​At a traditional Nigerian wedding in St. John’s, I finally saw my vibrant culture in my new home

Esther Aina, second from right, was one of the traditional bridesmaids, also known as aso ebi ladies, for her friend’s Nigerian wedding ceremony in St. John’s. (John Gaudi/CBC) This First Person column is written by Esther Aina, a linguist and educator living in St. John’s. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see  the FAQ . 

After spending over six years in Canada, I was recently transported back home to Nigeria as I took in the vibrant tapestry of my culture at a traditional Nigerian wedding in St. John’s.

It was a Saturday, and as a popular saying in Nigeria goes, “Saturdays are for owanbe.”

Owanbe, a term coined by the Yoruba people of Nigeria, refers to elaborate party ceremonies of all forms, be they weddings, birthday parties, graduations or any life event Nigerians deem worthy of celebration. In Nigeria, every weekend is typically an owanbe weekend filled with reasons to rejoice and attend lively parties.

Contrasting with the often dull weekends I have experienced since moving to St. John’s, this particular ceremony would emerge as a resounding tribute to my culture.

All around me I could hear my local dialect and traditional songs that I hadn’t heard since I left Nigeria.

A friend of mine, Toluwani Familusi, was tying the knot and I was one of her aso ebi ladies (the term refers to the dresses worn by the bridesmaids). She chose women who had played significant roles over the course of her life and our duty was to support and celebrate with her as she was led to her husband’s family.

We were adorned in our cream and gold dresses that had been intricately designed and sewn in Nigeria and were fitted and adjusted by Nigerian tailors in Canada. While we celebrated, we made sure Toluwani was cheerful and in good spirits throughout the day.

Wearing traditional Yoruba attire, Ekene Okoye and Toluwani Familusi pray for each other during the ceremony. (John Gaudi/CBC) This wedding was unique as it involved two different ethnic groups in Nigeria; Toluwani is Yoruba while her husband Ekene Okoye is Igbo. They have different languages, culture and traditions but as Ekene was marrying a Yoruba woman, tradition dictated he needed to conform to the bride’s customs for the wedding ceremony. It was my first time witnessing an intertribal wedding, and I enjoyed the display of Yoruba and Igbo cultures and traditions. 

Want to share your personal story with CBC News? Here’s how Intertribe marriages are not uncommon, but I believe living in diaspora has made it easier for Nigerians like myself to see ourselves as primarily Nigerians in Canada, without specific tribal, cultural or ethnic distinctions. According to the Nigerian Canadian Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, there were more than 2,000 Nigerian Canadians in the province as of 2021, and the number continues to grow.

WATCH | Take it to the dance floor with the bride and groom:  

Nigerian community comes out for a traditional wedding in St. John’s On a crowded and colourful wedding dance floor, you can see the story of the Nigerian community in St. John’s. It’s a story beautifully captured in an Atlantic Voice radio documentary titled To Grow in Love. In this video excerpt., we meet the bride and groom and feel the excitement of their big day.

Like a typical Nigerian wedding, this was a three-in-one event: the traditional wedding, which began at 8 a.m.; the church wedding; and, finally, the unforgettable reception.

The traditional wedding kicked off with guests trooping in, adorned in traditional attire that signified which family they were representing.

The bride’s family, in their green and cream ensembles, danced in with their alaga ijoko (the traditional MC and spokesperson of the bride who makes sure all the rites are performed properly). The alaga ijoko led the bride’s family and friends, accompanied by traditional talking drums, dancing and singing praises to the beat of the drum about the family — their virtues, their heritage and their unwavering love for the bride.

Then the alaga iduro (the groom’s MC) led the groom’s family and friends into the hall in a similar fashion, singing praises about the Okoyes’ Igbo heritage, wealth and vast ability to take care of Toluwani’s needs.

Then it was time for the groom’s entrance. As I stood in a room with the other aso ebi ladies and the bride, who was shielded from the groom’s view, I absorbed the sounds of drums, singing, dancing and celebration as the groom, accompanied by his friends, entered the hall to declare his intentions to Toluwani’s family.

Familusi celebrates with her father and mother, Akinyemi and Olufunmilayo, in traditional Yoruba attire. (John Gaudi/CBC) The rituals included scrutiny by the alaga ijoko to ensure he was fit to marry Toluwani. He and his friends respectfully prostrated themselves in front of the bride’s parents, pleading with them to allow him her hand in marriage. They presented various gifts, including yams to symbolize abundance, honey to symbolize sweetness and a dowry — a monetary gift that was later returned to emphasize that the bride was not being sold.

As the moment arrived for the bride to emerge and be presented to her new family, the venue was filled with even more singing, dancing, shouting and the joyful tradition of showering money on the celebrant. The bride was accompanied by her entourage of girls in glittering aso ebi, complemented by matching shoes.

After the completion of cultural rites and the bride’s release to her husband’s family, she was given a new name, Toluwani Okoye, symbolizing her acceptance into another tribe. This tradition was equally extended to the groom, making the entire experience a breathtaking celebration of diverse cultures. I cherished every moment of being part of such a beautiful event and felt so proud to be Nigerian.

Oh, how I’d missed immersing myself in this kind of cultural atmosphere! The few Nigerian weddings I’ve attended in Newfoundland have skipped the traditional segments for various reasons, including celebrating them elsewhere — so attending this complete and authentic Nigerian wedding event in Canada was a truly magical experience.

Okoye and Familusi wear their second traditional attire for the wedding ceremony, this time representing the Igbo culture. (John Gaudi/CBC) We transitioned to the church ceremony, which, given the Christian background of both families, was as important as the traditional one. I joined the choir members to sing solemn hymns and beautiful renditions and I was moved to tears as I watched Toluwani’s father walk her down the aisle in her elegant lacy wedding dress. In the sacred ambience of the church, the couple received blessings for their holy matrimony, witnessed by God, family and friends.

Finally, we reached the most fun part of the event: the reception. The Mount Pearl community centre had been transformed into a lavish banquet hall, adorned with opulent decorations and an air of sophistication. Securing a venue was a significant challenge during the wedding planning; many places wouldn’t allow food from other vendors, yet they couldn’t cater Nigerian delicacies. 

A delightful array of dishes from Ashabi Kitchennete awaited us, featuring the almighty jollof rice — no Nigerian party is complete without jollof rice, efo riro (vegetable sauce), porridge, pounded yam and small chops.

Atlantic Voice 26:10 To Grow In Love

For the first time in the seven years she’s lived in St. John’s, Esther Aina was finally able to see her vibrant culture on full display at her friend’s big, traditional Nigerian wedding. Here is Esther Aina’s documentary To Grow In Love.

I marvelled at the sight of people seated in their exquisite attire. The band played and sang songs echoed in English, Yoruba and Igbo languages. The DJ orchestrated the entrance of the bridesmaids, groomsmen and the couple, creating an atmosphere we fondly call gbedu, which translates to “non-stop dancing.”

To bring the ceremony to a close, the couple added a personal touch to the celebration by singing a love song they composed, ending an event that embraced the full spectrum of Nigerian wedding customs.

The newlyweds pose for pictures with their bridesmaids and groomsmen at the church in St. John’s. An exuberant cheer erupted from pews after they were introduced as husband and wife. (John Gaudi/CBC) I thoroughly enjoyed myself and look forward to more displays of this cultural richness in the beautiful province I now proudly call home. These celebrations not only allow Nigerians to uphold their traditions and showcase their heritage to the world, but they also provide invaluable opportunities for the younger generation, including second-generation immigrants, to learn and experience the customs practised back home.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.  You can read more stories here.

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