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COVID-19 forces cultural shift in West Africa weddings

When Micheal Omoh and Godiya Mamza were planning their wedding, they did not know that circumstances would force them to forgo their cultural traditions, as well as much of what they had paid to accommodate hundreds of guests on their special day.

Omoh, a realtor, and Mamza, a microbiologist, had set the date for April 25, with a big-budget ceremony that was to include at least 500 guests, who were to be transported to the wedding by bus. They also had purchased 90 chickens, a cow and 250 cartons of beverages, as well as a reception hall and hotel rooms for both their families.

Mike Omoh is wedded to his bride Godiya Mamza in their Kaduna, Nigeria home on April 22, 2020. (Isaac Abrak/Zenger)

But an extension of the 30-day lockdown set March 24 amid the COVID-19 pandemic in their home state of Kaduna in northwest Nigeria changed all of that.

Still, love prevailed. A new date was set, the festivities were scaled down to accommodate social distancing and a happy couple was united in marriage.

“I just wanted to be married to someone I love, and wouldn’t want to leave it to another date, so we got the pastor to my house and with not less 20 people maintaining the 2-meter social distance, we had a peaceful wedding,” Omoh said.

The bride and groom, as well as their families and friends, made adjustments in a big way to celebrate their nuptials on April 22, without the traditional trappings.

Typically, weddings in Nigeria are quite expensive, regardless of the financial status of the celebrants, who are required culturally to put on an elaborate ceremony for family members,  relatives, friends and even uninvited well-wishers who “gate crash” the celebration in full swing.

“It’s normally a feast,” said Omoh. ‘’People will talk you down if you don’t put together a big feast, and you must invite everybody and also let in those you didn’t invite … so we were under enormous pressure to postpone our wedding because the lockdown will not allow all these people to attend.’’

Mamza faced pressure of her own.

“I had more pressure because my friends from my home state of Borno had already sewn their wedding anko dresses (made from specially selected material that normally features the colors of the wedding, and is chosen by every group of friends or family members),” said Mamza. “All the girls sew their dresses in a unique design. … This is always the glitz and glamour of the wedding. … I guess they didn’t want to miss this opportunity, too, so they kept trying to convince me to move the date of the wedding to when the coronavirus has ended just so that they can be part of my big day.’’

Mike Omoh is wedded to his bride Godiya Mamza in their Kaduna, Nigeria home on April 22, 2020. (Isaac Abrak/Zenger)

Some friends of Omoh told him that the virus wasn’t going to last long in Nigeria because of the hot weather, and that it was impossible culturally to have a wedding without them attending.

But “all this time, the virus kept spreading,” Omoh said. The nation now has nearly 6,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, and more than 180 people in the country have died of the disease.

As the date of the wedding drew closer, the couple had to make a decision.

Omoh had previous experience being part of a scaled-down wedding. COVID-19 had forced similar changes to a friend’s ceremony where he was a groomsman. Many people in Nigeria are choosing smaller weddings rather than postpone them, he said.

Omoh knew that Mamza did not care for big, loud occasions, so they changed the date. The couple did all the necessary organization for the wedding by phone.

“We called the pastor,” Omoh said. “I told him of our decision, he welcomed it. We called the caterer and told her to prepare food for 25 people as we didn’t want to violate the government policy of having not more than 20 people in a gathering.

“We kept the venue secret, as people kept calling asking for the venue. If they knew, they would still have flooded the wedding,’’ he said.

As it turned out, Godiya, who describes herself as shy, was very comfortable with the simple nature of their wedding.

“I was happy [that] we had not more than 20 people present, maintaining the social distance of 2 meters. The pastor read out the oaths, we agreed, and we were married, nice and simple. So even though I would have wanted to have all my family and friends present, I still enjoyed the way it went, and most importantly, I was just happy to be married to my sweetheart,” she said. “COVID-19 couldn’t stop our love [and] to be married.”

The bride’s foster father, Mordecai Ibrahim, posted a video of the wedding on his Facebook page, commending the couple for having a successful wedding and adapting to new ways of living during the pandemic.

“I cannot control my joy for my foster daughter’s wedding. Can you see social distancing? The church was ‘full.’ His words say, ‘Where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there.’ It was a powerful message; brief, straight to the point and scripture based,’’ he posted.

A second post garnered Ibrahim thousands of ‘likes.’ It read, in part, “I have not seen a beautiful wedding in recent times such as this devoid of the unnecessary encumbrances by the busybodies and unnecessary demands … from a crowd that will still insult you claiming they didn’t get a bottle when actually they took double ration.

“Maybe after this pandemic, people will learn to just have a wedding solely because they want to get married to each other and not necessarily trying to impress their family members and friends by struggling to have expensive ceremonies as if their parents are Aliko Dangote,” Ibrahim wrote, referring to a Nigerian businessman and philanthropist.

Once the pandemic ends, Omoh and Godiya plan to have a thanksgiving service for family and friends, using everything they already paid for to host them.

Edited by Judy Isacoff and Allison Elyse Gualtieri

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