The big contract
Nigeria’s wedding planners
Decked in a three-piece, snow white agbada with fila to match and a leather purse tucked under his left arm, a ‘big man’ steps out of his car. To his side his wife or a female companion, primed as arm candy, is in a brightly coloured aso ebi with a gele extending skywards, the bigger the better. Two or three women dash to him, dangling bundles of crisp 100-naira and 200-naira notes. They are the moneychangers who will take his foreign currency or 1,000-naira and 500-naira notes and exchange them – for a fee – for lower denominations to lengthen the time he will ‘spray’ the couple during their first dance. The culture of spraying – dexterously flicking off naira notes in one hand with the thumb of the other to rest momentarily on the bride, before slithering to the floor – is an opportunity for moneybags and social climbers to draw attention to themselves under the pretext of being a supportive friend. “It’s an opportunity for many people to show off their status and fine dresses,” says Alicia Odemwingie, who got married in a lavish wedding last September in Benin City. “But also for the couple to recoup money spent on the wedding. My husband decided to position one or two people at the entrance to help them change money for a token.” Only a few years ago those wanting to spray would have visited the bank the day before or restricted their spending to just a few notes. But money-changers are one in a long line of jobs that have come to be thanks to the evolution of the Nigerian wedding. Big weddings can be as expensive as you like. Some budgets can come in at N2m ($6,500), while those that want to pull out all the stops can spend as much as N30m.
“People are using helicopters to leave the church wedding and arrive at the reception,” says Tolulope Balogun, a radio presenter at 99.3 Nigeria Info. “It’s a new trend. My friend last year wanted to do it but she couldn’t because there was nowhere for the helicopter to land at the church.” “It is no joke,” she adds. “Particularly in Lagos. A laser-cut iro and buba from [fashion designer] Deola Sagoe can easily run over a million naira alone.” Every true party-goer in Lagos knows that as important as predicting the traffic situation and turning up in flamboyant outfits is the ability to find a secure parking space. It is to touts and parking attendants like Jimoh Olaitan that they turn to for instructions. The father-oftwo leads a three-person crew who eke out a living parking vehicles around visa-application centres on weekdays and event halls on weekends, in Lekki, a suburb in the city’s island district. By the end of the night, each car owner will have given them tips of N200-N500 each.
MOVERS AND SHAKERS
Nigerian weddings are the hallmarks of high society, a glassy showcase of opulence crammed into one day while guests enjoy the ‘movers and shakers of Nigerian society painting the city red’, as tabloids are wont to describe the day. The ceremonies come in a sequence: the introduction of the groom to the bride’s family after the engagement, then native law and custom, followed by the church wedding and a grand reception. For recently married Odemwingie, after initially settling for 400 guests, her parents and in-laws doubled the list, so their budget increased accordingly. “My mother told me that everyone she knew had to be at the wedding. She looked at me point blank and said: ‘Don’t you know this is is also my wedding?’” And as every Saturday is party o’clock across Nigeria, for regular gatecrashers finding a wedding reception is only a matter of patience. It is the party that matters: food and drinks are usually overflowing as the parents of both groom and bride fall over each other to impress the attendees and etch their names in the annals of glamorous history. With plenty guests come great expectations. The task of ensuring first impressions are well taken care of, and that the who’s who of town are all present, falls to the wedding planner. It’s an arduous job as much as it is a satisfying one, says Lagos-based planner Ngozi Rume Otogbolu. Once she got a brief where the family of the bride specifically instructed that the guests should not be allowed to interfere with the running of the day. As a result she was the target of eyeballing and rude comments as her staff batted away friends and relatives of both families who wanted to exert undue influence to get food early. Once the merrymakers are seated, they have to stay alert for when the true spice of every modern Nigerian party – finger foods or ‘small chops’ – passes by before the main dinner is served. Sometimes wedding planners have to work with as many as 10 to 20 different service-providers, Otogbolu says. “Every wedding is different. We have to hire ushers, DJS, live band, food vendors, drinks vendors, décor and confetti people, bouncers and, in some cases, even lighting and special-effects vendors according to the budget and preferences of the bride and her family. Some clients also let you handle cinematography bookings.” In the past even wedding planners were not a big deal. “Ten years ago, there were planners already,” Otogbolu says. “But the market wasn’t as big and we were not as appreciated as we are today.” Planners sometimes also get the responsibility of picking the life of the party – the wedding MC. He is the one who transforms a wedding from a nervous and boring choral affair to a full-on party with jokes bursting with innuendos and repurposed clichés. In the past, the job of wedding compere was usually a favour done by a friend of the couple, but as in-demand wedding MC Tomiwa Kukoyi has found out, the role has acquired a life of its own.
“A lot has changed for this generation,” the 29-year-old, who is also an actor, points out. “Kids born in 1994 are now getting married. The game has improved tremendously so MCS earn better, are more engaged and constantly in demand.” Comperes can earn anything from N250,000 to N2m per wedding, plus logistics costs if the wedding is outside Lagos. Kukoyi has had to turn down many weddings for clashing with his booked schedules. The same higher stakes have buoyed the careers of another band of creatives : photographers and cinematographers. “People love wedding memories just like they did years ago,” says Ipinayo Ade Akingboye, a Lagos-based photographer who gets called to document happiness at least once a month. “But a lot more people now care about how they look on their wedding day and social media has helped in increasing our audience.”
CALLING THE SHOTS
Her camera gear is insured and the cost of that is reflected in the going price. All event long, she will comb the venue taking shots from every imaginable angle with an assistant, then produce photobooks and framed pictures afterwards. But long before revellers begin to prepare to wine, dine and cheer, she is already at the maternal home of the bride to take Bella Naija-worthy photos of the day’s belle. Self-acclaimed as Africa’s top wedding website, Bella Naija Weddings has elevated weddings from routine ceremonies to awe-inspiring art status. In certain circles, a wedding is not considered up to standard if it does not make the Bella Naija blog or Instagram account – which has over two million followers, even though most of the features are paid ads. The desire of the bride to look good enough ‘for the gram’ has driven up the demand for make-up artists, so much so that some like Kaka Eve-offiah shuttle across the country to do ‘face beats’, earning as much as N200,000 per event. Other celebrity make-up artists are known to charge closer to N1m. “The process of transforming people is emotional”, Eve-offiah states matter-of-factly. “It even shows in their carriage afterwards […] their confidence level is boosted and generally their day becomes better.” The job of detecting confidence levels at the ceremony and estimating their personal worth falls to the praise singers – called alaga in Yoruba – who sing and drum till they get money gifts. For those like the big man described above who are dressed to kill, they swarm around like an army of locusts till they are sated. In the distance, the touts who helped them secure a good parking space will hang around their cars, waiting patiently for their return. “This is our own office,” says parking attendant Olaitan of his informal hustle in a smattering of Yoruba and pidgin English. “I make up to ten thousand naira every day and share with my boys. It is our share of the national cake.”
A Yoruba bride dances during the traditional introduction to the groom’s family
Clockwise from right: Extravagant cocktails matching the bridal party’s colours add to the festive atmosphere; professional wedding MCS are in high demand to entertain guests and get them up on the dance floor; professional make-up is essential, for close-ups will be displayed for all to see on Instagram