What was peculiar in all of the responses to the tweet was that traditional marriage was the most important. It begs the question of what makes a white wedding so special…
By Sybil Fekurumoh
When we think of weddings, we think of white dresses and tuxedos, bridal troupes, officiating ministers, walking down aisles, and other fanfare. A long time ago, during my early twenties, I was having a conversation with my father when the talk naturally transitioned into a conversation about marriage.
I began to chatter about my dream wedding: a grand entrance, a flowing white dress, and reading threadbare wedding vows. My father quizzed me about a “traditional marriage” ceremony, and I brushed it off as unnecessary. A mutual parlour meeting between both families would suffice. He gives me a look like I just bumped my head, and tells me that’s never going to happen.
Across cultures and laws, marriage is a recognisable union between spouses, and could be considered an achievement by many. To that end, couples may choose to have their union recognised in different ways, and for various reasons according to laws, traditions, and preferences. In the real sense of the word, a traditional ceremony bounds how marriage is done in different regions, but in the African context today, there is a split between the “traditional” marriage ceremony and a “white wedding.”
It is normal to have different marriage ceremonies to publicly recognise a marriage union. The traditional marriage ceremony is typically done according to culture, which may include among other things, family acknowledgement and consent, and a dowry payment, while a white wedding typically involves a church ceremony that is blessed by a clergyperson.
For several younger people, much like my younger self, having a white wedding today is a hill to die on, and in some scenarios, a marriage union is only considered final after a white wedding ceremony. For a fact, it has become the norm now, to have both ceremonies. As celebrations in Africa tend to be grandiose, more so for weddings, having all of these different ceremonies may stretch for days or months.
But, interestingly, in the hierarchy of relevance, many social groups recognise that a traditional marriage ceremony supersedes a white wedding. In the Shona culture in Zimbabwe, for example, the traditional marriage, called the roora, is a mandatory ceremony before a white wedding can be had. A few weeks ago, I came across a tweet that threw a jab at Africans having several marriage ceremonies as a form of an identity and cultural crisis. What was peculiar in all of the responses to the tweet was that traditional marriage was the most important. It begs the question of what makes a white wedding so special.
Only Africans will do white wedding, traditional wedding and court wedding . I have never seen any worse identity crisis and cultural confusion like this.
— Adémola (@OgbeniDemola) February 10, 2023
We’ll travel back in time to understand this modern dilemma. The white wedding as we know it is the traditional wedding ceremony originally held in churches in western societies, predominantly in the UK, with the white dress made popular during the Victorian Era when Queen Victoria, wearing a white dress, married Prince Albert. By the 19th and well into the 20th century, white weddings became common in Africa. This western style was seen as the Christian ideal, with the white dress signifying sexual purity, prosperity, and commitment to couples.
Judith, who had both a traditional and white wedding ceremony, considers the traditional marriage to be more important, and only wore the white dress to make a point. “Aside from honoring people and becoming a role model for my younger ones as a bride, one of the reasons was to symbolise the purity (virginity) was still intact, even though it was just for show,” Judith disclosed.
For some who prefer simplicity, they cite the ease that white wedding affords with its implementation. Goodness hails from a state in eastern Nigeria but resides in Lagos in the west, with her husband. She had a small indoor traditional ceremony and then a church wedding. She intimates that the choice to do so was to avoid the stress of travelling. “In the east, marriage ceremonies are typically done in the village. Even if the persons involved are not in Nigeria, they could be married by proxy with their pictures. I preferred the white wedding because I avoided the stress of travelling,” Goodness shares with me through a WhatsApp chat.
For the most part, though, the raising of western influences over traditional heritage today is what influences the decision to have a white wedding, what we can consider a form of neo-colonialism, a remnant of white imperialism that Africans cannot seem to shake off. Normalised Western influences become obvious in several aspects of our lives. Such subtle influences include taking up English names in addition to native ones, and considering western attires as formal and traditional outfits as informal.
It also shows in the ways we associate with indigenous languages, colourism, and a host of other modern beliefs that relegate African culture as backward, or in the worse case, demonise it as evil. In this instance, with marriage ceremonies, Eurocentric ideals make individuals consider traditional marriages as performative, and white weddings as necessary.
Ademola, who made the initial viral tweet, considers this practice the post-colonial reality of Africans, a practice that enforces the inferiority of Africans in the eyes of western incursion that has cut into our culture. This practice is further reinforced by the eurocentric system of education adopted in several African climes. “Today, we aspire to be white, we even ridicule those who aren’t ‘white enough.’
It’s very unnecessary to do a white wedding, traditional wedding, or court wedding, these are relics of colonialism. We are Africans,” Ademola suggests. In Nigeria, a statutory wedding or a marriage under the Marriage Act is loosely referred to as a “court marriage.” A statutory wedding can be held in a church, only when the church is licensed to do so. Unfortunately, the majority of worship centres do not have licences.
Of course, there are criticisms of traditional marriage being patriarchal in its practice, such as with modern debates on bride-price payment, issues of polygamy, and rules of inheritance, and that having a white wedding can help provide accountability, but in this regard, it is less about the ceremony and more about the customary laws around marriage that subjugate women in the first place. It is noteworthy to mention that patriarchy is a problem in Africa as much as it is in the global west.
We are slowly witnessing a cultural shift that is embracing, again, African heritage, as a way to claim back our fading culture, the after-effect of colonialism, and we’re beginning to realise that our culture is authentic and enough. As Bomikazi, a social commentator puts it, Africans are daring to be themselves, away from the white gaze.
“There is an emerging race of young Africans who are not carrying on their shoulders neither the fear of swimming against the colonial tide nor the shame of wearing as badges of honor all the things that make them distinctly African…The traditional wedding is one of the ways in which peoples of colour are simply just showing up as themselves,” Bomikazi iterates.
As Afrocentrism is becoming a global export, such as with African food and music, perhaps Africans, too, can look inward to appreciate the richness of our culture and heritage. A much older and wiser me (as I like to think) admits that a white wedding is simply unnecessary.
Sybil Fekurumoh is a senior writer for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber.