The Desperate Are Water
Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (2017)
And the desperate are water
They'll run down forever
And they soak into silence
And end up together
Arienette by Bright Eyes
I picked up this book for incredibly mundane reasons. Every time I walked past it in the library, I got the song Arienette by Bright Eyes stuck in my head. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I realised its title is a fantastic piece of micro-fiction: in just three words, it captures all the terrified desperation of one lover walking out on another.
“Stay With Me” is not, as it turns out, what one character says to another. It is the name Yejide gives to her second child, the one she needs to have in order to save her crumbling marriage to Akinyele, but whom she knows will die of sickle cell disease.
Akin and Yejide belong to a community of Hausa who practice polygamy: a man may take several wives, but a woman may only take one husband. Akin and Yejide want to remain loyal to each other, though. Young and university-educated, they are a new generation struggling to reconcile their urban, mobile, upwardly-ascendant lives with the constraints placed on them by tradition. And tradition demands that they have children. When their marriage fails to produce a child (for which Yejide is unfairly blamed), Akin’s mother forces him to take a second wife. From there, their relationship falls apart.
Many of the background characters in this book are jealous, petty wives, discarded by their husbands in favour of younger, more attractive, more fertile women. They plot and scheme to advance the lives of their own children, even if that places an unbearable pressure on them, even if (and sometimes because) that comes at the expense of their step-children.
Confronted with their actions, they always deflect responsibility. They claim that what they are doing is best for their children. But their demands serve a selfish double-purpose: manipulating their child’s lives is a way to forget the ignominy of being a lesser wife, to recover public face through their child’s successes, to redeem miserable unhappiness for social approval:
The reasons why we do things will not always be the ones that others will remember. Sometimes I think we have children because we want to leave behind someone who can explain who we were to the world when we are gone. (138)
If we believe strongly enough in our own life’s projects, the belief is sometimes so firm as to cause reality to bend around us. But when that’s not the case, the two collide painfully. We see this when Yejide convinces herself that she has become pregnant, even when the doctors say there is nothing there and the “pregnancy” lasts more than a year. Everyone laughs at her obvious desperation.
She tries every quack around that proffers a solution. That includes an order of dubious medicine-men who make her carry a goat up a mountain. Even if Yejide is too modern and educated to believe in this kind of nonsense, every superstition is worth trying if they eventually give her a child.
Akin observes this same kind of stubborn faith when his mother dies. His brother-in-law, Henry, an outsider who has made a furious effort to learn the language and culture, insists on digging the grave the traditional way, by hand. Once all the on-lookers have disappeared, Akin, who has put in a token effort, persuades Henry to call in some contractors to finish the job. Henry agrees, but insists they tell his wife (Akin’s sister) that he personally dug the grave:
‘OK, we’ll tell her you dug the grave.’ It’s the truth - stretched, but still true. Besides, what would be left of love without truth stretched beyond its limits, without those better versions of ourselves that we present as the only ones that exist? (87)
What compels someone to immerse themselves in these little rituals of desperation? To sustain obvious mistruths against the risk of public shame? Love sometimes needs this kind of blind faith to survive. The unbending, reciprocal belief in the justice and loyalty of our closest companion keeps hope alive in our darkest hours. That is what allows Akinyele and Yejide to preserve their marriage where the squabbling step-mothers, unable to rise above the passions and jealousies of polygamy, could not.
When Yejide finally gives birth the child dies of sickle cell disease. Her second child, Rotimi (“Stay With Me”), has the same disease. During a bad flare-up, Yejide becomes convinced that Rotimi is going to die and abandons the family. They only reunite years later on the occasion of a funeral. Rotimi, now a teenager, is alive:
Yejide, every day since I sent you an invitation to this funeral, I have worried about how this moment will play out. Timi has told me several times that it will be all right. But what does she know? Only enough to think that there is still a chance that the three of us will become a happy family. I should know better - do know better - but with you I can never let go of hope. (289)
Rotimi survived thanks to Akinyele’s bravery: he carried her to the hospital amid the Jos riots. And in the years afterwards, he raised his daughter alone, patiently awaiting the day Yejide would return. It’s hard to imagine someone being able to do this, save through the kind of blind faith that love inspires.
Stay With Me has a fast, exciting plot. It is set amid a backdrop of political turbulence in Nigeria. The upheavals are used to advance time in the story, but they also index the most important moments of the characters’ lives, such as the protest where they fell in love. The writing is not always good enough to veer away from melodrama. Fortunately, there are enough shocking plot twists to pull you through to the end (and if you think this review will spoil that—don’t worry, it doesn’t).
There isn’t always chemistry between Akinyele and Yejide. They only seem to fall in love because they happened to survive the same student protest. Most of their life—what we see in the book—is taken up with trying to meet the demands of their families. But if you treat their relationship as only having a chance to develop when they are free of these demands, when they are finally re-united at the end of the book, it makes a lot more sense.
Desperate acts of love by both Akin and Yejide hold their frail marriage together: when the expectations of family threaten to push them away, Yejide’s determination to have a child—despite her public embarrassments—keeps them together; and when Yejide, grief-stricken with the inevitable death of Rotimi, abandons the family, Akin’s patience offers her a way back.
They both have something of the blind faith that love demands. It is not always rational or explicable, but it nonetheless enables us to summon courage in the hours we truly need it. Even as Nigeria convulses in the background, suffering to the endless cycle of coup and counter-coup, even if the streets are burning and the cities are filled with the corpses of protestors, Akinyele and Yejide, at least, manage to build a sanctuary and find peace and happiness within.