If there was a product that Nigeria could market apart from the black gold, it would have to be socials. Is a Y-u-p-p-i-e (Young Urban Professional) looking to celebrate his first million-dollar by marrying a female yuppie in New York and cannot figure how to plan a three-day bachelor’s party? There are thousands of outfits even in the slums of Lagos that would rustle up meals and outfits for occasions like these.
Unfortunately, there are no likely takers the world over for this kind of service, not even from Latin America where having a grand old time is also quite popular. Of course, there are big society weddings in other parts of the world. When the British actress, Catherine Zeta-Jones married the actor, Mike Douglas in New York, it was hailed as a huge wedding even though there were two hundred and fifty guests. A wedding that has that number of guests in Nigeria would send the mother of the bride wondering what she’s done wrong for such a curse. Happily, most weddings in the country these days are “society weddings”.
The wedding ceremonies start with the engagement and introduction. Of the four dictionaries that I consulted before arriving at this title, I chose the meaning that the Pocket Oxford gives for the word ‘bazaar’: “… fancy fair to raise funds …” as I was determined to inject the word ‘bizarre’ into it. And what the engagement ceremonies seem to be about mostly these days are fancy fairs, often bizarre, that are NOT as much about the brides and grooms but about the alagas who are the spokespersons for the two families.
Now, since I am always for people who work hard for their money, I have nothing against these women because they seem to have arrived at their positions by default! Just about all Yoruba have now chosen the unwritten dictum, “we are not selling our daughters” (a loud aside to other Nigerians) as foreword to rejecting the dowries, and since nature abhors vacuum, others in need of the money have stepped in.
Enter alaga ijoko and alaga iduro who expend more energy in sending collection trays round for themselves than for the brides. The closest English equivalents for these can be found in the rich courts of the Elizabethans where there were always court jesters. Throw your mind back to Malvolio (Twelfth Night), Launcelot Gobbo (Merchant of Venice) or any of those clowns made to play the fools and you could begin to have an insight into this Nigerian [Yoruba] creation. Smart, gift of the garb and never forgetting for a moment that they are paid to play the fool, rather, jesters! As we all know from reading those delightful characters in Shakespeare, they were no fools, and they knew it.
The Alaga Iduro – groom’s spokeswoman at this particular engagement ceremony – had all the qualifications her tribe needs: ability to dance, knees close to the ground to show she’s very respectful and ability to get as much money as possible from everybody. In the first picture, she leads a let’s-go-guys parade to the gathering, guys all too willing, I’m told for the exhausting but happy occasion at which they too attempt to look forward to their own days. But they will be shaken down first by this pretty petite Alaga Iduro and her retinue of “Trainees” before they get to see the young ladies dance out with the bride-to-be later in the ceremony. [Pictures: Biodun Ogunmola, December 1998.]
Permit me, in deference to older readers to quote some Shakespeare:
When Viola, (a girl dressed as a boy) in the court of Lady Olivia, encountered Malvolio, she enquired: “Art not thou the Lady Olivia’s fool?” The clown shot back “… The Lady Olivia has no folly. She will keep no fool, sir, till she be married; and fools are like husbands …”
As these alagas count their money every weekend with the exception of a short break during the Christian Lenten period, I am sure they must be laughing at the rest of us all the way to the bank.
These two chairpersons are usually women although men seem to have discovered what a lucrative business this line is and are fast muscling their way in. They are often accompanied by trainees although it seems a quick mind and cunning unlimited are all an alaga really needs. Yeah, her two knees must also be very close to the ground; Yorubas value a person who can kneel at the drop of a pin [to show respect]. Her ability with words must be unassailable like the clowns of old, better to get money out of both sides. During Agbani Darego’s reign [as Miss Nigeria], one of these clowns said something like “the bride is even slimmer than what do you call Miss Nigeria? Agbaarin”. She answered her own question: “Agbaarin“. Agbaarin is a game played by kids with black marble-like seeds! Malvolio would be proud.
Most of these clowns are versed in the praise names of the major Yoruba areas and instead of moving ahead with the business on hand, they sing all these praises and people fall over each other to ‘spray’ them [with money]. I’ve even heard one sing praises of ‘Cele’, and all the barefooted holinesses rushed to the spraying ground. [“Cele” is a Pentecostal sect that has all its members walk barefoot once dressed for church.]
At another engagement ceremony, one of the alagas went to a woman and said: “Mommy, e ya mi ni daddy fun iseju die” (please lend me your husband for a while) after which the man went out sheepishly to do some Fela Girls’ dance with the woman. While I did notice a few guests wince, most others seemed to enjoy the show.
Little by little, the events preceeding the wedding day are being stretched to points that can no longer be described as Yoruba culture and these are due in no small measure to the alagas. Worse, the engagement-as-theatre has become a bellwether to betrothal ceremonies in other parts of the country. Earlier in our history – not two hundred years ago because those of us who can still walk around without the aid of walking sticks met the practice – a betrothed girl would be ‘abducted’ by able-bodied young men on a moonlit-night and off she went to her husband’s home! Now, between the barbaric practice of plucking a girl from amidst her friends during a game of enyin agutan mi e wa s’ile or b’oju, b’oju, o, and a bleached adult male acting the jester lies a wide gulf.
I wanted a man’s view and called my favorite uncle to get his insight. “You know, Tola, just like I told you when you sought my opinion on your fashion topic last year. You women have allowed illiterates to take over a ceremony that used to be nice … Low talk, obscene behaviors and the terrible waste of time that we men must endure.”
The Comet on Sunday, May 9, 2004.
Reduced from the original 1600-word-plus.
First used on this blog on May 14, 2012.