Queen for a day: Dr. Ivie Okundaye-Appiah
When most brides-to-be envision their wedding day, they picture themselves as a princess: beautiful ball gown, spark-ling tiara, Prince Charming. Not Ivie Okundaye. Why be a princess when you can be queen for a day?
Okundaye's parents, Bennett and Dr. Ifueko Okundaye immigrated to the United States from Benin City, Nigeria. Specifically, they are Edo — a geographic and cultural
group that still recognizes a royal family. Within the Edo population, brides are also considered queens on their wedding day. And queens in this culture deck themselves in gorgeous red coral beads, termed “ivie” in the Edo language. Historically,
the coral beads were used as currency among the Edo people.
“My name basically translates into ‘more precious than gold,’” Ivie Okundaye said.
So the woman who was named after the treasured gemstones found herself adorned in them when she married James Appiah at their nuptials fit for royalty in the Fox Cities at the end of August. The affair stretched over two days and brought a melting pot of guests from across the globe, merged ancient traditions and modern day touches and featured a bridal wardrobe of six different gowns.
“I wanted it to be like a fashion statement,” Ivie said. “I envisioned a variety of outfits and expressions.”
The Edo wedding is a detailed and lengthy affair that begins with a traditional “introduction” ceremony, in which the bride and groom announce their intent to marry. “The most important element of the ceremony is family-to-family amalgamation: It’s the main thing that sets an Edo wedding apart from a Western wedding,” Ifueko said. “Western is boy meets girl, boy marries girl. This is boy meets girl, boy meets girl’s family. It’s really about two families blending and recognizing the goal of supporting the bride and groom. So at the introduction it is announcing that you’ve made this decision.”
At the introduction, both families came together to perform an elaborate ceremony at the Okundaye home in Neenah. The bride’s family offered the groom’s family drinks and asked “What brings you here?”, to which the groom’s spokesman replied, “Our son says he has found a flower in your compound and he wants us to help him keep the flower.” The bride’s family is offered kola nuts — a sacred, bitter fruit that grows in Africa’s tropical rainforests and must be harvested and flown here — and the solemn prayers that accompany gifts of kola nuts.
“At some point after the kola nuts and prayer, they acknowledge the oldest person in the room as the representative of the king to say we want our ancestors to bless us,” explains Ifueko.
Near the end of the introduction, the bride is presented and placed to the left of the groom’s father, not the groom.
“The reason we do that is because we’re saying that our family knows you, trusts you and trusts you with our daughter,” Ifueko said. “If there’s any accountability to be had, we’re coming to you.”
Ifueko and Bennett Okundaye met in Nigeria. He had been working in the United States for nearly a decade and had traveled home for a visit. She had just completed medical school. They met, fell in love and held their wedding ceremony in Nigeria before the couple immigrated to the United States together in 1988. They considered themselves married and had two children before their family insisted they undergo the official Edo wedding ceremony — the second of the two-part marriage.
Traditionally, the introduction and wedding are separate occasions, but today — in particular when it involves global travel — the two events are typically held consecutively. That doesn’t mean the participants take it any less seriously.
Another important facet of the rituals is “the list.” The list is like a modern-day scavenger hunt and requires the groom to present to the bride’s family various run-of-the-mill items like a Bible, salt and money along with several hard-to-find things like the kola nuts and palm wine.
The list is intended to prove the groom’s loyalty.
“It’s saying ‘I’m ready to work for my family,’” Ifueko said of the list. “It’s very telling to the girl’s family. James was very organized. He even nicely packaged his gifts. And he got the ultimate prize: His princess.”
For the introduction ceremony, Ivie wore the same wrapper Ifueko wore to her wedding: A regal lime green and eggplant gown with gold trim.
“If I have a daughter, hopefully she can wear the same thing when she gets married,” Ivie said.
For four of the other outfits Ivie wore over the weekend, she and her family hand-selected the fabric from a posh market in Benin City during
a February visit in which they stocked up on as much colorful textiles and authentic coral beads as they could.
“My Nigerian heritage is a large part of who I am and how I view myself,” Ivie said. “From the ivie beads I wore to having all my family there in particular my parents and all my living grandparents (including her paternal grandmother, who is in her 90s and flew in from Benin City). I’ve seen these prayers done at other events — celebratory prayers and call-and response exchanges. It touches me that it happened for me.”
The attire also stretched into James’ heritage, too.
“I had a few more outfits including a Ghanaian dress that was designed by my husband’s family and was to represent transitioning into Ghanaian culture,” Ivie said. “I also had another feminine look using pink fabric picked in Nigeria. My last outfit was a matching turquoise dress with my husband’s agbada to end the night for a royal look.”
MERGING OF NEW
The festivities weren’t strictly Edo. Saturday the couple held an elegant Western wedding with 260 guests at Menasha’s North Shore Golf Club complete with tuxedos, flower girls and another stunning gown — this time a jewel-encrusted, Cinderella-style ball gown with a sweeping train.
The ceremony included scripture readings, hymns, a candle-lighting ceremony and lavish reception with musical performances throughout.
Between wardrobe changes and dancing, the Okundayes presented Ivie with a painting they commissioned by Appleton artist Susan Atkinson.
“The painting is like looking out my bedroom window overlooking the backyard at my parents’ house,” Ivie said. “It has a lot of sentimental value because I feel safe and protected at home. I feel like I can be myself there. It’s like the most innocent and raw part of me is me in
my bedroom at home.”
Ivie grew up in Neenah alongside two younger brothers. James grew up in Ghana. The couple met in Chicago in 2018. James had been a practicing dentist in Ghana and immigrated here in 2012. The United States’ laws for foreign trained doctors required him to repeat dental
school here, so he was attending his second round of training when they met. Ivie was practicing in her internal medicine residency at Loyola University.
Six months later, the couple were engaged. Ivie is on year two of a three-year nephrology research fellowship at Stanford University in California.
James is in his second year of a four year oral and maxillofacial surgery residency in New Jersey. They’ll continue living on opposite coasts for
nearly two more years.
“We shoot for about one long weekend a month on average,” Ivie said. “It’s challenging, but I will tell you that my love for him is bigger than
any distance or time difference we have. We both have similar values, so it’s worth it.” w