Nigerian Wedding Customs (Photo: )
Nigeria is a populous country with hundreds of ethnicities, each with its own wedding customs. The largest groups are the Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo and Ijaw, but there are many more distinct communities of people who make Nigeria their home. No matter what your ancestral identity might be, a Nigerian wedding is traditionally an extravaganza that honors both the loving couple and their proud families, where all and sundry can enjoy the festivities with lots of music, dancing and food. Should your journeying take you to a wedding in Nigeria, you are lucky indeed.
Before the Wedding
There are a few traditional hurdles for Igbo couples to get over before their wedding date. Theoretically, they can’t even set that date until older siblings have married (no pressure, big brother!). An Igbo bride provides her prospective groom with a dowry list of gifts he is obliged to present to her family; if he fails to come up with the goods, he risks losing his bride.
Hausa and Fulani grooms have traditionally proven their worth by subjecting themselves to a lashing before they can claim a bride. This custom has its roots in the historical importance of endurance, courage and discipline to these nomadic tribes.
Aso Ebi is a Yoruba term roughly meaning “family cloth.” It refers to the colorful attire worn as a signifier of group identity, especially at weddings where the bride’s family, groom’s family, guests and others may have their own distinct Aso Ebi to wear. This usage has spread from the Yoruba people to folks all over Africa. Anyone close to the wedding families may be expected to follow this tradition.
It has become fashionable in some quarters to hold a more western-style marriage ceremony. However, even a westernized bride will often change from her wedding dress to exquisite African attire for the reception. While many Yoruba brides wear their Aso Ebi threads, Igbo brides may prefer their own traditional lace blouse, colorful skirt, coral beads and headpiece.
Matters of Ceremony
Yoruba traditions are largely based on mutual respect. In a ritual still practiced at many weddings, the groom demonstrates his high regard for his bride’s family by prostrating himself before them. Friends of the groom are also expected to prostrate themselves.
Igbo traditions include presenting the groom with three ladies, their faces covered. He must pick out his bride and woe unto him should he fail. In a case of “turnabout is fair play,” the Igbo bride must find her groom amongst the crowd and present him with a cup of palm wine.
Ijaw custom calls for the bride to maintain a stoic, unsmiling demeanor – at least until the groom offers her a gift of money. Then, covered in cash, she is allowed to smile.
After the Vows
When newlyweds step onto the dance floor for the first time, tradition calls for guests to throw cash at the bride. This is a longstanding, wide-spread Nigerian wedding custom and continues to be very popular with bridal couples. Although it’s not mandatory for guests to take part in the “spraying” of bills, it does add to the fun. The bridesmaids retrieve the cash for safekeeping, and the entire assembly then takes to the dance floor. Nigerian wedding dances are lively, sometimes involving playful competitions amongst attending families. To get the hang of such dances as the Azonto, Kukere and Skelewu, you can check out the moves via a simple internet search.
Tradition Adapts to the 21st Century
As happens in any forward-looking society, cultural norms in Nigeria have changed over the years. Centuries-old traditions evolve and develop. Some are incorporated into modern life, others are abandoned. For example, the protocols surrounding the formal introduction of the prospective groom to the bride’s parents have given away to a more relaxed approach. The bride-price these days might be only a token settlement, which – while technically adhering to the venerable custom of paying dowry – avoids putting undue pressure on the young man. Other traditions are accomplished with tongue in cheek, such as the Yoruba groom having to carry his bride in order to prove he can support her physically as well as well as romantically.
The ancient Yoruba ritual of displaying a blood-stained sheet after the wedding night in order to display the bride’s virginal state – and sending the bride’s family a boiled yam should the red stain fail to appear – has fallen into disuse. Chastity may still be prized for both partners during the engagement period, but this is more of a personal choice than a cultural command.
The Biggest Party in the World
Nigeria has always been a culture of celebration, and famously so. In the case of weddings, this has meant huge, extravagant parties lasting till the wee hours, with open invitations and over-the-top decor. Modern young couples often opt for both a more traditional cultural wedding on top of a separate religious ceremony – and when the bride and groom come from two different tribes, even more layers of rejoicing (and complications) are added.
This convergence of customs is evidenced in the recent blockbuster film, “The Wedding Party.” A record-breaking smash hit in Nigeria, it’s a charming romantic comedy about a sweet Igbo bride and her stalwart Yoruba groom as they navigate the tricky proceedings of their wedding day amid obstacles, accidents and combative parents. If you want an idea of how contemporary Nigerian weddings both use and adapt traditional culture, this movie is tailor-made for you. For instance, there are hilarious scenes in which the bride’s mother insists on keeping her traditional role of feeding the crowd, leading to a heated competition between her and the harried hired caterer. To see who wins, you must watch the movie; it’s widely available on streaming services. It might also help prepare you for the real thing, should you be fortunate enough to include a Nigerian wedding in your travel itinerary.
Judith Tingley is a writer, editor and multi-media artist based in Louisville, Kentucky. She studied English literature at the University of Chicago and has continued her education via classes in editing, as well as through writing workshops. The many articles she’s written for USA Today and Working Mother reflect a broad range of interests, including international travel and cultural history. She loves road trips and new adventures. Visit her website at heyjudetheobscure.com