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The Hierarchy of a Nigerian Wedding

This is what happens when “Single Ladies” plays at a wedding.

illustration of woman apron ring flowers cooking spoon
Illustration by Tara Deacon

When I was a child, I loved weddings. I made a cute little bride, and my services were in high demand. Even those with only a loose connection to my family wanted me in their bridal procession. The little bride is a miniature version of the bride, complete with miniature wedding dress, miniature tiara, and miniature prima-donna ego. I took my work very seriously. I was not one of those toddlers who burst into tears when the opening chords of the processional sounded, running off to Mama with stage fright. Nor did I need to be escorted down the aisle by a parent, clutching my hand to stop me from tripping over. I was a confident walker. No matter how many meters of tulle encircled me, I always made it unscathed to the front of the church, where I would make a military right-angle turn and march to my designated seating.

But the shelf life of a little bride is brutally short. You work for one year, two if you’re lucky, then somebody younger and cuter comes to take your place. ’Twas always the way of the world. After that career came to an end, I had to settle for the consolation prize of flower girl. A little bride is the second most important person at the wedding, a close runner-up to the bride. A flower girl, in comparison, is only an extra with confetti. The confetti was a great comfort, though. The church doors would open; the bride and groom would walk out triumphantly; and we would be waiting in a line, poised to shower the new couple with glittering paper. Inevitably, some of the confetti would land on us, and we would spend the rest of the wedding picking out the sparkles from our hair.

And then there was the limbo between flower-girl age and puberty, when you were too big for the bridal train and too young for anything else. Weddings became deserts of adult socializing, loud music, oily food, and deep boredom. Little did I know that boredom was better than what was coming next: puberty. In some ways, it’s the same for girls across the world: breasts, hips, periods, and pimples. But having these four at a Nigerian wedding suddenly signaled something. You were now a woman, or at least an “almost-woman,” and almost-women did not play games at weddings like flower girls, nor, like older children, did they sit down like guests. Almost-women and women at Nigerian weddings were there to serve.

After the bride, it is difficult to say who is at the top of the Nigerian wedding hierarchy. It’s a tie between the parents of the couple and the highest-ranking politician on the guest list. But I am certain who is at the bottom: single women. Once you step into the hall and it is espied that the fourth finger of your left hand is tragically bare, you are marked as standby waitstaff should the hired waiters fail. Many a time, I have gone to a wedding, holding my invitation card like every other guest, only to be summoned to a serving spoon or a food tray. At one wedding, they were kind enough to provide aprons for us so we wouldn’t stain our wedding finery. At another, the hired catering company came an hour late. All the single women, wearing the bride’s aso-ebi, were rounded up by the bride’s brother and asked to set the reception tables.

The brother of the bride walked among us like an overseer, barking orders, shouting, “Hurry up, the guests are waiting!” When I confronted him about his rudeness, he replied, “Don’t you want to support your friend?”

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To which I countered, “Does she not have any male friends? Does the groom not have male friends? Are they allergic to cutlery?”

Then there comes the dreaded bouquet toss. Whoever invented this tradition certainly did it to shame single women. But at a Nigerian wedding, this practice has been heightened. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” is played, announcing that the ritual is about to begin. The emcee, usually a man, takes the mic. “Single ladies. Come to the dance floor now before I start calling you out.”

Nigerians can be superstitious. We are always on the hunt for good fortune, and so we can attach cosmic significance to the markedly mundane. Catching the bouquet has come to symbolize catching your blessing, i.e., catching your husband. At one wedding, when the emcee noticed that the single women weren’t in the mood to play, he resorted to prophecy: “If you’re a single lady here and you don’t come out in the next ten seconds, you will never marry.”

An elderly couple at my table with whom I had grown friendly turned to me with alarm. “Go. Didn’t you hear what he said? Just go.”

I went. After all, I’m also a superstitious Nigerian, and I do want to get married.

But the worst, the very worst, I witnessed, was when the emcee somehow contrived to get the names of some single women from their parents. “Kẹmi Ṣolankẹ,” he said into the mic. “Kẹmi Ṣolankẹ, come out. Your parents have told me they’re tired of having you at home. You’re eating too much. Come out so you can marry.” And on and on he went, down his long, humiliating list.

So who is one rung above the single woman at a Nigerian wedding? Again, it’s a tie between the married woman and the single man. The married woman is on standby should the guest list run out of single women. The single man’s position is more ambiguous. After all, he is still a man, but why has he not begun procreating and peopling the Earth with more Nigerians?

There is no public shaming of the single man like with single women and the bouquet toss. But I have observed many a hapless young gentleman cornered by an auntie and forced to explain his lone status. My friend Breis has a brilliant song on this theme. It is part of the infantilizing of young Nigerians by an older generation, keen to depict us as feckless and irresponsible in order to provide justification for why they are still in power, still desperately clinging on. At a wedding, when you see an older adult telling off a younger adult for not being married (a state of affairs that is frankly none of their business), it becomes clear why the law states that a citizen of Nigeria cannot run for president until he or she is 35 years old. A human being under 35 is obviously still a child.

The single man also has tasks automatically assigned to him according to his gender. Not the female tasks of serving food and setting tables. He is required to prove his manliness by lifting anything that needs lifting, parking any car that needs parking, and throwing out any guest who needs throwing out. We joke that as a single person, the only way to enjoy a Nigerian wedding is to buy a ring and rent a spouse. But perhaps the only way to fully enjoy Nigeria is to be over 50, an age when you finally cross over into adulthood.

Nigeria is run by old people with old ideas. In April, our current president called Nigerian youths “lazy.” He was a military dictator more than 30 years ago and rebranded himself as a democrat in his late 70s. As a young, presumably “not lazy” dictator, he wasn’t very successful, and as an old democrat, he is equally clueless. The revolution will happen when young Nigerians realize that we outnumber the old; that if we came together, we would be unstoppable. We wouldn’t need to fight for scraps from the table because we would own the table, and the kitchen, and the farm. Till then, we continue slumbering in our forced adolescence, serving tables at weddings, tweeting our individual impotence, scrambling for tossed bouquets.

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Chibundu Onuzo was born in 1991 in Lagos, Nigeria. Welcome to Lagos is her second novel and the first to be published in the United States.