Welcome to a Yòrubá Engagement
Rain fell. Not hard but just enough to give us a few minutes to collect ourselves and observe the world through tinted windows. A few feet away uninvited cameramen stand in the light rain waiting for the bride and her sisters to emerge. The photographers are a tradition at these ceremonies. They take pictures of people, which they then develop within minutes, and then try to sell back to the unsuspecting party.
There is already a frenzy of activity: women in colorful traditional attires called “asookes” mill around. Their head scarves, or geles, perched at impossible angles on their heads, defying gravity.
We watch as the official caterers transfer food from their vans to the hall. We can tell them apart from guests who decided to bring their own food and voluntarily contribute to the event. I watch as the traditional “bata” drummers run from arriving guest to exiting guest, playing the drums, and praising them in our language in the hopes of getting “sprayed,” a term used for receiving money on the forehead, neck, or any other body part instead of in the hands.
This is the first engagement in my immediate family. It is my sister’s engagement. We are excited. Invitations had already been printed and sent out on her behalf so most of the arriving guests look unfamiliar. I can’t hide my glee when I spot a familiar face after so many unfamiliar faces file into the hall.
Already an hour late, my other sisters and I decide to go in the hall, leaving the bride behind. The ceremony will start whenever our parents want it to start, regardless of what time was printed on the invitations. The hall is filled with colorful attire: green for the groom’s side and purple for the bride’s side. Even random guests with no ties to either sides still come dressed in supporting colors. Almost in a sinful yet luxurious manner, many guests already started eating and reveling.
There are two bands playing simultaneously, each refusing to give the other a moment of spotlight. There are traditional Calabar dancers moving through the guests, gyrating, and shaking to gospel music being belted out by another band. I stand rooted to what is going on around me. When I are ready, I am expected to jump into the flow of the festivities.
“Take one!” a random lady yells at me, poking me with the gift item she wants to give me. I look at it. A plastic fan with a picture of my sister and her fiancé printed on it with the words “Congratulations.” The guests and other extended family members are bringing gifts to share with each other. Just like the coolers of food and crates of drinks they’d personally brought in to share. Soon enough, I am handed plastic containers, handkerchiefs, scarves, and pens from different individuals with pictures or words congratulating the newly engaged couple.
I stroll over to the table that holds the traditional gifts from the family of the groom to our family: tubers of yams, crates of beer, sacks of rice, bottles of wine, a hamper basket of items, and boxes of biscuits – some of which I can correctly guess based on the shape of each wrapped gift! More and more wrapped items are brought in and added to the pile.
It is at this moment, I glance at my sisters and we exchange a smile thinking back at how the day started. Way before the crack of dawn, everyone started changing into traditional attire, navigated through the maze of 30 relatives who had decided to come spend the night, prepare, and carpool with us to the festivities.
The event is now an hour and a half late, and the traditional engagement ceremony hasn’t officially started!
An outsider looking in would think total chaos, but in my culture this is one of the ways we express love and support. The selflessness to tirelessly work and celebrate one another is something I am proud. We take the concept of sharing to a new level.
In my Yòrubá culture, the term “community” is not just another word. We live and breathe it. It takes a community to raise children, teach children, acknowledge their successes, encourage them when they fail, and, celebrate their engagements and weddings. A Nigerian traditional engagement isn’t really about the celebrants but an opportunity for family and friends (and friends of friends) to reunite and reminisce. Everyone is family. So by bringing more food to a ceremony or bringing their own gifts to hand to your guests is an obligation, not an inconvenience.
The term, “mo gbọ, mo ya” literally translates into “I heard, I stopped by” which means if I heard someone I knew was getting engaged or married, I would stop by to celebrate with them. Official invitations to traditional engagements are just done out of courtesy.
As I observe the genuine happiness and warmth that emanates from the people moving around, eating, dancing, and sharing, I smile. For a moment and I think I had walked into someone else’s engagement party.