Nigerians are commonly known for their hospitality, hard work and exuberance. These characteristics are expressed in our penchant for celebration: we really love to party. We love celebrations so much 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. Sometimes we also convert bad or painful events like burials into a celebration of life or divorce into a celebration of freedom. In fact, it is not uncommon to confuse a funeral with a party or carnival - which lasts up to four days, is full of music, dancing, food and drink in abundance.
We celebrate pregnancies, wedding showers, safe deliveries, baptism ceremonies, promotions at work, return from vacation, retirement, good results, birthdays, engagements and weddings. Anything, really!
When it comes to weddings, we have three sets of celebrations, traditional, court and religious weddings. And these celebrations are not complete without the various uniforms commonly called "aso-ebi" which add charm and spectacle to the celebration.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating and being with friends and families. In fact, the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe wrote memorably in Things Fall Apart: "A man who calls his relatives to a party doesn't do it to keep them from starving to death. They all have food at home... We gather together because it is good for the relatives".
But the festivities to which we are referring are not simply festivities that take place at lunch or dinner. Most of the time they are grandiose celebrations, with hundreds of guests and not all of them "relatives", but also "crashers", and this, over the years, has had a devastating cost to our lives.
It has put a strain on our work and family life, our finances, our sense of commitment and, ultimately, our understanding of life.
Maintaining a life of flashy, frequent festivities is clearly not cheap, as many people are forced to work and earn more money to pay their bills. Those who do not earn enough use illegal acts such as extortion or embezzlement to maintain their lifestyle. "Fake it until you make it," as the mantra says.
In addition to altering the purpose of the work, these celebrations also hinder the culture of work, particularly in the civil service; officials do not officially work on Fridays, as many go to one party or another. Even in the non-public sector, ways are invented to leave the office for various celebration engagements. This culture of absenteeism disrupts the productivity of the workforce. While we shouldn't become the boring guy Jack through overwork, we seem to have gone to the other extreme.
Since these celebrations have become such an integral part of our society, they have become a must have. Not having celebrations would incur the indelible wrath of families and friends who will forever feel hurt by being deprived of their right to a celebration.
Some will take revenge even by not inviting you to theirs!
Any talk of having a small and simple celebration is generally seen as a question and quickly rejected and interpreted as a sign of selfishness or financial inability, and since most people do not want to be called poor or selfish, many find ways to pay the costs, even if it means taking out loans they cannot afford.
Alas, many do not care about the sources of the funds or how the funds spent will be recovered or restored; as long as they have plenty to eat and drink, all is well. These extravagances may have an element of the virtue of charity, but they overlook the important virtues of prudence, temperance and common sense.
In highlighting one's financial and social position, there is always the search to "celebrate" the other and to make one's event the center of attention of the paparazzi, the theme of national discussion and the point of reference for future gatherings. The entertainment industry has exploited this aspect and has perfectly mastered the art of waving the embers of its clients' egos, urging them to desire more and better, thus continuously increasing social and peer pressure.
The financial costs of these celebrations have imposed a real burden on people.
For example, many people now delay commitments such as marriage due to lack of funds and set the milestone at the ceremony until they are financially supported. Some even consider the financial prowess of their parties before starting a relationship. For many, the focus is more on the wedding ceremony than the marriage bond.
Postponing marriage has been a great disservice to the institution itself and is detrimental to society. Marriage has been largely replaced by cohabitation, and financial stress has also affected 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 the burial of my relative, I was informed of a lady who had spent three years there, while her loved ones tried to raise the necessary funds to organize a decent burial for her, since she was a proud mother of 10 children!
Stories like this are not uncommon; people are not buried for months, because the family is waiting to build a house or the right time when families and friends from all over the world can come back for burial, or for the resolution of family disputes. There are many reasons for the delay.
This expensive and wasteful culture has been praised by many. While some have gone against the tide and organized simple and small events, most have not had the courage to do so and many others want and crave the good looks of a big party.
Realizing the damage this expensive culture has done to society, the Church in Nigeria and some local governments have tried, through politics and laws, to regulate when and how people bury the dead or marry - this does not affect the Muslim community because, according to their faith, their dead are buried within 24 hours without fanfare.
But what religious institutions and the government have failed to fix, the Coronavirus seems to fix - albeit indirectly. Since the outbreak of the virus and the restrictions imposed by the authorities on the number of participants in burials and religious ceremonies, people are forced to bury their dead or marry only 20 people present, while others join in via zoom or some other digital method. Something we thought was useless is now being done by many.
In addition to being extremely convenient, the small ceremony gives people peace of mind because they don't have to spend outside of their budget or act to please others or gain public approval. It has also shown that the amount of waste, both economic and environmental, that these celebrations cause is not worthwhile, especially given the prevalence of poverty in the country.
More importantly, this new reality is returning the celebrations to their original purpose. Our Coronavirus-induced celebration is more intimate and natural. Once again, you can see and enjoy beauty in the simple and essential.
The virus has also had a strong impact on the perception of the future. Couples who are planning to get married are always faced with the question "if". They want to know for sure if their partner is the right partner; they want to have a chance to see into the future to know if the marriage will go well or not.
With the Coronavirus, the notion of man as an all-powerful and all-knowing planner has been disproved.
The tragic course of the virus has shown that we humans do not have the control we thought we did. While not calling us to irresponsibility and disorder, it made us realize that, rather than seeking an illusory certainty, we must be bold and take the necessary risks - the leap of love.
The coronavirus is a crisis. But the word "crisis" itself means "decision point": the need to choose which side you want to go. The pandemic has overturned much of what was supposed to be resolved. But it has also taught us vital lessons. We cannot let this crisis go to waste. We must make a choice: either we use it or we lose it.
Harambee supports partner hospitals in Africa in the fight against Covid-19.