Joshua Nwachukwu investigates the extraordinary cult of celebration in African society, and suggests the pandemic may have forced much-needed change.
Nigerians are commonly known for their hospitality, hard work and boisterousness. These characteristics are expressed in our penchant for celebrations: we really love to make merry. We love celebrations to such an extent that every occasion is an excuse to celebrate.
In Nigeria we celebrate everything and everywhere. It is not out of place to see streets converted to host a party; and when there is a party, traffic, pollution and any other inconvenience can be excused. We sometimes even convert bad or sorrowful events like burials into a celebration of life or divorce into a celebration of freedom. Indeed, it is not uncommon to mistake a burial for a feast or carnival – lasting anything up to four days, it is filled with an abundance of music, dance, food and drinks.
We celebrate pregnancies, bridal showers, safe deliveries, child-naming ceremonies, promotions at work, return from leave, retirements, good results, birthdays, engagements and weddings. Anything, really!
When it comes to weddings, we have three sets of celebrations, the traditional, court and religious marriage. And these celebrations aren’t complete without the various uniforms commonly called “aso-ebi” which add glamour and spectacle to the feast.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong in celebrating and in being with friends and families. Indeed, the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe memorably wrote in Things Fall Apart: “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes… We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.”
But the celebrations we are referring to aren’t simple celebrations held over lunch or dinner. Most often these celebrations are grandiose affairs, with hundreds of invitees and not all of them “kinsmen” but also gatecrashers, and this has, over the years, come at a devastating cost to our lives.
It has caused strain on our work and family life, on our finances, on our sense of commitment, and ultimately on our understanding of life.
To maintain a life of flamboyant and frequent celebrations is clearly not cheap, as many people are obliged to work and earn more in order to foot the associated bills. Those who don’t earn enough resort to illegal acts like extortion or embezzlement in order to maintain the lifestyle. “Fake it till you make it”, as the mantra goes.
Apart from skewing the purpose of work, these celebrations also hamper the culture of work, particularly in the civil service; officials unofficially don’t work on Fridays, as many travel to one celebration or another. Even in the non-public sector, people invent ways of leaving the office for various celebration commitments. This absenteeism culture disrupts the productivity of the workforce. While we shouldn’t become the dull boy Jack through an excess of work, we seem to have gone to the other extreme.
Since these celebrations have become so integral to our society, they have now become a must have/do. Not having celebrations would incur the indelible wrath of families and friends who will forever feel hurt at being deprived of their right to a celebration.
Some will even retaliate by not inviting you to theirs!
Any talk of having a small and simple celebration is generally viewed askance and quickly dismissed and interpreted as a sign of either selfishness or financial incapacity, and since most people don’t want to termed poor or selfish, many find ways of footing the bills, even if that means taking out loans they can ill afford.
Alas, many don’t care about the sources of the funds or how the funds spent will be recouped or restored; provided they have plenty to eat and drink, all is well. Such extravagances may have an element of the virtue of charity, but they neglect the important virtues of prudence, temperance and commonsense.
Apart from highlighting one’s financial standing and social status, there is always the quest to “out celebrate” the other and make one’s event the focus for paparazzi, the subject of national discussion and the point of reference for future jamborees. The entertainment industry has exploited this and has perfectly mastered the art of fanning the embers of their clients’ egos, urging them to crave for bigger and better, thereby continuously augmenting the societal and peer pressure.
The financial demands of these celebrations have placed real burdens on people.
For example, many people now delay commitments like marriage because of lack of funds and potstone the ceremony until they are financially buoyant. Some even consider the economic prowess of their parties before entering into a relationship. The focus for many is centred more on the wedding ceremony than on the marriage bond.
This delay in fiancés taking the next step has been a great disservice to the institution of marriage and is harmful to society. Marriage has been widely replaced by cohabitation, and the stress on finances has also affected the popular understanding of love, commitment and exclusivity.
Some even delay burying their dead due to lack of funds.
A few years ago, when I went to the morgue to prepare my relative for burial, I was informed of a lady who had spent three years there, while her loved ones sought to raise the relevant funds to organise a befitting burial for her, since she was a proud mother of 10 children!
Stories like this aren’t uncommon; people are not buried for months, because the family is waiting to build a house or for the right moment when families and friends around the world will be able to travel back for the burial, or for the resolution of family disputes. The reasons for delay are legion.
This expensive and wasteful culture has been decried by many. While a few people have gone against the grain and held simple and small events, most have not had the courage to do so and many others want and crave the bella figura of a big bash.
Realising the harm this expensive culture has brought to society, the Church in Nigeria and some local governments have tried through policy and laws to regulate when and how people bury the dead or get married – this does not affect the Muslim community as, in keeping with their faith, their dead are buried within 24 hours with no fanfare.
But that which the religious institutions and the Government have failed to fix, the Coronavirus seems to be fixing – albeit indirectly. Since the outbreak of the virus and the restrictions placed by the authorities on the number of participants at burials and church ceremonies, people are forced to bury their dead or marry with only 20 people in attendance, while others join via zoom or some other digital method. Something we thought was undoable is now being done by many.
Apart from being extremely cost effective, the small ceremony gives people peace of mind, as they don’t have to spend outside their budget or act to please others or gain public approval. It has also shown that the amount of waste, both economic and environmental, these celebrations cause is not worth it, especially given the prevalence of poverty in the country.
More importantly, this new reality is returning celebrations to their original purpose. Our Coronavirus-induced celebration is more intimate and natural. Once again, it is possible to see and enjoy beauty in the simple and essential.
The virus has also had a powerful impact on people’s perception of the future. Intending couples are always faced with the “if question”. They want to know with certainty if their partner is the right partner; they want to be given the opportunity to see into the future to know if the marriage will turn out well or not.
With Coronavirus, the notion of man as an omnipotent and omniscient planner has been punctured.
The tragic course of the virus has shown that we humans aren’t in control as we thought we were. While not calling us to irresponsibility and disorder, it has made us realise that rather than seek for an illusory certainty, we have to be daring and take the necessary risks – the leap of love.
Coronavirus is a crisis. But the very word “crisis” means “decision point”: the need to choose which way you want to go. The pandemic has overturned much of what we presumed to be fixed. But it has also taught us vital lessons. We can’t let this crisis go to waste. We must make a choice: we either use it or we lose it.
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