Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Tale of Two Weddings

On the first of December, a Saturday, we headed off for Pankshin, about two hours south of Jos for the wedding of Cosmos and Felicia in the small village of Njari Fier. Although we were not acquainted with Felicia, Cosmos is our colleague at the university of Jos, in the Dept. of Religious Studies, where he is teaching New Testament Greek to undergraduates. Moreover, he is presently being guided in writing his PhD thesis on Desmond Tutu and nonviolence in Africa with Adrian. Cosmos lost his first wife some two years ago, and has three children, so his new marriage was a truly happy occasion, a cause for celebration.

The trip itself was largely without mishap until we got close to Njari Fier. We actually drove past the crossing, somehow missing the neon yellow sign the family had put up. So we arrived at the College of Education where our CSI colleagues, the Wiebe's, are stationed, and got some direction from the guards. Back we went. The only problem was that in going back in the direction of Jos we met road safety inspection officers, and they made sure to keep up the inspection until they found a number of problems with our vehicle: a brakelight that did not work quite properly and another light, which used only at night, we did not know was malfunctioning, since we hardly ever drive in the dark. The officers impressed on us that we were negligent in the care of our car. At which point we were thankful that our driver and mechanic, Philip, was with us, and he showed them the mechanics tools he had taken along in the 'boot', to convince them that we really were not negligent at all, but grateful to them for pointing out problems which he would solve as soon as we got back to Jos. That softened the point a bit; when they finally recognized that we would not pay to get out of the situation they let us go.

We found the turnoff, and drove on a dirt road for a couple of miles until we found the village, a long distance from the road and close to where arable land turns into mountainous rocks. The wedding was supposed to start at 10am, but that Saturday was designated 'sanitation day' for Plateau state. Thus no traffic movement was allowed the first hours, before 10am; everybody was supposed to be outside their homes, cleaning the environment, getting rid of garbage. Had we not lost the turn, or met the safety inspection, we might have made it by about 12 noon, but by the time we arrived it was closer to 1pm. We expected to join the party for the last of the reception at that point. But in fact the wedding had not yet started. There was a small band playing in the Catholic church where the wedding was to be held, and for some ten minutes we were able to sit in expectation, getting our ears bombarded - as white people (in fact, we were the only 'baturi' or white people at the event) we are given seats of honour, right up front, to get the full benefit of the music. This was a Catholic church and a rather large one for that village, we thought, but the songs, especially praise songs and choruses, are very much the same that one would hear in most any Protestant church.

Shortly after 1pm the groom and his supporters took their place, and soon the officiating clergy also entered, a fairly large team of nine, including a Rev. Father whom we knew from teaching at St. Augustine's Major Seminary in Jos; among them was also a priest who has been our graduate student at Unijos. And finally the flower girls and the bride herself with her supporters came dancing into the church, and the ceremony proper could begin.

The service itself proceeded smoothly, with entrance rites and prayers, readings from scripture, the exhange of vows, prayers of blessing and intercession, concluding with the celebration of the eucharist. As you can see from the clock in the photo below, it was closer to 3pm when the service finished.

After signing of the registry, it was time for taking photos, with a fairly efficient line-up of the various groups to be photographed with the new couple. Here they are taken with the family of Cosmos; the family is fairly prominent in the village, and Cosmos is clearly a favoured son, well-educated in comparison with many. In Nigeria weddings are the responsibility of the groom and his family, and indeed it was clear that much of the village turned up to help them celebrate.

Photography over, it was time to move to the open field next to the church, where the reception was to be held. A number of canopies and plastic chairs had been set out for the group. Most of the churchgoers and villagers had already moved in that direction awaiting the arrival of the bride and groom. Cosmos and Felicia took their time to do so, dancing the whole way, serenaded by two traditional bands, one mostly of women, and one of men, with traditional instruments, horns and drums.

Finally - they arrive at the red carpet, to take the seats of honour reserved for them, no plastic chairs here; upholstered chairs have been taken from various homes in the village to give a comfortable spot from which to enjoy the event. In fact, we ourselves had been given a special spot, also with upholstered chairs, right behind the bride and groom.

The cutting of the cake is always an important moment. Bride and groom hold the knife together while the lady who has prepared the cake explains the ingredients, most of them having to do with love, patience and good humour. But it is not enough to cut the cake. The bride and groom are also asked to feed each other from that cake, and then to help each other take a drink, as their 'first public duty'.

As an important part of the reception numerous dances are held, whether by the couple, the groom with his family, or various family and social groups. In each case the band strikes up a tune and the participants move about rhythmically, while those who are sponsoring or supporting the couple in various ways come forward and 'paste money' on their foreheads or scatter it about them as a way of blessing the new couple. We have observed this very Nigerian custom on a number of celebrative occasions; most of the time small bills are used, 10 or 20 naira, seldom greater amounts. The bills are picked up and counted at the end of each dance. The intention seems to be one of helping to offset costs of the occasion.

It appears that organizers thought not enough money had been donated, for the MC kept on announcing more dances to honour various people in the audience. Adrian had been asked to give a toast, but the time was getting dangerously near 5.30 pm, the limit for us to leave Pankshin to get back to Jos before dark. No food or drinks had been served yet! Well, we waited for the moment of the toast, left our gift, and then headed off quickly to find our car, and Philip, our driver. We did stop after some 20 minutes at a roadside café to pick up soft drinks - we really were thirsty after that marathon celebration.

During one of her final classes with students in Advanced New Testament Greek Wendy received a wedding invitation from her graduate student Okoriko, a canon in the Anglican church. Not in Jos, however, but in Abuja. At first we thought it would be impossible to attend that occasion, but it finally dawned on us that the date, Dec. 8, was the very date we also planned to be in Abuja by evening to pick up our CSI Canada director, Dr. Henk Van Andel, and his wife Vicky, arriving for a visit to Nigeria. So we decided to mix business with pleasure, so to speak, and come to Abuja early that Saturday to be able to celebrate with Okoriko and his bride, Ayedime. The background for this wedding was actually somewhat similar to that of Cosmos, for Okoriko too had lost his first wife some two years ago, and was trying to raise three little ones on his own. But with that the similarities between the two weddings came to an end! We had anticipated that this Abuja wedding would be different, for Abuja is the capital of Nigeria, and things are done a bit more formally there. But we were not quite prepared for how big would be the difference between these two occasions!

We left Jos early, at 6am, and arrived in Abuja without much interruption of roadblock or safety checks on the roads, in time to check in at the ECWA guest house, before trying to find the church. We had a general idea of the area of Abuja where the church was located, in Maitama, a relatively well-to-do section, but as we got close we discovered that those whom we asked could not tell us more precisely how to find it. Finally our driver had the bright idea of asking at the large Catholic church in the area, and indeed, they pointed us the way. It was not far. We arrived with enough time to spare. We had not taken time for coffee or refreshment after the long trip, and as we were looking for drinking water Okoriko himself walked towards us. He had not expected us. The text message we had sent to confirm our acceptance of the invitation had not been received. So he was pleasantly surprised to see us, and welcomed us warmly with a big African hug.

Our driver (from Jos) predicted that a 10am wedding would probably not start before 11. But he was wrong. Promptly at 10 the assembled clergy (and Okoriko one of them) entered the church, St. Matthews, a large and finished, well-lit structure. The organ was playing! No band or chorus singing here. We sang the processional hymn, "To God be the glory" and the church echoed with the refrain sung from our hearts, "Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!" The tone was set for a very happy, but dignified celebration.

After the charge and declaration, we sang "My faith looks up to Thee." This was followed by the vows, exchange of rings, and prayers.

The service continued with scripture readings, more hymns and the address, or sermon. As at the Catholic service, this one also concluded with celebration of the eucharist. However, we were struck by the difference in participants. Whereas in Pankshin the audience was about 90% women (we later found more men outside, drinking!), here there was a much greater balance of men and women, probably not just coincidental.

Celebration of eucharist, or holy communion concluded with the singing of the very fitting hymn, "O perfect love, all human love transcending." And soon the service concluded with signing of the marriage registry, announcements, benediction and closing hymn. Before this was all finished however, the entire group of officiating clergy posed with the new couple for a lovely photo. We heard that Archbishop Akinola himself would have wished to attend this wedding, but sent his regrets, since he was in North America to consecrate Anglican clergy who have come under his jurisdiction.

The couple left the sanctuary for photo-taking on the front steps of the church. Again, the process went rather quickly and efficiently. And soon it was time to move over to the church hall, right beside the church, for the reception. Not in a field this time! In fact, the bride and groom were to sit at the front of the hall, with two other sponsoring couples, while the rest of us sat on chairs in tiers of rows to the back of the hall. This hall was not very big, so those who could not find a place there were accommodated just outside under a canopy. They could hear, if not see what was happening inside. The two of us actually ended up in the front row, and were honoured to sit beside Mrs. Akinola, the lady whom the entire Nigerian Anglican community addresses as 'Mommy'.

The bridal couple danced to enter the room, but it was not a long procession, just long enough for them to receive a warm welcome before they were seated. After the opening prayer and chairman's address, the important moment came, the cutting of the cake. The chairman remarked at the professional job done by Okoriko in feeding his new wife, recognizing he was clearly experienced from feeding his congregation! Okoriko was beaming through the entire event, a joyous occasion indeed!

It was time for the 'nuptial dance'. Okoriko and Ayedime led the dance, and had lots of money 'pasted' on their foreheads, and rather than the 10 and 20 naira bills one commonly sees, there were notes of 500 and even 1,000 naira here. By this time drinks had been passed around, so we could toast the bride and groom. Not long after this plates of jollof rice (something like rice pilaf) and meat or fish were also being passed around, so we did not leave the hall hungry. The entire celebration was finished by 2pm. We were simply astonished that a wedding could be conducted in such a time-conscious manner here in Nigeria, in Abuja.

What a study in contrast these two events! We really enjoyed the Pankshin wedding, and appreciate being invited to participate in such village events. It gives us a chance to see and experience Nigerian life from an angle that is not available in Jos itself. Our work does not often take us into the rural areas, where we find the real roots of the lives of our students and colleagues. Like Okoriko, Cosmos expressed warm appreciation for our taking the time to be there for him at such an important point in his life.

But we could not help noticing that the Abuja wedding had anything but a village flavour. Here a significant core of Nigeria's Anglican clergy celebrated the joyful union of one of their own. The church structure, nicely finished, decorated and well-lit, lent itself to a far more 'Western' atmosphere. The well-known elements, including the cake ceremony and traditional dances with money, were duly observed, but in a far more restrained way. We ourselves appreciated the familiar and beautiful hymns, sung with enthusiasm, and loud enough to fill that spacious structure, but not overwhelming, as in many contemporary services in Nigeria. However much we enjoyed those hymns and the more restrained music, melodious, and loud without altogether battering our ears, we recognized that the 'real Nigeria', if one might call it that, was represented not in the Abuja, but the Pankshin celebration.