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.
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?
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:
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.
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.