my engagement ring. I think the accent colors of pink and light blue were chosen by my mother-in-law as colors that she thought complimented the colors that we chose.

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  6. This makes me feel like a tool for feeling so culture shocked by my mbf's family–which is, technically, of the same culture as mine, but much more traditionally consumeristic. To pay $12/invitation for such an impractical and disposable item (even if they're the ones paying) to me feels SO FOREIGN that I get super uncomfortable about the way it might represent me should my friends receive such invitations–but if you could be Nigerian for an evening, maybe I can suck up the heavy stationery.

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    • If it's any consolation, the places with at least superficial cultural overlap (like invitations, favors, limos, and style of photographer) were harder for me to adapt to/deal with than things like the clothes and the ceremony itself that were obvious example of cultural differences.

      I have confidence that you can "suck up the heavy stationary" if you put your mind to it. ;) Maybe it can help if you think about your in-laws as being from a different sub-culture (perhaps economically and/or geographically) where they are dealing with different expectations and judgments from the people around them that you are? (Or maybe not . . .) :)

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      • Wow, it's instantly helpful to consider the expectations that they're dealing with, that I don't feel I am. Thanks.

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        • Indeed. You're worrying about how your friends will react at your invitations seeming so wasteful and consumerist. They are worrying about how their friends and family will react if things seem cheap or disposable. Remember, in some cultures, not being willing to spend a lot of money on something like a wedding seems like you aren't taking it seriously or don't think it will last.

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          • Again, super helpful. You articulate the issue in a way I might actually be able to use in conversation with the future in-laws.

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  7. I loved reading this and seeing it from your perspective. I am Nigerian (Yoruba) and my mom and I constantly argue about how non Nigerian my wedding will be (keep in mind I'm not dating anyone much less engaged to be married.) I'd actually forgotten about the engagement ceremony so now I'm excited that this is something that I can do for her while still having my all American offbeat lite wedding. Welcome to the family :-)

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    • Cool. Thanks! It was really helpful for compromises when wedding planning. (& I can relate somewhat to the potentially ridiculous long term pressure/planning. My mother-in-law got me to commit to letting her plan an engagement ceremony for us over a year before we got engaged, & I'd guess she's talked with my sisters-in-law about it even when they weren't dating anyone.) :)

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  8. My boyfriend friend is Pakistani, and we will have to have a traditional Muslim ceremony before our wedding as well. I am white and was raised catholic, but am not religious, so it will be a very different experience for me. I will have to convert to Islam in order for the ceremony to take place, which will be very challenging for me, but I love what you said about focusing on the positive. I absolutely adore him and cannot wait to marry him, so in the end that will make it all worth it. Thanks so much for sharing your story. This is the first I've seen of this topic of offbeat bride and I love it! It's been very uplifting and inspiring. Thanks!

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    • Wow. I have struggled with attending and participating in services with my husband's family that are different than my religious beliefs. Conversion is taking it to another level. I think for stuff like this Offbeat Bride tends to be limited by what gets submitted (see this somewhat related post: http://offbeatempire.com/2012/02/diversity-hacks).

      Do you read apracticalwedding.com at all? This year they had a couple of interns that wrote posts over the time they planned their weddings, and one was a woman whose posts included one about her conversion to Islam. It seems like her posts might be helpful/interesting for you to read.

      her first post: http://apracticalwedding.com/2012/03/elisabeth-an-interlude-regarding-the-patriarchy/

      a link to the series of posts: http://apracticalwedding.com/category/planning-journeys/

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    • I've just seen this post and it sounds so familiar!! My now-husband's family is from Mali and they're Muslim, so we decided to have a pre-wedding blessing in Paris for them as we knew we couldn't get everyone to England for our 'real' wedding. We expected it to be a small event as there wasn't a lot of family support for the wedding as I'm not Muslim, but my mum, dad, sister & brother in law made the effort to come so the two families could meet. I think this was why, on the day, everyone in his family plus every other Malian in Paris (or so it felt!!) pitched up to wish us well. My family were making an effort so they wanted to show support too!!

      It was such a brilliant day if somewhat surreal. I had a traditional outfit in white & gold & Mamadou had the same colours in his. His sisters were dressed to the nines & although my sister was too they thought she might like to get in on the action & they dressed her up in a spare outfit.

      All the men squashed into the sitting room & had a discussion to ensure we were getting married 'for the right reasons', an Imam said some prayers, and then dad was called upon to give his blessing. My brother in law and Mamadou translated the off-the-cuff speech which everyone appreciated and then suddenly we were all bring cuddled and congratulated- we were married!! I had understood it was just a blessing but as far as they were all concerned that was it!

      According to Islam, because I am one of the People of the Books (ie. Christian or Jewish) there is no reason in Islamic law why we couldn't marry. No need for me to convert. If it were the other way round then things would have been different- if I were Muslim & he weren't then he would have been obliged to convert if he wanted to marry me. I have books about Islam and the Koran which I have been reading which I find fascinating and his family love that I am interested not just in their religion but in their Malian traditions (including cooking!) As Alexa has pointed out there may be interesting times to come with how we bring up children, but a little interest and learning on both sides is going a very long way. I'm so proud to be part of his wonderfully close-knit (if extensive) family and they seem to feel the same. Hurrah for the madness of inter-tradition, inter-religion families! It can be so exciting when we make the effort!!

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  9. I love this story! I'm a Ugandan who has seen many traditional ceremonies among friends and family. A few of my cousins married foreigners (German, Swiss, American and Italian) and I've always wondered how they felt. They had to come to Uganda and be involved in our elaborate traditions and I'd always look at them wondering what's going on in their minds. I liked reading this because it's put me in their position to know that they chose this person and would accept their traditions. Thanks for this. :-)

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    • Thanks for the positive response! I think accepting the other person's traditions is like a logical extension of the idea that when you marry someone you marry their family too, but knowing that doesn't always make it easy. :)

      I'll be going to Nigeria for the first time this spring for the wedding of one of my husband's cousins. I'm really excited about it, but I think I'll be glad that the focus won't be on us.

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    • Thanks! Our photographer, Genevieve Burrus, really did an amazing job!

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  10. The ceremony looked beautiful and you certainly put on a brave face for the cameras! I think it's wonderful you are embracing your husband and his family's traditions, it speaks to your commitment not only to your husband but his and your lives together.

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  11. This article was great! It seemed to touch on things not often featured on my beloved OBB. Also, it made me reflect as an African American woman, on how untrue my own assumptions have been about my family's culture being similar to my African American fiance's family.In reality although born and raised in the same town, our families are differnt and have differnt wedding expectations.

    My family culture :Eastcoast meets/ Kentucky farmers, Prim/proper, individualistic, tons of female business owners, matriarch-led, Jehovah's Wittness. Believe in personal preferences over family togetherness.

    His Family: Christian, group-based, patriarch led, Indiana-bred, think of the preferences/needs of the family over the person, believe in big/fun holiday get-to-gethers.

    Personal culture is a big part of your perspecitve/lens, even when you think you share so much in common with your partner/best-friends.

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    • It's also funny that because I was raised with the opposite, I crave family togetherness. Because he was raised to think of family first, he strives to be unburdened by any family preferences.

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      • I'm really glad that my article felt relatable in that big-picture way.

        For what it's worth, I agree with Ariel that you should submit a guest post. I'd definitely be interested in reading it. This post was actually partly motivated by a similar exchange I was part of in the comments on this post: http://offbeatempire.com/2012/02/diversity-hacks. I really like the philosophizing posts on OBB & would like to see more writing on the topic of dealing with differences in culture/background while wedding planning. I think it's one of those cases where you need to write and submit what you want to see. It helps that I've really loved this guest-posting experience, so I would totally recommend you trying it. :)

        3 agree
  12. Thank you for sharing. To me, this all represents what marriage is truly about, the combining of 2 lives, 2 "worlds" into one new one, a lot of that entails understanding where the other comes from even if it's not something familiar. It's wonderful that your family was so open to participating. The more we learn about each other, the more we understand ourselves.

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  13. I really appreciate this post, as an Irish-Italian former Catholic I am in a serious relationship with a Jordanian Sunni Muslim. Although he has short hair, stubble and wears jeans and tshirts, when it comes to weddings, his family follows formal Muslim practices along with Jordanian Bedouin traditions (shooting rifles in the air, dowry, tradition headgear for men and women.) Seeing it from the idea of as paying tribute and respect and learning about other religions/cultures instead of saying "this is something I HAVE to do" or fighting it because I identify as very liberal and feminist is something I haven't really thought of before. I know there will be moments in our engagement and wedding where I will think "I don't recognize myself" and "this isn't how I do this", but I definitely need to be more accepting and fearless and have some of your patience. And the color blue is amazing!!!!!!!!

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    • Thanks! It was a weird feeling intersection, since I consider myself a feminist, but interacting with his family's traditions needed to very different from interacting with my own. I doubt it's ever easy, but it's worth pushing through, and I think it's one of the ways in which working through things for a wedding is actually useful practice for a long-term life together. (Huh. Shooting rifles would certainly be interesting . . . when all else fails remember that there will be awesome photos.:))

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      • I consider myself a feminist and I'm Igbo. I can imagine from the outside looking in some of these traditions just look like you are losing instead of gaining ground. But from the inside…depending on the family, women hold more power than men in lots of aspects. It really IS weird to have the friction between those two things rub against each other, (I'd imagine) especially in wedding preparation.

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        • Yeah, most of what I've seen of family dynamics–especially within my husband's family–demonstrates a lot of equality, or at least balance of power in different roles. It was mostly the symbolism behind some of the traditions that was difficult to navigate, in the same way as traditions like the father of the bride walking her down the aisle and giving her away, just with the added awkwardness that they weren't my traditions, so in some ways it was actually more important to accept them, since doing so was a sign of accepting my husband and his culture (if that makes sense?). Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

          1 agrees
  14. You know, I always found it… somewhat strange and a little hard to relate to the feeling of feeling like a fish out of water.
    My upbringing has had me in very diverse and multicultural settings – so I have been fortunate enough to experience, partake and learn about a variety of cultures and lifestyles.
    Previously, when a partner and I would start out… things would seem to go well, but then… something wouldn't mesh. Pinpointing why was always tricky – but your words just hit me like a lightning bolt, and I think I may have had something akin to a "Eureka moment".

    "I can't just think of our relationship as intercultural, I need to figure out a way to identify myself as intercultural as well".

    It's one thing to engage in a relationship with a person while being ok with their lifestyle and culture and the new things that come with them. It's another thing to absorb and embrace it- knowing this will now be part of your life… or go through the process of finding out it may be too much.

    Thank you for a wonderful post! :)

    1 agrees
  15. I feel like I'm on the other end of this spectrum- my FH's family are LDS and my family is not. We really thought about it and decided it's too long of a wait and too difficult for me to convert, be a temple-worthy Mormon for a year, recieve my endowments and then we get married/sealed for eternity in a temple- all for something we don't believe in much anyway. So we are planning a more traditional Christian-based wedding. The problem is my mom is transcendentalist and my dad is agnostic; in other words my family is not religious at all. So we might just end up having a secular ceremony. :P

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    • We didn't face the exact same challenges, but one way that we worked around having different attitudes to things like faith and tradition compared to some of our family members at our wedding was to have a *very* traditionally worded ceremony but taking out any and all mentions of deity/the church. Having a ceremony that followed a lot of the familiar structure of a 'traditional' (for our culture) ceremony helped our more conservative relatives feel much more comfortable, I think. All the best, and congratulations!

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  16. How long does a Nigerian engagement traditionally last? Very short or a longer period?

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    • By the way I don't mean the engagement ceremony – I mean the actual engagement period – from proposal to wedding.

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      • Hi,
        Just seeing this now, so it's pretty late, but I figure I'll answer anyway (as best I understand/have experienced it). The formal engagement period (between the engagement ceremony and the wedding; the engagement ceremony includes the formal proposal and acceptance) is usually fairly short.

        Ours was a week, and the others that I have been to were 3 days and the same day. (The one with 3 days in between was similar to ours in that the ceremonies were held in two different locations so that different people could easily attend. People who were closest to the family and able to attended both.)

        Unofficially both ceremonies take time to plan, so the couple and their families would be engaged in wedding planning significantly earlier. We were planning for about 9 months. Other people I know were planning for a year to a year-and-a-half. I'm not sure what's "traditional," however or which way things have changed over time.

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  17. Hello Alexa, I was browsing online for some Nigerian stuff and I just happened upon this article.

    First and foremost, just so everyone knows, I am a Nigerian woman, friend to Alexa's mother-in-law. I want to explain the pink accents. I am assuming by pink accents, Alexa, you are talking about the jewelry pieces. I'm sure your mother-in-law did not choose your pink jewelry haphazardly because that was the color she wanted and decided on. Pink/red coral is very 'NIGERIAN TRADITIONAL WEDDING'; coral is steeped in our tradition. Your mum-in-law had your necklace and earrings custom made. I guess she then chose the other jewelry pieces for the other ladies in the same hues so as to color-coordinate.

    As a Nigerian woman who is not given to the over-the-top atmosphere that prevails at a big Nigerian party, I understand where you are coming from. But to Nigerian parents, their kids' engagement and wedding ceremonies can never be too over-the-top if they have the means, and if they are so inclined. By the way, I was at your engagement and wedding, and you looked absolutely wonderful, radiant and beautiful both days.

    Food wise, your wedding feast hands down takes the cake!!! It was very scrumptious!! LOVED the Indian or Indian cuisine inspired food. But then, the food at the engagement was American food as you mentioned, prepared and served by the hotel. The hotel would only allow a very limited number of Nigerian dishes, and we all enjoyed those dishes when they were served later.

    Anyway my dear, I hope you and your darling hubby are doing well. Love always!

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    • Hello,
      I just saw this. Thank you for commenting. By pink accents I actually meant the choice of pale blue and pink for the family geles and hats, but thank you for explaining about the significance behind the coral jewelry. I knew that it was traditional, but it helps to understand more of the meaning behind it. I wonder if the pink in the cloth was to match it as well in that case? (I find it amusing because one of my sisters-in-law tried to convince me that the coral wasn't pink, but I think it is . . .)

      Thank you so much for your kind words about both ceremonies. I know my mother-in-law especially put a lot of time and effort in the the engagement, and I was glad that it went so well. As for the food, luckily I have had the opportunity to have more Nigerian food both at home and when we went to Nigeria, especially at the weddings that we attended there.

      Wale and I wish you the best as well.

      Love,
      Alexa

      1 agrees
  18. I really like your comprehensive explanation of the Nigerian Traditional wedding. Although, this is just one of many types of Nigerian Traditional Weddings, yours should serve as a point of reference to any one contemplating on marrying an African man especially of Nigerian descent. I am a Nigerian living in the UK and your wedding reminds me of my own traditional wedding in 1974. l must thank and appreciate you for the way you handled the situation and compromises that you have made in the circumstances. I hope non-Nigerian girls marrying our young men where ever they maybe can learn from your example. As parents it is our responsibility to plan and execute a perfect wedding and in the majority of cases, we are happy to fund it too because it is an occasion when we honour our sons or daughters for upholding family values. I have no doubt that your husband and parent in-laws are very proud of you.
    I wish you and your hubby every happiness in your married life.
    Cecilia K
    UK

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    • Thank you so much for your kind comment. I am glad to hear that my description of the ceremony was representative, although, as you point out, there is a wide variation. (I had the opportunity last spring to travel to Nigeria and attend two cousins' weddings, so I was lucky enough to experience some of that variation for myself.)

      I am incredibly grateful to my in-laws for hosting such a beautiful ceremony, providing traditional clothing for my family, and sharing resources so that my family and I could understand and fully participate in everything that was going on. I am also blessed that their community, both in the states and abroad, has been so kind, supportive, and accepting of our relationship.

      Thank you again,
      Alexa

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  19. Hi Alexa!! First of all I'd like to say your ceremony looked amazing. Also as a Yoruba woman I appreciate the effort you put into learning the culture. As I myself are about to embark on planning both a traditional wedding and a western wedding. I am marrying an American Caucasian. Him and his family are super excited and fascinated by the thought of a Yoruba traditional wedding. As excited as I am about it, I feel pretty overwhelmed. It seems very involved and I'm trying not to freak out. If you have any tips to impart it would be much appreciated. Thanks!!

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    • Hi. Sorry I didn't see this until now. I think it's totally reasonable to feel overwhelmed, though it's been a couple of months, so maybe you're feeling more like you've found your footing at this point (or maybe not, which is okay, too).

      I know one thing that really helped us (myself, my husband, and my parents) was watching parts of another ceremony that was similar to how ours was going to be with my mother-in-law and talking about the expectations and meanings behind each part. Other than that, talking through what was expected of us at each point helped. Will someone help your husband's family with buying/wrapping/presenting the dowry? Will they want to participate in spraying, and, if so, what's the best way to help them do that appropriately? And so on.

      One thing I didn't really understand when we got married but have come to understand after attending multiple other people's ceremonies is that a lot of the structure varies based on a ton of different factors, so while it helped to have an idea of the structure of the event, I also had to adjust to the fact that the what actually happened might be somewhat different from what was listed on the program or what we'd been walked through (for example).

      I hope some of that helps. Good luck with your planning.

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