Afoma

The Solace Of Sisterhood

By Afoma

A review of Yejide Kilanko's Daughters Who Walk This Path.

Daughters Who Walk This Path_TBBNQ.jpg

This review may contain spoilers!

The town of Ibadan is the stage for which Yejide Kilanko’s Daughters Who Walk This Path is set. A debut novel, it is the coming of age story of Morayo Ajayi. The book opens with the birth of her younger sister, Eniayo. It then follows the lives of both girls through a quintessential eighties Nigerian childhood, with afternoons of watching trains and evenings of folk tales from their father.

Things, though, take a different turn when their cousin - Bros T - moves in with the family. Initially, he seems to be exactly like any loving older cousin, but time proves this untrue. Morayo is soonafter forever changed as she becomes the bearer of a grinding secret. In the isolation of this oppressive silence, only her aunt, Morenike, understands; becoming Morayo’s safe place as she walks this path that many before her have trodden.

 

'AFIN'

To the distaste of some of their neighbors and extended family, Eniayo is born an albino. Some neighbors to the Ajayi household worry because of their belief that having an afin (albino in Yoruba) is “not a good thing” — for “all they [afins] bring is bad luck.” Eniayo’s father’s great-grand aunt, Iya Agba, on the other hand, blames the child’s mother; insinuating that she has borne an albino because she walked “outside when the sun was up high in the sky.”

By means of Eniayo’s story, Kilanko draws attention to the many issues and stereotypes faced by over two million people with albinism in Nigeriaa. It reflects the sad reality in which so many myths still surround the cause of albinism: simply a recessive genetic trait. Till today, a good number of people (mostly Africans) hold a varying number of false beliefs about albinism — from albinos being immortal ghosts; to good sources of body parts for magical potions as this research shows.

These misconceptions and lack of social acceptance are often the leading cause of discrimination, bullying, violence and other heinous crimes against people with albinism; in turn, potentially deeply traumatising albinos. Unlike many who are starved of an education and opportunities, Eniayo is fortunate to have educated and loving parents who never make her feel less than anyone else. She grows up confident in her own skin; never for once feeling that there are things she cannot do because she is melanin-deficient or an afin.

Admittedly, strides - including free skin cancer treatment - are being made towards albinism awareness and care in Nigeria. There is, however, still more to be done to protect and reduce the stigmatisation against the 600,000b embattled with discrimination. As individuals, it is increasingly mandatory that we eliminate biases that we have unwittingly developed towards people with albinism. It is also important that we teach our children how to treat albinos with respect, just as they would any other person.

 

Hurt People Hurt People

From the start, Bros T is a problematic character: doing everything from petty thievery to voyeurism, yet managing to sweet talking his way out of consequences. Through his relationship with the Ajayi family, one sees what happens when parents fail to protect their children. It also highlights the role of the typical African home setting — silencing children and cohabiting with extended family — in the prevalence of sexual violence. Though Morayo’s parents had moments of discomfort with Bros T’s relationship with their girls, they did not intervene.

As the novel progresses, tables turn. Morayo eventually rapes her celibate University boyfriend - Ladi. Very easily, one could miss the fact that he was indeed raped, mostly because he is male and it was not violent. Still, he repeatedly rejected her advances and did not consentc. This experience points to the reality that men are often sexually assaulted but do not recognise it as such, or, are too ashamed to report incidences. Ladi’s experience with Morayo also highlights a chilling truth: abuse victims can easily become abusersd.

In the different cases of sexual violence, the worrying issue of weaponising shame - that is, using shame and blame to silence survivors of sexual abuse - is preeminent. The reader sees this with Morayo, her aunt Morenike and Ladi. Yet, when survivors fail to speak up after an assault, people tend to ask: “why didn’t you report sooner?” And I ask: can you really blame anyone for wanting to protect their already bruised soul from further trauma?

 

Sisterhood

The aftermath of abuse is debilitating, especially in a culture of silence. Morayo’s parents walk on eggshells after discovering her secret burden but no one actually listens to her. It is only when Aunty Morenike provides an understanding ear that Morayo begins to find a way to put her fragmented heart together. Morayo’s need to say the words “he raped me” underscores the necessity of a safe place for abuse survivors. For healing to begin, one has shown exactly where it hurts.

As Aunty Morenike becomes Morayo’s confidant, a true friendship and sisterhood blossoms, and the two are nearly inseparable. Before Morenike, though, was Eniayo. Through these different relationships and through Eniayo and Morayo, Yejide Kilanko successfully portrays true sisterhood in Daughters Who Walk This Path. They love and support each other, and disagree and cry with each other in turns. All of their childhood memories are intertwined, and incomplete without the other.

If one could summarise this novel in a single word, it would be: sisterhood. It is a reminder that women need each other; we must be our own allies in a world that constantly seeks to undermine us. Mothers must look out for their daughters; sisters for each other; and aunties for their nieces. For women, ‘together’ is always stronger — like Aunty Morenike says:

Even a strong sieve cannot sift yam flour by itself. It needs a hand to hold it up.
 

Love & Borders

Kilanko’s portrayal of young love is sweet and nostalgic; anyone who has ever been a teenager in love will identify with Morayo and Kachi’s love. Their interethnic love affair, however, brings to the fore the tribal prejudices that Nigeria is rife with. Morayo’s father goes as far as drawing red lines to mark out the few western Nigerian states his daughters are allowed to marry from. Ironic as it may be, these prejudices persist, despite national efforts like the NYSC scheme - which brings the two lovebirds together again - to promote “national unity.”

Citing, especially, “proper communication” as a top reward, some people extol the benefits of intra-ethnic marriages. Thankfully, more Nigerians are opening up to interethnic marriage and are thriving regardless of tribal differences. Irrespective of obstacles faced, Kachi is kind, patient and consistent. His relationship with Morayo, nonetheless, shows that love - as soothing a balm it can be - may not erode the effects of trauma. Most sexual violence survivors will have to do the hard climb to a satisfactory level of self esteem, in order to have healthy relationships.

Yejide Kilanko’s debut novel remains a necessary addition to African literature. Morayo is only one of the many daughters who walk the fraught path of abuse and toxic silence in Nigeria and other (African) countries. Her story shows that there can be hope after life-altering trauma. It proves that healing can occur if - and if, only - one creates the necessary safe spacese. Daughters Who Walk This Path is vivid, compelling and hopeful.

 

Have you read Yejide Kilanko's Daughters Who Walk This Path? How did you find it?

Follow this thread for our Twitter chat in September 2017 with Kilanko.



Notes

a As at 2013.

b According to Albino Foundation.

c Here's a simple video that explains content using an analogy with tea.

d A short feature by Being Bola titled 'Peter' that shows the cyclical effect of (male) abuse.

e A list of sexual abuse support centres in the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria, curated by The Book Banque. Kindly share.

 

TBBNQ Reads: Behold The Dreamers By Imbolo Mbue

BY AFOMA

Guest edited by Ráyò.

Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers begins with a chapter that had me making my way into the story with a curious heart and a slow smile. Jende and Neni Jonga are a young couple whose love has weathered the storms of a teenage pregnancy, and parental disapproval, which led to Jende being briefly imprisoned by Neni’s father. Their relationship survived a subsequent long distance relationship while he lived in America for a couple of years without Neni and their son Liomi. Still, theirs is an enduring love, and my heart fluttered every time they referred to each other as bebé.

Jende is introduced as an eager man from the small town of Limbe in Cameroon - one with crowded teeth and a desperation to survive. After Jende and Neni have spent the previous night preparing for his interview for the role of a chauffeur, he is overjoyed at being hired and at the beck and call of Clark Edwards and his family. Unbeknownst to him, this relationship with the Edwards will be a catalyst for many changes in his life.

Mbue’s debut novel chronicles the Jongas’ struggle for a better life in America, as we learn that Jende is seeking asylum in the US, whilst Neni is a pre-pharmacy college student. When he is denied asylum, the couple begin an emotionally draining battle to stay in America - one that causes them to question their values, and exposes personality cracks that threaten their marriage and happiness. 

 

THE AMERICAN DREAM

Jende Jonga goes to America determined not to return to Cameroon until “he had claimed his share of the milk, honey and liberty flowing in the paradise-for-strivers called America.” After he secures a job with the Edwards, things begin to look up for the Jonga family. The story, however,  appears to lull for a while, and my interest is carried along solely by the conversations Jende has with Clark Edwards about Limbe and America.

In near-florid detail, he describes all he remembers about his hometown, from ‘welcome’ signs to the smell of the ocean breeze. When asked why he has left this town that he so obviously loves and misses, Jende tells a heartbreaking truth to which most Africans will relate, about countries that do not care for their own:

Because … because in my country, sir,” Jende said, his voice ten decibels lower, far less unbound and animated than it had been before he heard that someone was in danger of being fired, “for you to become somebody, you have to be born somebody first. You do not come from a family with money, forget it. You do not come from a family with a name, forget it. That is just how it is, sir.

As I read, I drew parallels between Cameroon and my country, Nigeria — two different African countries that appear to suffer a similar problem. Nigeria is supposedly the giant of Africa, yet, in my opinion, far too many people lack the support they need to attain their fullest potential. Instead, these people have to deal with nepotism in workplaces and are forced by circumstances to accept positions that pay wages too meagre to support a family.

When his asylum application is denied and the road to American papers becomes fraught with difficulty, Jende begins to think of America less as the land flowing with milk and honey, and more as an unbearable way to live. His wife, however, is staunch in her love for America and even for New York, with which Jende has a love-hate relationship.

For Neni, “America [is] synonymous with happiness.” Her perspective is understandable because most African children, especially from the nineties, grew up consuming American media, from books to movies and sitcoms. So, like Neni says, when “every picture you’ve seen of [fellow countrymen] in America is a portrait of children laughing in snow or at a mall with shopping bags”, how could you ever imagine that, maybe, America is two parts struggle and one part happy for the average immigrant?

I oscillated back and forth, seeing both sides of the coin as the push and pull between Neni and Jonga raged regarding staying in America. Like Jende, I really did not see the point of suffering just to remain an immigrant in a foreign country, but what is there to come back to in a home country that does not offer its citizens the opportunities they deserve?

Nigeria, for instance, is one of the top ten countries currently facing a massive human capital exodus with more professionals, especially doctors, moving to Europe and North America for better pay and superior working conditions. For some Nigerian immigrants, their situation is like that of Americanah’s Obinze. They leave home just to resort to doing menial jobs outside the country. Still, many of these ones are glad to have improved healthcare, constant electricity and, better quality of life than they did in Nigeria.

 

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

In her Etisalat Prize for Literature winning novel We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo paints a tender portrait of her character’s longing for home when Darling says, “There are times, though, that no matter how much food I eat, I find the food does nothing for me, like I am hungry for my country and nothing is going to fix that.” I recall this as Jende’s longing for Limbe feels palpable after the loss of his job with the Edwards and the ensuing financial and emotional hard times his family encounters.

African immigrants leave home despite the love they may have for their culture, food and the energy of their towns and cities, in search of a better future for themselves and their children. When they then arrive at these new territories, the homesickness they feel is compounded by the stark inability to fit in - a feeling that is not new to any African who has lived outside the continent. The lack of acceptance is, sadly, never imagined.

With American immigration laws tightening recently, Bulawayo’s words have never been more relevant. She says, we leave our countries and families -

- despite knowing [we] will be welcomed with restraint in those strange lands because[we] do not belong, knowing [we] will have to sit on one buttock because [we] must not sit comfortably lest [we] be asked to rise and leave... knowing [we] will have to walk on [our] toes because [we] must not leave footprints on the new earth lest [we] be mistaken for those who want to claim the land as [ours].

Reading Behold The Dreamers, I wondered, why then do we leave in droves? Are there ways to make our home, more home? Home enough to hold us up? Support us? Keep us safe? Discrimination, while in the throes of displacement, worsens the heartbreak and loneliness that one already feels outside one's country as an immigrant; a realisation that complete assimilation is near impossible because they will have names too hard to pronounce, cultures too different to completely comprehend. They will always have to make do.

It is hard not to feel like the motherland has failed her children, as one reads on. Yet, one must acknowledge, as Neni does, that America and other first world countries provide our children with numerous opportunities that they would not get at home, unless they were part of the elite class with access to quality education, or wealthy enough to cushion against the many infrastructural deficiencies in their home country.

So, while she misses the exuberance of the open air markets and having a big house and yard in Limbe as compared to the “weirdly serene” grocery stores and a rat infested one-bedroom apartment, Neni knows that “in Limbe, Liomi and Timba… would lose far too many things...the chance to be awed and inspired by amazing things happening in the country, incredible inventions and accomplishments by men and women who look like them. They would be deprived of freedoms, rights, and privileges that Cameroon could not give its children.”

 

SECOND CLASS CITIZEN

Jende's love for Neni is apparent: from the late night nuzzling to words of endearment and, even in how long he fought against the odds to bring her to the States. Yet, unlearning patriarchy is a long, arduous journey for which many African men lack the patience or desire. So it is that Jende calls the shots in the house, and makes decisions - without discussions - on how Neni spends money she earns; so much so that when she returns to college after having a baby, he pushes her to retort that the child is not his! 

A partner in a two-person relationship with equal stakes should be equally valued and regarded. I, however, find that in reality and in literature, African marriages seem to lean more toward a dictatorship than a partnership. While reading Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, I remember most of all feeling annoyed at the derogation of Adah with each passing page. It is pitiable that the girl child is considered of less value than her male counterparts.  

Women are told, as Neni says:

Woman, oh you want so many things, why do you want so many things? When I was young my father said to me, one day you’re going to learn that you’re a woman and you should not want too many things.

Even outside the walls of marriage, women are treated like second class citizens who should sacrifice everything they want for themselves on the altar of marriage and family. Making sacrifices for the things you love is truly an imitable quality, but, again, in a partnership, should only one partner make all the sacrifices? 

 

IT’S A RICH MAN’S WORLD

A sizeable part of Behold The Dreamers is a behind the scenes look at the lives of the wealthy; the Edwards’ rich people problems, and how prioritising work and money-making over family affects the lives of loved ones. The Edwards have two sons - Vince and Mighty. Vince, who has “seen the light”, drops out of Law School and decides to move to India where he can get away from the ‘consumerism’ of America, and his family’s privileged existence - for which he insists has trapped them on a path of pointless material successes and achievements.

While the rich have extravagant parties and spend summers dining and lounging in Hampton houses with excessive bedrooms and luxury, real happiness eludes them. The Edwards’ children are happier spending time at the Jonga’s than they are in their own homes. Cindy Edwards, on the other hand, though she is all smiles outside, needs copious amounts of wine and prescription pills to endure her life with an absentee husband.

 

TILL DEATH DO US PART

Marriage and family are key themes in the novel, and the subtle contrasting manner the Jongas and Edwards are held up to the light shows that Mbue is an astute observer of the intricacies of married life and couple dynamics,. While Jende comes home to a nice meal and a wife who is eager to hear everything about his day, Clark Edwards is home too late to talk to anyone and when he’s early enough, he and Cindy only quarrel.

Neni and Jende’s marriage is far from perfect, especially as Jende’s frustration with America mounts and Neni’s love for the American lifestyle deepens. The two begin to have quarrels into the night and the nuzzling and cuddling disappear into the air of their small Harlem apartment. Their marriage is a lesson that life changes people. It also makes one wonder about 'forever' and whether the person one chooses would like who one becomes.

In Behold The Dreamers, Mbue intertwines the pursuit of greener pastures in a foreign country with homesickness and nostalgia for the past. The novel is encompassing in scope and yet manages to remain an easy, moving, and frequently funny read. It is almost impossible not to think deeper about what constitutes your values and the things that truly bring joy, while reading it. If you’re looking for something that discusses heavy issues without being preachy or drawn out, I highly recommend it.

 

TBBNQ Reads: Stay With Me By Ayòbámi Adébáyò

BY AFOMA

This copy of Ayòbámi Adébáyò's Stay With Me was kindly sent to The Book Banque by the Nigerian Publisher, Ouida Books, in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Afoma.

Image:  Tobi  for  The Book Banque .

Image: Tobi for The Book Banque.

Like it happens with all the books I have read and loved with a dizzying fierceness, I knew I wanted to read Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me the second I heard about it. I read everything I could find online about the author, and every review of the book I could find. Imagine my joy when I discovered it was also out on Audible! I listened to this book from start to finish in two days alternating between time on the floor with the narration sped up to times two and running errands in town completely oblivious to the world at narration speed almost doubled.

This is what Stay With Me does to you: it commands your entire world to a stop. Set in 80’s Nigeria - predominantly in Ilesa, Osun State - the novel tells a story of a young couple - Yejide and her husband Akin. These two protagonists, married for four years, are accustomed to familial interference on account of Yejide’s ‘childlessness.’ On this one visit, however, the couple’s fate is thrown into a whirlwind, and their marriage is left at the bay of despair.

In what was a norm in preceding centuries, Moomi, Akin’s mother, procures a new wife for her first son; one they believe will bear Akin a child - a child they think will “call another one into the world”, be it for Yejide or the good of the (extended) family. What initially was a mother’s attempt to save face and a much-sought after proof of femininity, this becomes the beginning of Yejide’s undoing: “like a hastily tied scarf coming loose, on the ground before the owner is aware of it.”

 

THE INADEQUACIES OF LOVE

Love, growing up, has presented itself as all powerful, all forgiving, all encompassing — and then there is the story of Akin and Yejide. Some parts of the story are told from Akin’s perspective, including his meeting and falling in love with Yejide; knowing from the first moment he saw her that he wanted to marry her. It is obvious that Akin does love his wife, in his own twisted way. He wants her to be happy, so much so that he goes extra lengths to reaffirm his love and respect for her, even after giving into his family’s request of a second wife.

Akin and Yejide’s love story is enviable at the start. Akin ends his relationship with his current lover just hours after setting his eyes on Yejide and then they are married before the year ends. Four years after marriage, their love is however stumped not just by their childlessness, but also by his initial reticence about her longing for offspring, secrets Akin keeps, and the ensuing deception he perpetrates.

The slow and heartbreaking transformation in their marriage testifies to the truth that love cannot fix certain things. It shows how love can become a burden; how this burden, if it stays too long, will see that “love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break.” Notwithstanding, as Adébáyò writes in insightful prose, Akin and Yejide’s complex relationship shows that “even when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love.”

Although he tries to hold Yejide up in the dark times, Akin is not without reproach and as such, in the earlier parts of the book, the reader is more than likely to judge him. However, as the story progresses, it is plain to see that Akin’s character is compelling and human. One becomes privy to the pressures he faces and the intentions behind his decisions. Despite the weight of Yejide’s pain, one is forced to understand that Akin has his own demons to contend.

The complexity of his choices caused me anger, heartache, sorrow and confusion.

Still, I am moved to ask, what are we all if not flawed?

 

AIN’T I WOMAN ENOUGH

The reader discovers that Yejide is motherless; having lost her mother only minutes after her birth. The absence of a mother is life-changing for Yejide, as it should be. She is unable to call anyone else Moomi, finding the “very thought sacrilegious, a betrayal of the woman who had given up her life” for her. That is until she meets Akin’s mother - a woman whose embrace makes her heart sing the very word she never thought she would use again.

Moomi’s warmth is replaced by hostility, and it soon becomes clear that Moomi’s affection is largely dependent on Yejide’s ability to “manufacture” grandchildren. One is forced to wonder: isn't the true essence of motherhood pure, unconditional love? How much choice does a motherless child have in picking the kind of love they deserve?

Yejide’s motherlessness and subsequent childlessness bring to mind the powerful concluding sentence of Taiye Selasi’s short story:

In the peculiar hierarchy of African households the only rung lower than motherless child is a childless mother.

In Stay With Me, Yejide has the misfortune of being both. Each page flipped is an affirmation that she truly is alone in the world. I am also really drawn to the way Adébáyò explores the notion that a woman is only ‘woman enough’ when she has children and no scene screams this better than when Moomi tells Yejide that “women manufacture children and if [one] can’t, [one’s] just a man. Nobody should call [one] a woman.”

It is interesting that although this story is predominantly set in 1985, childbearing is still revered in the Nigerian society as the supreme validation of womanhood; a sort of prestigious ‘accomplishment’. Also discomforting is the idea that mothering must be legitimised by suffering and toiling. Again, Moomi tells Yejide that before asking God for a child she must ask for the grace to be able to suffer for that child. I appreciate that preparation for a degree of self sacrifice should precede childbearing, but does motherhood equal suffering? Should it?

 

THE BURDEN OF AFRICAN ‘MANHOOD’

In telling a part of the story from Akin’s perspective, Ayòbámi Adébáyò highlights the psychological impact of societal pressures on men. As the story unfolds, it becomes easier to side with Yejide, to understand her frustrations and resentment where Akin is concerned, but by including Akin as a narrator, Adébáyò gives him a chance to tell his side. This allows the reader to step into Akin’s shoes and see things from his perspective. Thus, his actions, though unjustifiable, can be ‘understood’.

It is impossible to avoid a key reason for Akin’s deception: the insufferable fragility of African masculinity propagated by our society. Just like in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where Okonkwo’s manliness is proved by the number of wives he possesses and his inability to confront his emotions about Ikemefuna capably, Akin’s manhood is contingent on his ability to facilitate the ‘manufacturing of children’. It is from such emotional and mental chokeholds that Adébáyò hopes for men to “liberate themselves.” 

Similarly, in a TEDx talk, Ghanaian, Sangu Delle addresses this issue of being an ‘African man’ and suffering in silence. He says:

Our [...] struggles do not detract from our virility, nor does our trauma taint our strength.
...[Men] need to stop suffering in silence.

While Delle’s talk hinges more on mental illness in relation to the African man, the same thread runs through the issues faced by men like Akin. African men need not feel like they need society’s permission to express emotional turmoil or to seek help. It is important for men - and boys, alike - to understand this, as it will help to bridge the gap of double standards, and allow African men and women the freedom to be who they want to be. 

 

CULTURE JAMBOREE 

From Adébáyò’s use of indigenous language to the retelling of two Yoruba folktales, this book is peppered with reminders of its origin on every (other) page. The author’s value for (her) indigenous language by the use of intonations on her name on the book cover, and Ijesa Yoruba - not just ‘mainstream’ Yoruba - through the novel also emphasises the value placed on culture, heritage and language.

The intertwining of history and prose, as the author does, I found simply enjoyable! I believe that this the easiest way to teach history - a subject that had been scrapped from the Nigerian curriculum. The story is casually and yet intently built around a constantly evolving nation from coups to democracy. It is a reminder that whether or not a country falls, life goes on; people fall in love in the midst of riots, marriages crumble as dictatorships fail, and love bends as a nation finds its feet. 

Almost unmissable is the culture of polygamy - which was very popular in the setting on the novel - that hovers around the story. Though this journal notes the most popular reasons for becoming a second wife, - to include wanting a financially secure environment and parental pressures - Yejide is convinced that “women who never back down, who come with strategies under their wrappers and were never as stupid or as agreeable as they seem” become second wives. The book showed how the culture of polygamy, most of all, creates enmities among women, and no such animosity for the man who marries them all.  

Above all, Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me  is a story of desperate longing that will leave you turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. Yejide’s story is compelling but also, most characters in this book feel complete, full and rounded. I only wish one knew more about Dotun - Akin’s brother - but perhaps the story just was not his to occupy. Hands down, one of the most engaging books I have read this year!