My Nigerian engagement ceremony bridentity crisis

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 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 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

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

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.

Comments on My Nigerian engagement ceremony bridentity crisis

  1. 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.

  2. 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!!

    • 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.

    • I agree, this is great to see! I’m American-born with an Ijaw (subset of Ibo) father, and we’re trying to figure out how to include a nod to our heritage during the reception. I’d love to know what you came up with, I’m having trouble finding examples online!

  3. 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!

  4. 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?

    • 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.

  5. 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.

    • 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 . . .) 🙂

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

        • 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.

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

  6. 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 🙂

    • 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.) 🙂

  7. 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!

    • 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: https://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/

    • 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!!

  8. 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. 🙂

    • 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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