One can always tell when a Yoruba wedding is about to happen in the neighbourhood; the atmosphere crackles with excitement, neighbours' voices get a little louder, sometimes canopies spring up in the middle of the road.
In the houses of the groom's and the bride's parents, guests start to arrive from the first day of the week of the wedding. Aunts, cousins, nephews, someone's father's uncle's brother's friend, and other relatives who cannot be found on the most elaborate drawings of the family trees, help with various tasks from cooking to cleaning to running errands. At this time, neither the bride nor the groom is in their respective parents' houses, except they live there. Most couples prefer to arrive two days to the wedding to avoid or at least minimize participation in the wedding drama, but it cannot be avoided. The drama begins long before the wedding, from the day one makes or accepts a marriage proposal, but that is another matter entirely. Most Yoruba couples have two marriage ceremonies: the traditional or customary wedding, and the religious (white) wedding. The events are often split into two days, although some do them both on one day.
The aroma of delicious, home-cooked food will welcome you to the morning of the traditional wedding, along with voices calling out in excitement. The ceremony typically starts in the afternoon, when the sun is high. The venue of the ceremony is lavishly decorated with lights, flowers, and cotton fabric in the colours of the day. Both families, along with their friends and well wishers, are the first to be seated. Drummers serenade them with beats from talking drums. The traditional wedding is presided over by two moderators called Alagas, one representing each family. These alagas are almost always female, but sometimes they are male. They introduce both families, sing songs, recite eulogies and sing lineage praises until the party people begin to put money in their collection plates.
The introductions out of the way, it is now time for the groom to come in and “declare his intentions.” The groom is decked out in either a buba and sokoto with a flowing Agbada, or a dashiki, another type of agbada with short sleeves that requires no buba, with the sokoto. While the agbada, the sokoto, and the fila are made with aso oke, the blouse is made from either lace or cotton fabric. The groom’s buba and agbada sport intricate embroidery in the front, from the neck down to the centre of the chest. The outfit is completed with coral beads. The groom approaches the entrance with his army of friends who are dressed in outfits of matching colours, but they cannot come in yet; they must pay owó ìsílèkùn, a fee to “unlock the door.” This must be placed in the alagas’ bowls. Without It, the groom and his entourage cannot enter. If the amount they put in the bowls is deemed insufficient, they will not be allowed in either.
After the door has been successfully unlocked, the groom and his men dance into the venue and end their dance in the wide space between both families. One of the alagas directs the groom to each set of parents in turn; first, his parents, to whom he prostrates in appreciation of all they have done, after which he receives their prayers and blessings. Next, he dances a few feet to his bride's family and repeats the process, only this time, it is more elaborate because he has come to “seek permission to pluck the beautiful flower in their garden”. While he and his friends remain prostrate, the alaga advises him to declare his intentions and state whether he humbly requests his bride's hand or not. He and his friends rise and prostrate as many times as the alaga deems necessary for him to appreciate the delicacy and worth of the flower he seeks to pluck. After this, the parents of the bride bless him and accept his proposal of marriage. The groom then dances to his seat, a specially made throne for the couple.
When the groom is seated, it is time to bring the bride in. The bride is a vision of loveliness in her iro and buba, (blouse and wrapper, the traditional outfit for Yoruba women), complete with a gele (head tie) and iborun (shoulder sash) and surrounded by her friends. As with the groom’s attire, the wrapper, shoulder sash, and head tie are more commonly made of aso oke, while the buba is made from lace. Although more brides are opting for full aso oke looks, where all items of clothing, including the blouse, are made from aso oke. Modern bridal aso oke is often adorned with stones matching or complementing the colour of the cloth.
The bride also pays a fee at the entrance, but she is not delayed as much as the groom, after all, she is the flower. She dances in with her friends; sometimes they even have a choreographed number. Her dance also ends in the wide space between both families. She kneels to receive her parents' blessings, and makes her way to her husband's family. She kneels in greeting and accepts their welcome and blessings. She then makes her way to her husband and places his fila on his head.
After the bride is seated, a letter of declaration of intent from the groom’s family is read out loud by a member of the bride's family, usually a younger sibling or cousin. This is preceded by music, dancing, and a round of collections for whoever will read the letter.
The groom's family present the bride price, and it is either accepted, returned in good faith, or presented to the couple as a donation from the family. After this, the bride looks through the gift items brought by the groom's family and must choose an item bearing the wedding ring, which he places on her finger. The ceremony is pretty much complete at this point.
Nigerians are a people entrenched in culture, and nothing is more evidence than the fact that the aso oke is still the only outfit deemed worthy of wear for the bride and groom on their Happy Day. Olori bags are made from these beautifully patterned and historically rich fabrics; lookout for a sequel post with more information about the aso oke.