Now that we’ve found love…
Love is a beautiful thing in all its forms but, perhaps, the most enigmatic and often mysterious variant of love is the romantic kind. As someone privileged to read the submissions that pour into a well-frequented site, I see first-hand how heavily matters of the heart weigh upon many of us, especially as young people. Stumbling through relationships with varying degrees of success leaves us waxing lyrical about demons from South-West Nigeria and women from Venus. When it comes our way, it seems this thing called love fascinates and frustrates us in equal measure.
However, for many, love can be most cruel when it is elusive. If I had a kobo for every time I saw an article about waiting for Miss or Mr Right, wondering why “good girls” are still left on the shelf, or if they really make men or women the way they used to (whoever “they” are), I would be an incredibly wealthy woman. Many of us painfully desire love and actively seek it out, almost to the point of being driven mad.
So what happens when we eventually find “bae”? Live happily ever after, of course. And what does “happily ever after” involve? Apparently, something along the lines of millions of dollars spent on public declarations of our decision to permanently pitch our tent with another human being. I’m talking about marriage – well, specifically, weddings.
Exact figures are difficult to track down. However, the legendary nature of Nigeria’s wedding scene has inspired countless op-eds which attempt to take a stab at how much we really spend on these ceremonies. Coupled with the reality that Nigeria is still a country which continues to woefully underperform when it comes to per capita income and human development indicators, these estimates are mind-boggling. Consulting firm McKinsey estimates that 40% of Nigerians live below the official poverty line, while 74% live below the MGI empowerment line – a measure the firm created to reflect the income level required to live an average, comfortable life in different countries.
In spite of this, we somehow manage to fork out millions when it comes to that big day. Mo Dharrah Sage, editor of the Nigerian Wedding Blog, has estimated that the average Nigerian wedding costs between 2 and 3 million naira – a figure many Nigerians will tell you is fanciful. Let us take a moment to consider how insane it is that such an estimate would be considered laughably low in a country where the minimum wage – which often still goes unpaid by many employers in the public and private sectors – stands at a meagre 18,000 naira. Keep those figures in mind because I have more for you to digest.
Research showed that around $17million was spent on parties in Lagos within a five-month period in 2013. Around a fifth of this amount was attributed to weddings. That would suggest that Lagosians alone spent around $3.4million on weddings over the course of five months in 2013. If you used this to calculate an annual figure, that is around $8.16million. Instinctively, I suspect that this amount is an incredibly conservative estimate and would have to be revised upwards. It is also important to stress that this figure only reflects Lagosians’ spending and does not take Nigerian events held abroad into consideration: destination weddings are a huge hit with our people. Still, it points to the fact that there is clearly a disconnect somewhere. We may all be shouting about this recession, but not everyone is feeling it in the same way at all.
Our weekly owambe tradition has spawned a support industry that has deepened in complexity over the years. Growing up, I remember how aunties would stop by my house on their way to a party so that my mum could tie their geles. Now, they hire professional make-up artists to do the job. I’ve seen similar shifts in the provision of other wedding services – a greater focus on professional event planners, for example.
As our obsession with elaborate centrepieces and table setting grows, it raises a huge question about the regularly championed “Africa Rising” narrative of a growing middle class with expanding appetites. How much of this supposed growth is truly distributed among the masses and how much of it is concentrated in the hands of an elite who want to spend it on imported flowers at the society wedding of the year? Our insatiable appetite for ostentatious celebrations of love transform weddings from meaningful displays of commitment to sweeping spectacles that appear to have been solely designed to make an often oppressive statement.
There is clearly a strong case for being horrified by how such sprawling wedding budgets can exist in a country with startling levels of poverty. The horror with which one could critique the blatant elitism and conspicuous consumption of it all would not be misplaced. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that there is a counter-argument, and that argument is simple:
Spending creates jobs.
We might be spending a lot of money once we find love, but that money is putting many to work. Where many might see extravagance and luxury, I see opportunities job creation. The contribution this stands to make to a country with staggering levels of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, cannot be overstated. The global wedding industry, according to latest calculations, is a $300billion engine powering thousands of businesses and livelihoods. Why can’t Nigeria have a piece of that pie?
One major area for improvement is the destination wedding space, which many privileged Nigerians seem to love so much. We are huge consumers in this field, but what is stopping us from becoming a supplier? 2014 figures suggest that destination weddings account for a quarter of total wedding spending across the globe, and goes even further to state that the number of couples opting to marry abroad is rising at an annual rate of 10%. Nigeria is not exactly doing a great job of attracting foreign investment right now. Could tourism and our love for weddings be a way to draw in much needed injections of hard foreign currency into our economy?
I’m aware that this is much more difficult to achieve than it sounds. Attracting lovebirds to our shores requires much more than rebranding Nigeria as the wedding capital of the world. Such an effort will go hand in hand with sustained investment in tourism and marked improvements in perceptions of safety. This requires clear shifts in tackling insecurity, instability, national reputation management and maintenance culture among many other complex, diverse but ultimately intertwined factors that must be addressed to even begin to attract visitors.
There is hope, however, that a new generation of Nigerians is taking up this mantle. Social media has become a great tool for young explorers to find scenic and historical gems in their own backyard and share them with their peers. Handles like @NaijaNomads among others do an excellent job of highlighting the amazing spaces that are either largely unknown by members of the public, or simply neglected by government. Needless to say, in Nigeria, those two things often go hand in hand.
Perhaps a well-publicised proliferation of Kajuru Castles around the country could be perfect destinations for couples tying the knot or seeking new honeymoon destinations. All you need to do to see how much potential is on offer in Nigeria is to travel by road. From sprawling forests to perfectly carved hills, Nigeria does not lack potential space for resorts. It is not far-fetched to think that, with hard work and investment, our vast terrain could be the next big revelation when it comes to tourism and wedding planning in particular.
In a nutshell, my argument is simple. As Nigerians, our relationship and obsession with weddings is a collective fetish. Many times, I wonder how healthy it is. Yet, I see no reason why we continue to remain firmly on the consumer side of this incredibly lucrative field when we potentially have so much to offer at the other end of the supply chain.
It could be a huge leap to make an economic case for your weekly owambe. However, the 2014 rebasing of Nigeria’s economy marked a shift towards including contributions of creative industries – with Nollywood featuring on the list for the first time. Going one step further – not only including non-traditional industries but actively promoting them – could be a huge step forward in the path to economic progress.
There are gigantic problems looming over this country’s future – a crumbling economy, a burgeoning youth population, inadequate infrastructure and staggering levels of unemployment – and we somehow find a way to party through it all. It might be that our fondness for turning up is more than a distraction from these issues, but can contribute tangibly to addressing them.
To paraphrase the hit track, now that we’ve found love, what are we gonna do? Exploit it for developmental gains, I hope. Nigeria’s problems are vast. It might be time to start looking at creative solutions.
Leaders of No-Morrow: The Hopes, Possibilities and Realities of Nigeria is a special series brought to you by The Naked Convos in partnership with The Guardian.