The globalization of love

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      At most weddings, all eyes are on the bride. The groom’s responsibilities are minimal: show up on time, keep the duds clean, make sure the best man has the ring, and don’t mumble the “I do”.

      For Zac Banwell, the role of groom was a bit more daunting. His December 23, 2006, nuptials were held in the former slave-trading port city of Calabar, Nigeria, the birthplace of his fiancée, Maobong Oku. Banwell’s responsibilities at the wedding included presenting Oku’s family with a goat. This was his mea culpa, Banwell says, slightly abashedly, for having a son, Etebong, with Oku out of wedlock. The wedding also included a public display of the dowry Banwell had to give Oku to prove he would be a good husband and provider. The wedding guests were free to disparage the dowry if it did not meet with their approval.

      Now that’s pressure. And commitment.

      One month after the wedding, the couple sits in their Burnaby living room, a rich palette of rust-coloured walls, soft, deep couches with red pillows, and a red Persian rug. Dominating the L-shaped room are two enormous portraits of Etebong and Oku. Banwell, who is a graphic designer, created the portraits using a spray-painting technique he perfected during youthful graffiti assaults on his hometown Toronto’s urban landscape.

      Oku’s creative forte is evidenced by the set of tall, red congas that stand near the front door of their duplex. A founder of the traditional African dance troupe Kokoma, Oku is a fiery performer and drummer. Etebong, now three years of age, channels his mother’s passion for movement: flipping, twirling, and doing headstands nonstop, like a break-dancing leprechaun.

      Banwell, of Irish and Czechoslovakian descent, is still awed by the elaborate ceremony that bound him and Oku in marriage. He found that rather than being a clash of cultures, the ceremony was a confluence of cultures. The same marriage ideals professed in the West—love, devotion, and lifelong partnership—are also at the heart of Nigerian marriages. But in the West, the commonplaces of divorce and unromantic prenuptial agreements have led many to forgo wedded bliss, or to view it with unhealthy cynicism.

      Banwell and Oku both admit that they were indifferent toward marriage while dating. “White wedding, ho-hum, then get divorced,” says Banwell, his serious, bespectacled countenance belying his B-boy, graffiti roots.

      Oku, a member of Nigeria’s Efik tribe, which is still ruled by chiefs and a monarchy, agrees. “I didn’t think of ever getting married. We were just having fun,” she says, coolly elegant in a diaphanous white long-sleeved blouse and pants, and bare feet.

      Oku and Banwell, who are now in their mid 30s, first met in 1999. Oku, who had immigrated to Canada in 1992, was running a dance studio at Main Street and Terminal Avenue in Vancouver at the time. She needed a designer to create promotional material and met through friends.

      Oku was impressed by Banwell’s ?design and drawing abilities. Banwell recalls Oku’s exotic beauty. He was also “blown away” when he saw Oku perform, realizing that the break dancing of his youth had African origins.

      The pair began dating, and Etebong was born in July 2003. The child’s arrival stirred Oku’s family in Nigeria to pressure the couple—gently but firmly—to marry.

      So the couple happily caved, becoming engaged in December 2004.

      Efik marriages are replete with ceremony and symbolism. For Banwell, who had spent his younger years pushing the boundaries of freedom and self-expression, it was an epiphany that ancient traditions had value. Banwell’s second discovery was how much the marriage was a part of the process of globalization, the ever-accelerating movement of goods, services, capital, people, and information around the world. Oku and Banwell had come together not through the historical power disparity of colonialism but through simple human contact and, eventually, love.

      Banwell looks over to Oku, with her almond-shaped eyes framed by lavish eyelashes. Oku, he says, is a “messenger” to the West.

       

      The first Efik marriage tradition expected of Banwell was a written request to Oku’s family asking for her hand in marriage. Three letters, presented at three-month intervals, were written by an Efik scribe and presented to Oku’s family. When the third letter arrived, it was accompanied by palm wine. The wine was drunk by a Oku family elder, signalling acceptance of the marriage request. This process “shows that the groom is serious in his intent”, Oku says.

      One year after acceptance of the engagement, the couple, plus Banwell’s family, arrived in Nigeria for the wedding celebrations, beginning with an engagement party on December 19, 2006. The two families dined on African fare: pounded yam, plantain cooked in palm oil, and fresh barbecued fish caught in the nearby Cross River.

      One tradition that went by the wayside was the “fattening ceremony”, Oku says. In the past, teenage brides-to-be were housed for months in a “fattening hut” and fed rich food so that they would be lushly plump for the wedding. Oku comments dryly that such traditions have become outdated as Nigerian women become more educated and career-oriented.

      On the searingly hot day of the wedding, Oku held court in an elaborately decorated room in her family’s house. People from the community arrived to give her advice on married life, donating a token amount of money for the privilege of being heard.

      Oku, dressed in Indian silk, had her hair done up in an elaborate ’do, with gold-coloured carved combs woven into the braided hair, which hung to the small of her back. Called etinghe, the comb arrangement told the story of Oku’s family tree while representing such ideals as fertility, strength, and prosperity.

      In a separate house one block away, Banwell went through the dressing ritual, donning the traditional velvet top hat and vest. The top hat he wore, Africanized with elaborate beading, harks back to Nigeria’s colonial roots. The Efiks, who were the middlemen between European traders and inland tribes, affected 19th-century British manners, including a Victorian style of dress that is still seen today on formal occasions.

      When the time came for the ceremony, Banwell was paraded to Oku’s family home. People wore masquerade costumes, beat African drums, sang, and danced along the route.

      Efik chiefs were present in the ceremony, held in a large room in Oku’s family home. The exhibition of the dowry is the heart of the ceremony. It reflects the community’s concern that young Efik brides are supported and thrive when they enter into marriage. “The dowry list is ancient and meant to prepare and provide for the woman in marriage,” Oku says.

      The exhibition of the dowry was highly ritualized, with Banwell following a prescribed list of items symbolizing the couple’s new role in the community. First, an enormous and ancient brass basin containing bottles of various types of liquor and soft drinks was carried into the room and presented to the young men. By accepting a drink, they were agreeing never to “pursue” Oku and to treat her respectfully.

      Another basin contained drinks that would symbolize the new relationship between Banwell and the ?elders of the Efik tribe. By raising a glass together, the elders and Banwell pledged to listen to and respect one another. Another round of dowry drinks acknowledged Oku’s mother and the enormous responsibility she had undertaken in bearing and rearing her children.

      The dowry also included a token amount of money—12 English pounds—again referencing colonial tradition and symbolizing the groom’s intent to ensure his bride’s well-being.

      There was also a practical aspect to the dowry. Oku received a full set of kitchen appliances and accoutrements that remain at the family house in Calabar, where the couple plans to eventually live for at least part of the year.

      The goat was also trotted out for all to see.

      The wedding party lasted until 8 ?the next morning. More than 300 guests dined on plantain, goat, fresh prawns, crabs, cod, barracuda, croaker, and tilapia, with beer and palm wine.

      Banwell was embraced like a brother. “In marriage, the connection is with the whole community,” he says.

      Globalization has some negative connotations. But an increased understanding of other cultures is also a part of globalization. It is an opportunity for the West to view foreign traditions with fresh eyes and humbly accept that we can learn much from others.

      Even about love and marriage.

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