Two months ago, when I was invited to be my boyfriend’s date to his sister’s engagement party, I happily accepted. But I had no idea what to expect.
Now, I realize that no amount of anticipation could have prepared me for the epicness that is a Nigerian engagement party.
Necessary background: my boyfriend’s family is white. But because his sister was marrying a Nigerian, she got to participate in all the remarkable traditions I’m about to recount. They were so amazing, they almost made me want to marry a Nigerian (if you’re reading this, boyfie, I’m just kidding…mostly).
The party was at five — and, like a genius, I’d told my bosses at Chick-Fil-A that they could schedule me during the afternoon beforehand. When I looked at my schedule, I realized I was slated to work until three — and by the time I got home, that meant I’d have an hour and a half to get ready.
In case you’re not a female, let me clear things up: a girl having an hour and a half to get ready for a party is like a football team having ten seconds to rehearse a play. It’s extremely difficult and borderline impossible — a feat that would bring fear to all but the most seasoned professionals.
Before my shift, I spent the entire morning getting ready to get ready. This entailed me ricocheting around my home like it had transformed into a bounce house, painting my nails, laying out my dress, and picking jewelry. That way I could dive into my outfit the second I got home.
And then came my Chick-Fil-A shift. Once it was over, I scarfed a Southwest Salad in my car, drove home, chucked myself out of my car as if thrown, and hurried into the shower.
Of all the different sub-tasks of “getting myself ready”, I spent the longest time shaving my legs.
That stuff is one step down from brain surgery.
I put on my black slip dress, completing it with a necklace, a grey lace cardigan, and a broad-shouldered maroon overcoat from Anthropologie. And then my boyfriend arrived.
Before the party, we had to attend the wedding rehearsal. It would take place at Texas Woman’s University’s self-named “Little Chapel in the Woods.”
When we got there, almost no one had arrived, and the priest gave me and my boyfriend permission to explore. I was walking through one of the sparsely-furnished back rooms when I spotted a framed poem. The first words I saw were “two lovers,” and for some reason, the whole “we’re in a chapel, where people commonly get married, therefore this is probably a marriage poem” idea hadn’t yet occurred to me. I assumed it was an antiquated Shakespearian poem, the sappy kind that uses the word “lovers” all the time. So I let out a monosyllabic chuckle and pointed to the words. “Ha. That’s funny… wait…” And then I actually read the poem and realized it was about weddings. It was also extremely sweet. Obviously, I felt like an idiot — and not for the last time that night.
Me and my boyfriend read the poem with our arms around each other, which was pretty awesome. It might have even been a capital-M “Moment”.
“Ope, I hear voices,” I said, and sure enough, when we ventured into the main atrium, my boyfriend’s family had arrived. They gave us an up-down. They probably thought we’d been making out in a back corner.
Then everyone got onstage to run through the rehearsal. I slid into one of the glazed-wood pews to wait.
I was hungry, so I got out the packet of trail mix that I brought. But I couldn’t open it, so I had the genius idea to get out my pen and poke it through the plastic. I did this successfully. Then, with the pen still lodged the trail mix packet, I pulled it, thinking I’d create a neat little opening from which to enjoy my much-needed snack. Aaaaand… the bag exploded. Nuts and cranberries shot across the pew and scattered into the aisle. My boyfriend’s dad shot me a confused look, like, “What the flip?”
I searched for my voice. “I’m so sorry,” I said woodenly, “I will pick that up.”
Even though I didn’t look up at the stage, I knew everyone could see me; I was the only one in the pews beside my boyfriend’s dad.
I got on the ground to pick up the nuts, then realized through my panic-fog that I was wearing a short dress, and if I knelt down the wrong way, I’d flash somebody. So I carefully got on my knees and started grabbing nuts and cranberries as quickly as possible.
And then the chapel doors opened, and in walked the groom.
Everyone applauded his arrival. I froze in my crouch, so mortified I wondered if I was going into shock. The groom looked down at me while he was shrugging off his coat, like, “why is there a girl on the ground picking up nuts.” I looked back at him, face flaming, unable to speak. Though it’s not like I could have said “I’m unbelievably sorry for dropping trail mix on the aisle you and your new wife are gonna walk down.”
Somehow I picked everything up and sat in the pew. I didn’t bother to eat the half-bag of trail mix that had survived: my appetite had shrunken back into the shadows, just like I wished I could.
After the rehearsal finished, we absconded to the engagement party. It was at a host home, rented out by someone who was currently away in the military. The party took place in the entry foyer, which was built like a long, wide hallway. The living room occupied the first thirty feet, while a kitchen boxed in by countertops took up the rest. By the time we arrived, twenty people were already awaiting the ceremony. My boyfriend went to get changed, while I sat down and tried not to radiate waves of introversion-fueled panic.
Eventually, my boyfriend came out. Like his seven siblings, he was wearing a coordinated outfit custom-tailored in Nigeria. He and his brothers wore pajama-like pairings of blue striped pants and embroidered t-shirts. They were also wearing hats reminiscent of Krispy-Kreme paper caps. These were made of stiff, moldable fabric that originally came standing straight up, until you fitted it around your forehead and crushed it down, compressing the hat on one side. The girls wore indigo-blue dresses patterned in dark swirls and yellow flowers. The dresses were mermaid-style, tapering at the waist, with gills of ruffles on the hips. (I want one SO BAD!!)
The living room was arranged like a miniature, Americanized throne room: an open space in the center, with two outward-facing seats for the bride and groom. On either side, ranks of chairs faced the middle — one end for the groom’s family, one for the bride’s.
I settled in the back next to my boyfriend for what would turn out to be an amazing night.
To start off, Nigerian engagement parties are considered to be just as important, if not more important, than the actual wedding itself. The night was steeped in tradition, all of it coordinated by a respect-commanding African elder named Stella, our emcee for the night. (Stella was a shortened version of her African name, which Americans would have found hard to pronounce.)
Of course, when most people hear the word “tradition”, their mental thesaurus immediately comes up with words like “stuck up” and “antiquated”. African tradition is anything but. For starters, Nigerians are masters at making up excuses to dance, as you’re about to find out.
The groomsmen — also known as the male members of the wedding party — got to immediately enter the room and sit down. But the bridesmaids gathered in the back room and made their grand entrance after the ceremony started. Once Stella called for the bridesmaids and the bride, she promptly burst into song. Meanwhile, a pair of drummers sparked a peppy tune. The bridesmaids shimmied out, doing a little dance as they walked. It’s Nigerian tradition to enter in this way. Every entrance would echo this tradition — and the next day, when the bridal party entered the wedding reception, we’d also be asked to dance.
But before the bride walked out, a lot of traditions had to take place. Stella stood in the corner of the living room and ran us through all the Nigerian customs, alternating between spoken word and song. Her voice had a calming, deep timbre, the sound that would result if a broad, wizened oak tree could speak. It gave her singing the transcendent quality of a magician’s chanting.
First, the groom’s friends put on a reenactment of sorts, showing us what it was like in Nigeria when a man found a woman he wanted to marry. Traditionally, the guy’s family visits the family of the prospective bride. The goal is to check them out, and, in Stella’s words, “Make sure they are not a criminal or a druggist.” And so the groom’s friends walked in through the door and sang, “We’re here, we want to meet you,” and handed a wad of one-dollar bills to the African woman in charge of the money bowl. As you will soon learn, money is also a huge part of Nigerian wedding tradition.
The groom’s friends then danced into the room while two drummers tapped out a jaunty melody. The drums were shaped like giant tubes, pinched in the middle, and hung from a strap over the drummers’ shoulders. The bodies of the drums were surrounded by threaded strings, and the musicians would grab them in alternating handfuls to change the pitch of the instruments.
Stella continued the ceremony. She narrated the entire story of how the groom asked the bride’s family if he could marry her, and her family’s resulting response. And the best part was, she narrated it IN SONG!!! I didn’t realize how wide I was grinning until I felt my face getting sore.
I should mention that Nigerians are extremely touchy, which I love. They are masters of the highly informal gathering. Example number one: both the groom and his brother hugged me in greeting the first time we met. Example number two: when Stella passed me on her way to retrieve something from the kitchen, she braced a hand on my bare thigh for .5 seconds to steady herself. I chuckled.
Finally, the bride dance-walked into the room, accompanied by her bridesmaids. All the girls were wearing elaborate headdresses with the same flexible fabric as the boys’ hats. And each bridesmaid’s headdress was molded into a slightly different, rose-like swirl atop her head. They were absolutely breathtaking. The bride stood out in her maroon dress and same-colored shroud. Her future husband’s eyes lit up as she sauntered to the center of the room. Then came blessings (the groom received his blessings lying prostrate on the ground between his friends, another tradition) and prayers, along with formal letters proposed to each family, accepting the marriage. And then all we had left to do was celebrate. Stella sang compliments about the bride on a loop: “He wants to marry her because… she’s witty, she’s funny, she’s kind, attractive, attentive, compassionate…” It was SO CUTE. If smiles could burst, mine would have.
There was also a brief moment where Stella mentioned the virtues required for a successful marriage. “Communication, understanding, effort…” she listed, and then, in a slightly lowered tone, “…and sex.” She repeated it twice, just so we didn’t miss the message. I just about died laughing.
Then the groom stood in front of the bride, and Stella went, “Kiss her on the cheek.” He did. “Now kiss her on the forehead.” He followed. Stella finished with, “Now kiss her on the neck, but don't kiss her on the warehouse,” while indicating her own chest area. Me and my boyfriend lost it. See, right here, Nigerians have already destroyed the two most common cliches of stuffy, silent traditions: not only was everyone dancing, but everyone was laughing their heads off!
Now it was time for the introductions. This was my favorite part, besides watching the bride blush under all her well-deserved compliments. Stella had each person come up to the center of the living room, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone. That person would take the mic, then say their names and their relationship with the bride or groom. And then came the fun part. Stella would regain the mic. Accompanied by the drummers, she’d sing a little song. The party member would dance… while onlookers threw money at them!
The money-throwing had already interweaved itself into several moments of the ceremony. In sum total, the bride and groom were subject to around three sessions of money-rain. The best part was that according to Nigerian tradition, you didn’t just throw the dollar bills. If you could get close, you pressed the money to your target’s forehead before letting it fall to the ground. (One time, someone pressed a dollar bill to a drummer’s forehead. The guy was sweating, so the money stuck to his face. He didn’t move to take it off, so for a solid minute, there was this guy walking around with money on his forehead.)
After the person finished dancing, they would scoop up the cash. If you were the bride or groom, you got to keep it; if not, you held onto the bills to shower them on someone else. At first, the tradition confused me. But now, I realize that it’s quite beautiful. In American culture, we wish people well all the time, but we rarely give them something tangible to provide for them. In Nigerian weddings, however, they give money as physical manifestations of goodwill. No one in a Nigerian wedding party is simply a well-wishing bystander: they are called to tangibly help the couple prosper.
(Side note: most of the time, so many people would crowd a given dancer that the younger adults couldn’t get close. So my boyfriend’s sister had the brilliant idea to fold money into paper airplanes and throw it. It worked spectacularly.)
First, Stella called up my boyfriend and three of his siblings. They danced as a group while people threw money at them.
Then they came and sat down. I expected Stella to skip over me, but to my alarm, I found her pointing in my direction. “And who are you?”
You know how in movie trailers, to increase suspense, they’ll play this single-syllable “DUNNNNNN” right before or after a dramatic turn of events? Well, that was the same sound that played in my head when I felt, rather than saw, everybody glance over at me.
I quickly gathered myself and said my name. I was expecting the attention to be over, but then Stella waved for me to walk up, and I happily complied. It took me roughly .5 seconds to get over my nervousness, and once I did, I was touched that they were including me. They asked me my relationship to the bride. I said I was her brother’s girlfriend.
“We’ll be doing an engagement party for you soon, then,” Stella said, and I smiled, preparing to sit back down.
…and then my boyfriend’s dad casually went, “And she loves dancing!”
Stella jumped on the opportunity and launched into song. Luckily, my boyfriend’s dad was right. I pulled out all my best dance moves, and luckily, it seemed to work: the cute lady holding the money basket next to Stella started laughing and imitating some of my moves! And of course, then my boyfriend walked up and threw money on me. I wouldn’t have considered my night complete if he hadn’t.
The rest of the evening was filled with eating: the common ground of all wedding ceremonies. Disclaimer: fried plantains are delicious.
If you think proms are a night to remember, try Nigerian weddings. Between working and getting ready, the day was a whirlwind. But sometimes, whirlwind days have a way of sweeping you into the eye of the storm — and that’s where the best memories are made.
And if Nigerians have taught me anything, it’s that dancing while walking is the only REAL way to enter a room.