Nollywood-style weddings land on the cutting room floor

Yemisi Ajeojo and Charles Isidi had been planning their wedding long before they became officially engaged in December last year. “We had already settled on a wedding date before there was an official ring-giving,” Ajeojo tells Mail & Guardian. “The ring was just symbolic for us.”

The couple met on Facebook in 2015. Isidi was a frequent writer on the social-networking website, and Ajeojo, a home-sick Nigerian in the United Kingdom, was looking for more compatriot writers to connect with.

They had scheduled their wedding for April, and the goal was to have an intimate ceremony. They only invited a small pool of friends and family, personalised the invitation and confirmation process for the guests, and hired a moderately sized venue for the main ceremony.

By February, the couple were all set. They had booked the wedding vendors, bought their outfits and made arrangements with hotels for their guests. Their groom’s and bridal parties had their clothes, and their parents had printed souvenirs bearing the date of the occasion. They were just waiting for the two-week deadline required by the vendors they had booked before making payments for all the expenses.

This had always been Ajeojo’s ideal — having all the loose ends of her wedding tied up months before the date. It was only a matter of weeks before their stress-free wedding would take place.

“I couldn’t really think of anything that could stop us from getting married,” she says.

Then the coronavirus hit Nigeria.

The best-laid plans …

When Nigeria recorded its first case of the virus in February, the couple didn’t give any thought to the possibility of a full-blown spread across the country: “It didn’t look like a disease that would scale,” Isidi says. “I actually felt like we would still be able to get married in a month’s time.”

But the number of infected cases continued to rise.

On March 18, three weeks after the first confirmed Covid-19 case, the number of confirmed cases in Nigeria had risen to eight. Individual state governments began to take cautionary measures to limit the spread of the virus. The Lagos State government immediately placed a ban on all forms of public gatherings — weddings, parties, religious meetings and schools.

At this point, Ajeojo and Isidi began to seriously rethink what this would mean for their wedding. But since the number of cases still seemed under control, they felt there was enough reason to hope they could still share their special day with friends and family in a few weeks’ time.

The situation, however, continued to worsen.

Two weeks before their wedding, the number of cases had doubled, many parts of the country were on lockdown and the government had placed a ban on all inter-state travel and domestic flights.

That was when they suspended their nuptials.

In Africa’s most populous country — which boasts multiple languages, multiple ethnic groups and myriad religions — weddings are not just a celebration of matrimony. They are the cementing of tradition and the creation of new relationships. They are where children look forward to monetary gifts from aunties, where old colleagues and relatives reunite and where family members hope to out-dress each other.

Weddings have earned status in the social life of Nigerians, hence the term “Owanbe (grand party) Saturdays”. The wedding industry in Nigeria has become the subject of lifestyle brands, documentaries, comedy skits, Nollywood’s highest-grossing movies, a plethora of songs, and even Buzzfeed listicles. All of that thriving culture hit a brick wall in the face of the coronavirus.

‘Bookings are less now’

Economist Fadekemi Abiru says the million-dollar Nigerian wedding industry has become a major source of employment and income for many small- and medium-sized businesses.

For any wedding to work, many service providers have to come together: photographers, cinematographers, make-up artists, caterers, event planners, musicians, bakers, property owners and drivers. In 2017, a mobile toilet start-up company reported that weddings accounted for 40% of its revenue.

With couples having to suspend or postpone their weddings indefinitely, these businesses have been hard-hit by the loss of the steady flow of income that Nigeria’s thriving wedding culture provides.

“Right now, it’s been very trying,” Bisola Borha, the founder and creative director of Trendy Bee Elite Events says. “Bookings are less now, because of the uncertain times.”

The country has begun the first phase of reopening its economy, and weddings are making a slow, less-extravagant return to the Nigerian psyche. In April, the lead pastor of Harvesters International Christian Centre, Pastor Bolaji Idowu, posted a picture of a marriage ceremony that he officiated over the video-conferencing app Zoom. It was the first virtual wedding in the history of the church. There has been a surge in the number of live-streamed weddings as coronavirus cases in Nigeria continue to increase and events are still required to adhere to physical-distancing rules.

The General Manager of the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) Dolapo Fasawe (C) addresses staff upon arrival to a formative session for agents training leaders of various unions who are scheduled to train members on measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus ahead of the expected gradual easing of the lockdown from next week at Odoguyan in Ikorodu district of Lagos, on April 30, 2020. – President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday ordered a “phased and gradual easing” from next week of a lockdown covering Africa’s biggest city, neighbouring Ogun state and the national capital Abuja. (Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP)

Borha believes that it might take a while for her clients, who are used to lavish affairs — with a guest list of between 500 and 4 000 people — to adjust to the new reality, until Nigeria is Covid-19 free. But that’s what she can work with for now.

Many of Borha’s clients are putting their wedding plans on hold, but others want to get married immediately. She now works with those clients to trim their guest list to fit physical-distancing rules, while maintaining the premium quality that her events are known for.

“We just have to make our clients understand why they must not lower their standards because the capacity is smaller. Now, more than ever, [they] can still have that luxury event of [their] dreams with even more personalised details,” Borha says.

The ‘new normal’ wedding

Problems remain for couples who want to get married right now. Inter-state travel and domestic flights are still prohibited.

It’s been more than three months since Isidi and Ajeojo saw each other, held each other’s hands, existed in the same space — the longest period they’ve been apart since they began planning their wedding. The lockdown found them in different states of the country.

Although their relationship has adapted to being long-distance, being away from each other for this long when they should be married has taken its toll on the couple. Simply put, they long to be with each other again.

“Considering we should be living together, it’s not been the easiest thing,” Ajeojo says. “The next time I see [Charles], I’m just going to hug him till my body enters his body.”

The couple has set a new date for their wedding, and they hope the ban on travel is lifted before then so their family and friends can travel to attend their wedding. Their vendors are still on board, but planning a wedding that adheres to physical-distancing rules — and reduces the possibility of any health risk for the attendees — is a burden, because it involves a redesign of their event.

This presents new obstacles in the logistics. Will their guests be able to travel from different parts of the country? Do the hotels where they’ll be staying have Covid-19 protocols in place? How do they limit contact, while getting all their friends and families together in one place? But, they are ready to take all of this on.

“The typical partying, dancing, hugging — would we still have that?” Ajeojo says. “To be honest, I don’t know. But at least we are getting married.”

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