Ahead of the release of her debut novel, She Would Be King, out later this year, Liberia-born author and literacy advocate Wayétu Moore reflects on her wedding reception in Nigeria and her experience navigating relationships and customs between her many homes.
We arrived in Lagos shortly after 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. My mother-in-law-to-be had planned a reception for my fiancé and me in Bayelsa State, ahead of our formal wedding ceremony in August, so both he and I were excited to see our families, honor ancestral traditions, and explore two cities in Nigeria: Lagos and Yenagoa.
The pen-pen (transport motorbike) drivers were not as many in Lagos as in Monrovia, Liberia, where I frequently visit to see my parents and run a small bookstore in the downtown area. Yet Lagos traffic fulfilled its reputation—cars on the road from the airport were pushed together like purpose-driven ants, and roadside vendors crowded around our taxi selling everything from bubble gum to puppies. I rolled down my window, only slightly, because I wanted—needed— more of what was going on outside of the car: the accents with words so exact and demanding that each was its own chief; the afternoon smell of roasting meat and fried plantains; the laughter, so deep and full that I wanted to dive in. This. This is what I needed. This incomparable feeling. I was home.
My fiancé and I met in New York and have similar West African upbringings. I am Liberian and he is Nigerian, and we bonded over shared family values, family immigration stories, and which country made the best jollof rice (Liberia, of course). He was born in America and I moved to the United States when I was five years old. Growing up in America, we both had a cross-cultural experience of childhoods at the juncture of African- American and African immigrant experiences. Certainly African-American music, food, dance, and certain rituals that we were immersed in during our adolescent years in New York and Texas had traces of Africa, which we instantly recognized and dwelled on for peace of mind as we straddled those worlds, but many things would remind me that I was different. So when I began to travel back to Liberia in 2014, it was medicine I did not know I needed. Going home was necessary. It was a place that made sense of my difference, named it even, and showed it off like a mother would an only child.
I experienced a similar peace during my first day in Lagos. As an African woman raised and socialized in America, my adopted home country could only nurture me to the infant stages of photosynthesis; returning to Africa aided me to full bloom. I recognized the food and faces, the postures and names (Surprise, Patience, Blessing), and an urgency only familiar to those who have had to race against the free flow of light and water.
Our hotel was on Victoria Island, a community that sits between Lagos Island and the Lekki Peninsula. I was impressed and somewhat proud of how developed the island was, and how true to the West African habit of cluster and commerce it seemed to remain. An affluent hotel emerges on a city block? Sure. But the market will never be too far off. As family members began to arrive, they joined in this unspoken dialogue—a pride in a home we found a way to love, despite being raised on images that portrayed West African countries as backward, disease-ridden, and without hope.
After two nights in Lagos, we flew to Port Harcourt, where the aerial view was unmarked by towering hotels or crowded highways. The palm trees were lush, and Bayelsa State was so green that, even from the air, I could almost taste the bitter leaves on my tongue. We took a two-hour bus ride to Yenagoa, where my fiancé’s parents live when they aren’t in New York. Yenagoa was reminiscent of Monrovia. It was quieter, more laid-back, and it seemed its citizens navigated their hours with softer gestures than those of Lagos.
Friday night was the dowry negotiation. My family was to sit across an open stage from my fiancé’s and negotiate how much I was worth. When I was first told of the ritual, my mouth soured. It was, in all ways, antiquated, and so far removed from the feminist ideologies I subscribe to. Still, there was something striking about a story of a groom who would and could give everything, who petitioned his family to give as much as they could—even though it could only be expressed through material wealth—for a lifetime of love. Before the negotiation (which was only a symbolic presentation because, let’s be serious, my worth will not be quantified), my mother-in-law-to-be pulled me aside and adorned me with my first set of coral jewelry. Coral beads at Ijaw weddings are said to have the power to sustain any vow or promise. In the Western world, where I have been so long removed from the cultural traditions of ethnic groups in the West African region, there was something spiritual about knowing that dozens of generations ago, a timid new iyawo (wife) also sat clinging to her coral for strength, and for an understanding of what was to come. It was a stunning experience, and I cannot wait to perhaps adorn my future daughter-in-law with the same beads.
At Saturday’s reception, I was presented before more than 400 of my fiancé’s relatives and friends. I entered a crowded room where he unveiled me and offered me money on a dance floor, while I refused to smile until he and his family had offered everything they had. Then I reentered the reception hall in another outfit and found him among the crowd. We then knelt before both sets of our parents as they prayed for our lives together. The physical and emotional beauty of it all was remarkable. I hadn’t felt so safe, so at peace, in a very long time. Our 10-year-old selves would have shunned the idea of getting married in head ties and traditional print clothing.
These were the things we were taught to laugh at in ourselves—to feel a hint of discomfort when people called us “African.” But on that day, falling into each other’s families and into our culture, honoring our ancestors and hearing their blessings through the prayer, the people, and the dancing, created a most beautiful, most inspiring feeling.
When I entered the reception, veiled and escorted by dancing maids, it was difficult not to cry when I noticed the joy in that glorious sea of colors. I am home, I repeated to myself, standing proudly, standing upright, careful not to lift my veil.