Gender Tropes In Damilola Olaniyi’s We Have Come Home | Paul Liam | Book Review


Damilola Olaniyi’s collection of short stories We Have Come Home, x-rays the dilemmatic life of young Nigerians in that space where they are struggling with reconciling their freshly minted dualities acquired by living or schooling abroad with their African socio-cultural values that expect them to act in certain ways or aspire to certain moral ideals. They are often fronted with traditional value systems after returning from foreign lands which often create a conflict of interest that puts them against their families or the larger society, unintentionally. Part of the struggle for these young Africans and in the context of this review, young-abroad-educated/abroad-raised-Nigerians, is finding love and fulfillment. At least this is the impression that one deduces from the title story of the collection, We Have Come Home.

Lynda is a young lady in her mid-thirties just returned from abroad and is caught up in a sexual relationship with a younger man whom she is four years older than and way out of his league, but driven by sexual cravings she has sex with him in his humble home which she describes as demeaning of her social class as a foreign educated lady who is also pursuing her masters as a lecturer abroad. What is striking about her relationship with Ikenna is not so much the sexual nature of it but the social realities surrounding her life as an unmarried Nigerian lady. Her mother is desperate for her to get married like her other siblings and relations, an enormous pressure, both psychologically and emotionally thereby leaving her in a state of dilemma. However, as it is typical of many Nigerian families, religious bigotry or inter-religious dichotomy is highlighted as a social problem militating against the prospects of a happy life for many young people. For example, Lynda’s parent dissolved her beautiful relationship with Bert, whom she was set to marry, simply because he is a catholic. Her parents insist she cannot marry a catholic hence putting an end to what would have ultimately resulted to a happy marriage. Yet, they continue to put pressure on her to get married.

Perhaps the question Olaniyi raises with this portrayal is to raise awareness of the disservice of inter-religious conflict and how it is inimical to the actualisation of the happiness of young people in a supposedly religious society like Nigeria. Reflecting on the damage her parents’ decisions caused her she enthuses,

“They said he was Catholic and by his admission, he didn’t take religion seriously. I mean, we dated for over three years and that was no big deal to them. We had even started talking about our wedding. Try as I may, they remained adamant and Bert would not marry me without my parent’s blessings. He was traditional that way. I moved out of the house shortly before my immediate younger sister, Lara, got married. It has been over two years now and no one else appeals to me.” (p.5)

One would think that religious differences or affiliations should not matter in choosing a life partner but the happiness of the couple. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Lynda’s situation. But the inter-religious division is not the only challenge that Lynda or other young Africans face when it comes to marriage or picking a life partner. Her parents also did not encourage her to marry a Black American man either. And because her siblings are married to Nigerian men, they expect her to marry a Nigerian as well. Why should ethnicity matter in a marriage between two people who belong to the same race but have different cultural realties? While the reason for this decision by her parents is not stated in the story, through Lynda’s explanation one could deduce the need for her to retain her cultural origin as suggested by her parents’ behaviour–to many African parents, cultural affinity is central to building a successful home as it is a common practice in Nigeria. Many parents want their children to marry from their own cultures rather than from other cultures. This also creates a problem and reinforces division in society. In many African societies like Nigeria, marriages within the same cultures are regarded as instruments of preserving ethnic identities and lineages. However, this poses a serious problem for a person nurtured by cosmopolitan values like Lynda. Lynda reflects on this situation thus:

I get the feeling that they don’t want me to marry a Black American. My sisters are both married to Nigerians. Mother says my work cannot give me children. I lecture in a university over there, Law. (p.5)

Class and age difference also affects Lynda’s relationship with Ikenna. Even though she loves him she recognises that they don’t belong to the same social class and his being younger than her would raise concern in a society where the woman is traditionally expected to be younger than the man in a marriage setting. So, she withholds her love for him and suffers in silence, even their secret conjugation is considered their ‘little secret” that is not to be known by the society for fear of societal condemnation. Thus, she lives with the pain of knowing that she will never be able to truly love or express her love for Ikenna as she pontificates in the last paragraph of the story, “I knew that talking to him always made me feel better, but it was all I could do to keep myself from longing for something so elusive.”

Another story that illustrates the challenges of young women living in an overtly judgmental society is the story entitled, “A Sneak Peak”, which chronicles the lives of four young women who have equally travelled abroad before. The narrator encounters three of them in a mall and eavesdrops on their conversation which she recounts in quite comprehensible details. While they look posh and successful, they are actually living with their own demons like everyone else. Although, the ladies are central to the story, it is the social issues that they navigate that the story highlights for deeper reflection by the society. For example, Tolani had lived with her aunt in London where she obtained a degree in journalism. While staying at her aunt’s house, her aunt’s husband wanted to sleep with her and not wanting to succumb or destroy her aunt’s marriage she cleverly returns to Nigeria without putting a strain on their marriage. But what is significant in Tolani’s story is that circumstances beyond her control forced her to relinquish a good life and return home which consequently implied that in order to save her aunt’s marriage she gave up on the prospects of attaining a more fulfilling life in London.

This is a reality many young girls in Nigeria who have had to sacrifice their dreams because of the predatory lust of the men in their lives face. This predatory lifestyle by men has damaged many homes and lives of innocent young girls who perhaps did not have the kind of empowerment that Tolani had and the will to resist and protect her dignity by returning Nigeria. In any case, had she succumb to her aunt’s husband’s advances she would still be blamed for being the one who destroyed her aunt’s marriage, so instead, she had to give up on her own life to save another woman’s life and happiness. The narrator captures this more succinctly,

With nowhere to run, she had endured his crudeness and made up her mind to return to Nigeria. She had taken care not to be rude, which would have been a dead giveaway, especially as she could not tell her aunt or mother. She had also tried to avoid situations where she had to be alone with him for any reason. She did not want to destroy her aunt’s marriage, a marriage that was already on the verge of collapse. She had replaced all her bum shorts with caftans and an assortment of loose-fitting clothing that had piqued her cousin’s interest in her losing her sense of style. However, how was she to tell her cousin that her uncle was hitting on her? She had taken up gardening, a hobby that she dropped even before her plane touched down at Murtala Muhammad International Airport.

Tife, on the other hand, suffered all kinds of abuse at the hand of her father’s cousin while living with them in London. Her father’s cousin’s wife maltreated her and denied her food, thus, she lived a miserable life in London and had to devise means of surviving on her own as the narrator informs,

Tife had been living with her father’s cousin, whose wife had made things so unbearable that she was not even allowed to eat in their house. She had discovered all the eateries that sold cheap meals, even meals that would sit in your belly until the next day! All the nooks and crannies of London were her playground and she was relieved when her younger brother arrived London and they rented an apartment.

Tife’s story, like Tolani’s, shows the various degree of challenges that young girls are made to face by society usually in certain cases where they are supposedly protected from harm. These ungodly circumstances often leave them vulnerable and susceptible to all manner of dehumanisation that sometimes even threatens their existence. Tife’s story is akin to that of Ochanya, a Benue girl in Nigeria that was serially raped by a father and his son. Like Tife, instead of protection she was dehumanised and killed by those who should have saved her. Olaniyi does a beautiful job by painting the plight of the girl-child in such a subtle way that it does not even appear like an advocacy for better treatment. Funke’s story equally shows vulnerability especially as they struggle to navigate the dark waters of life in a bid to secure economic independence for themselves. Her story is a tragic case of self-loathing as a result of bad decisions. She finds herself pregnant for a married man whom she was convinced was not going to marry her and without a choice, aborted the pregnancy; and lives with the guilt for the rest of her life. Had she a choice she would be happily married and even birth the child. The moral of the story is that women who find themselves in patriarchal societies are conditioned to pander to the whims and caprices of the men sometimes for economic liberation or validation. Even though Funke is a working-class lady, somehow society has conditioned her to believe that she needs a man to be complete, and not having her own man or husband, she makes do with what comes her way in the form of a married man who will not marry her. For Funke, it is a lose-lose situation that explains her anguish and self-loath, which can only emanate from a conscious mind.

The portrayal of women as victims of social and cultural injustices in the text is telling of the gender issues still being faced by women and young girls regardless of their education or social class, they are confronted with new subversive realities that undermine their happiness and quest for a fulfilled existence. For example, the female characters in the collection are sophisticated, educated, and modern women but that does not make them immune to the realities of the world they live in. Olaniyi creatively deconstructs gender problematics using subtle but telling language and metaphors that prick the mind of the reader. A conscious reader would have no choice but to ask the salient questions inscribed in the stories, which Olaniyi actually wants her readers to ask themselves. In each of the stories, we encounter different layers of the challenges women struggle with in their daily lives in a world preconditioned by patriarchal indoctrinations that foreshadow the attainment of the feminine essence.
The eighteen short stories in this collection are written in fine and accessible language even though a critical reader would demand sturdier suspense and plot dynamics.

Paul Liam is a poet, author, and literary critic with several published essays on local and international platforms.

Lake Adedamola is a poet, writer, and editor with Nantygreens, who's worked with several other literary blogs including Brittle Paper. He has, since 2018, served in various capacities on the Lagos International Poetry Festival, LIPFest, team.

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