“Tradition!” booms Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof as he explains how his community has survived for centuries in czarist Russia. Traditions remind us of who we are, Tevye insists. Meanwhile, in Shirley Jackson’s iconic story “The Lottery,” residents of a small town annually stone one person to death to honor a “tradition” they don’t even pretend to understand.
Traditions may have the power to guide us, but clarity of purpose can quickly turn opaque if an outdated custom goes unquestioned for too long. This concern is at the heart of Nigerian American author Tomi Obaro’s rich novel, Dele Weds Destiny, a moving story of three college friends who reunite at a wedding in Lagos in 2015, three decades after they last saw each other.
The bride, independent and ambitious future doctor Destiny, is the only daughter of Funmi, the wealthiest of the three friends. After rebounding from a relationship with a revolutionary, Funmi married a shady military figure. Now she has everything that money can buy but also lives an empty existence, with no emotional security outside of controlling her daughter. There’s an utter lack of communication between Funmi and Destiny, who finds her fiancé, Dele, to be bland and privileged. Throughout the novel, Destiny suffers in silence, allowing herself to be manipulated while waging a kind of passive strike against the elaborate wedding traditions her mother obsesses over.
Enitan, the brainiest of the three friends, escaped her oppressive Christian mother by marrying Charles, an American Peace Corps volunteer. He came from a white New England family and, with an exoticized image of Africa that he absorbed from reading Ernest Hemingway, taught at the women’s university, where he met and seduced Enitan. Enitan and Charles moved to New York, their marriage failed, and she raised their daughter, Remi, alone. Enitan brings now-19-year-old Remi to Nigeria for the lavish wedding.
Zainab is the final member of the trio. She’s an empowered writer and bookish dreamer, a clever Hausa Muslim woman who entered into an ill-advised marriage with an older academic colleague. Her partner is now bedridden and needs Zainab’s constant care.
These women know each other well, so readers won’t encounter any shocking revelations or buried secrets. Rather, Enitan, Funmi and Zainab reunite with old sorrows as they reflect upon the heady days of the 1980s, when student unrest shaped their lives for decades to come.
Along with the women’s pasts, Dele Weds Destiny offers a memorable portrait of a country that has long been divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north. The vividly rendered wedding weekend is split as well, with a secular Nigerian wedding preceding a Christian “white wedding,” which is held in a church and considered the “official ceremony.” The novel is pure sterling when describing the traditional Nigerian celebration. No guest list is needed; everyone is welcome, and hundreds, if not more, will attend. They’ll feast on delicious cuisine and shower the new couple with money. They’ll wear their finest in the tradition of aso-ebi, in which the couple chooses a brightly colored cloth from which their guests make elaborate dresses, suits and robes for the ceremony, as well as gèlè, huge headdresses in matching material.
The climactic wedding in the novel’s final pages delivers just what readers hope for in terms of surprises, and it’s well worth the wait. There are no fiddlers on roofs, but old traditions bounce and jolt along to great energy and expense, eventually falling away to herald new traditions as well as a new Destiny.