We just celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary. Eight years ago I walked down the aisle in a beautiful white dress and married my handsome groom. I hadn’t a second thought in my mind that this occasion (the dress, the vows, the candles) was what all girls envisioned of when they dreamed of that special day. I had no doubt in my mind that this “white wedding” was how marriage was done.
Customarily, for most West Africans, the “traditional engagement”–but what’s really a traditional wedding ceremony—is usually executed as an engagement party or affair before the “white” wedding; especially here in the West, where Africans have to make room for western values and expectations of marriage and weddings, while making concessions for time restraints in what could be a lengthy process. I’ll explain the process and the order of ceremony for an African traditional wedding in the next post.
I first witnessed the traditional Ghanaian engagement ceremony when my aunt got engaged almost 19 years ago. It was a joyous, lively occasion. I remember lots of people; two families sitting across from each other—lots of boisterous negotiations back and forth. The event that stood out in my mind for the longest time, was the part when the bride’s family paraded about three young women—one by one—in front of the groom-to-be and asked him if the woman that was being unveiled to him was his bride.
It was funny and sweet because at this particular engagement, all the attention was on my aunt’s terribly shy groom and I could feel his nervousness as the women were gallantly escorted downstairs, guided in front of him and asked jokingly by the family ‘okyeame’ spokesperson, “Is this the beautiful flower you said you saw in our garden?” This to me, felt like the equivalent of watching a groom as his bride walks down the aisle to him escorted by her father. Observing for that moment, that gush of emotion we see in the movies, when for a split second a man would be vulnerable; taken by his bride’s beauty and the powerful symbolism contained in those few minutes when the the bride’s father gives his daughter over to her new husband.
While the gestures of the marriage ceremonies are similar, there are striking differences in performance. Something about the traditional way of performing marriage seemed raw and unembellished to me. A man’s in the market for a wife, he finds one, he comes over with his peeps, his schnapps and suitcases full of requested items—he makes his selection… et voila! He’s married. Even though this is the essence of all marriages, the simplicity of the event rubbed my Americanah senses the wrong way. I didn’t see the beauty. It all seemed so transactional. Where were the flowers, the puffery, the overwhelming emotion that’s supposed to bring a man to his knees?
I noticed that grooms didn’t tear up at our weddings—they sat, dignified as the families negotiate and close the deal, and the bride is officially handed over afterward.
My aunt’s engagement was fun and lively and quickly followed up the a beautiful “white wedding”—the wedding against which all other weddings would be judged by in my family—but I could never bring myself to be sold off like a brand new Chevy off the lot. I vowed off ever having a traditional engagement.
My outlook on traditional matters have changed a lot since my own reluctant, half-assed, traditional engagement affair 8 years ago. And I’m not alone in this shift. I reckon there’s been a shift, by the younger generation, to reclaim our traditions. This crop of young people are embracing culture and doing it up, remixing tradition and performing fresh interpretations of the traditional African marriage celebration.
I’ve been to a lot of traditional engagement parties since my first one 19 years ago. Most recently I attended my cousin Estella’s engagement in Atlanta. It was beautiful. There was a talking drum procession to accompany the knocking-ceremony (drumming is often a left out part of the tradition in America), there were vibrant varieties of royal kente cloth worn by the family, boatloads of gifts accompanied the groom to presented to the bride and her family. All this tradition was paired with confetti and balloon showers, and a sit-down full service royal dinner. I was impressed! Not by the ambience of the affair—anything can be made elegant—but by the beauty of our culture. A beauty that distinguishes itself with time, understanding, and a willingness to embrace it.
Estella’s engagement, like my aunt’s, was a joyous, lively occasion, punctuated with the puffery and flowers of weddings ‘first-gen’ girls have all grown to love and expect. This time though what stood out in my mind was the whole occasion, not just a piece out of context.
At Estella’s wedding, I witnessed a tradition, fully embraced.
Want more information and tips on planning a traditional engagement / wedding? Listen to this episode of This Afropolitan Life podcast!
What’s your take on the traditional wedding / engagement ceremony? Are you happy to see it being embraced the way it is?[Images courtesy of Estella Watkins]