The Yes Woman: It’s a nice day for a Nigerian wedding

Sober dancing, communal fabrics and colourful smocks for the groomsmen: this is no sombre ceremony

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock

 

I have reached those dangerous years when people I know are starting to get married. Generally, when a wedding invitation slips through the letterbox, I am overcome with anxiety. It usually means an expensive overnight stay somewhere, relentless, ankle-swivelling dancing with someone’s intoxicated uncle, and an evening that ends with a group of balding, middle-aged men lamenting their lost youth, loudly and long. Before all that, there’s tepid food, a best man speech that goes on far too long, and an egotistical cake, the construction of which has almost certainly required a bank loan.

Most Irish weddings I have attended proceed in this lumbering fashion. It’s worth it only if you are truly attached to the person or people getting married. A friend’s arrogant cake is more easily justified. A sibling’s badly written speech is wittier, and a beloved uncle’s dancing is more endearing.

 

Reservations

When a wedding invitation from my partner’s close friend arrived a couple of months ago, I arranged my face into an expression of enthusiasm, while having secret reservations. I asked him what he thought I should wear. “Oh I don’t know,” he responded with a shrug. “But I’ll be wearing a traditional Yoruba groomsman’s outfit.” I looked at him, my hand dropping slowly from some fussy dress I’d pulled halfway out of the wardrobe. “Pardon?” I said, politely. “Oh,” he said. “Didn’t you know? This is a traditional Nigerian wedding?”

Several weeks later, we are standing in a school hall somewhere in London. I am wearing some dress or other – the sort one would wear awkwardly to an Irish wedding – and standing beside a group of groomsmen who are looking deeply uncomfortable in their ensembles. The outfit is a sort of large smock, with matching hat and trousers, made from fabric with a vivid blue pattern. Several of the groomsmen are white friends of the groom, who is also white, and they look like frightened woodland creatures as they huddle together, waiting for the guests to arrive and the ceremony to begin. This is already nothing like what they – or I – are used to. It is vibrant; music is playing, everything is colourful. There is no sombre ceremony here.

 

Same fabric

As the guests start to arrive, I recognise the same fabric the groomsmen wear everywhere. The women wear completely different dresses made from it. Lots of men have elements of it in their outfit: a hanky, a hat, a waistcoat. Small children wear it too. I ask a lady next to me what I’m seeing. She tells me it is tradition: the bride’s family buys a large amount of the fabric and sends it to friends and loved ones so they can have something made for the wedding. That way, everyone feels included in the festivities.

The older ladies wear geles, fantastically flamboyant head ties. The fabrics are ostentatious and colourful, and I envy them: they look like birds of paradise. They head in and out of the back room, fussing and clucking over the bride, giving instructions that brook no argument as they go. They are frightening and impressive.

Mine is by far the whitest face in the room, and for a moment I get a tiny glimpse of what it must be like for my non-white friends at home. To feel so conspicuous when you’d rather just watch or join in the fun is very educational. Luckily, people seem to make an effort to be especially nice.

Suddenly, the drums start up and the groom – who has an abundance of self-confidence – starts to dance merrily up the aisle, followed by his groomsmen, looking wide-eyed. Once he has been accepted into the family, the bride emerges in a fantastic gold and purple outfit, complete with a shimmering purple veil. The families sit across from one another and are both heavily involved in the ceremony, which is a joining of families rather than individuals.

After several interludes for entirely sober dancing – which would tax many Irish people far beyond their shame barrier – they are married, and I am heartened to see that there is indeed cake. Certain traditions are sacrosanct, regardless of cultural differences.

 

  • Yes to . . . new cultures. No to . . . drunken uncles
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