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In new offering, Suitors Are Scarce… Akande interrogates battle of sexes

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There’s inescapably mixed emotions one takes away after reading Lola Akande’s latest short stories, Suitors Are Scarce in Lagos (Tunmike Pages, Lagos; 2020), a collection that boasts of a mixture of narrative styles and successes. Akande is a Lagosian who takes ownership of her storytelling to distinction in the range of characters and scenarios that sometimes verge on the improbable and fantastical.

But this is Lagos, a city where the novelty of experiences elsewhere easily becomes the new normal. Perhaps not cast in the ultra-feminist mould, but here Akande sides with her fellow women as she plumbs the depth of their experiences in their relationship with the odd men in their lives.

While the narrative of the hunting expenditure might have been the exclusive preserve of the ‘male’ hunter’s until now, Akande, it would seem, has provided the ‘female’ lion’s version perhaps for a balanced view of the ‘hunt’ relationship between men and women, either in marriage or in other kinds of relationships. While until recently it had been men who easily go to town with tales of their victories over the women in their lives, women, through Akande, have found their muffled voices and have come singing their own songs in Suitors Are Scarce in Lagos. This perhaps is in keeping with changing sociological landscape where openness is fast becoming the new normal and women, liberated at last from their exclusive perch in the kitchen, can now claim their place among men in the parlour in mutual intelligibility.

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Although women might have gone far afield in achieving something for themselves, Akande surmises that they still hold the short end of the relationship stick. Akande’s stories still do not explore the triumph that should have come with the milestones women have attained in their quest to march up with men. Rather, Akande dredges up some of the familiar and unending travails women endure in the hands of their men.

And so Tokunbo, though a successful civil servant, is still unable to find a man to call her husband. She doesn’t have a model in her Auntie Dupe either, who years ago, separated from her husband because she could not stand his huge sexual appetite; she feared that her husband might kill her with his incessant demand for sex and opted to remain unmarried for life. So when Tokunbo surprises her one late night in her apartment after a most intriguing and convoluting night journey, with Dupe lost in the sensual world of pleasuring herself with a dildo, they are both shocked. Also, the insanity on Lagos roads ripples through this opening story, ‘Who Is Sane in Lagos?’

Not least is the pathetic story of Omoye who believes she can eat her cake and have it in ‘A Bullet from Nowhere’. After being abandoned by her husband Osaro with two children, Omoye thinks the world couldn’t be crueler. But luck would shine on her again through her friend Helen who arranges an Abuja big shot for her; he wants a strong son to take the place of her imbecile son. George provides everything Omoye desires just so she can have a healthy son for him. Somehow, things go wrong and the pregnancy goes awry. But Omoye is reckless with her luck as she plies George with numerous demands. As it is becoming difficult to get pregnant again, Omoye hatches a plot with Helen to get a ‘miracle’ baby from an unscrupulous clinic that specializes in the evil act of procuring babies for the needy for a price. George is fooled into believing the lie. When a bullet from nowhere hits Omoye and her ‘new baby’, Helen, who has been jealous of Omoye’s unmerited success, tells George about Omoye’s treachery.

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In ‘Keep my Secret’, Bisi Komolafe at 48 believes she has come to a stage in life where she can have sex without the worrying about getting pregnant, but she is wrong. Her husband has been away two years on fellowship as a university teacher and Bisi is left alone in those years. She has no way of satiating her desire as her husband’s absence stretches on interminably. A shy, male student in her class catches her fancy and she hits on him to be her secret lover. It doesn’t come easy giving in to her fantasy, but she eventually immerses herself in luxurious sexual pleasure with her student.

Then the inevitable happens: she becomes pregnant. Desperate, Bisi plots aborting the baby, but changes her mind. Abortion is too risky. A clinic where Bisi plans to quietly have her unwanted baby and hand him away to a needy couple turns out to be her young lover’s father’s outfit. Life couldn’t be crueler.

It is perhaps in the title story, Suitors Are Scarce in Lagos, that Akande shows just how far women have to travel in their battle to regain their humanity which seems intricately tied to men’s. Marriage, as Akande seems to put it, will continue to be the yardstick with which men and women’s success or failure will be measured. But it appears women bear the weight of society the most when a suitor is long in coming.

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The oldest of three sisters and successful businesswoman, Sade is the only one yet to get married. Nothing she hasn’t done to get herself a man to marry her; she goes on several dates, with one that takes her to meet a jailbird in prisoner. When she finally finds Gbenga, a much older man who lives in Ibadan, Sade settles for him much to her mother’s vehement protests. Gbenga is just managing to scrap by, but Sade is insistent. Her father foots the wedding bills.

As Sade puts it, “Perseverance and tolerance are necessary for a successful marriage, I remind myself. Moreover, I’m committed to making my marriage work. I’ve undertaken marriage, I’ll see it through, I tell myself. I close my eyes and recite the qualities of a good wife: I must pretend to be happy even if I’m not, for the sake of the survival of my marriage. I must be grateful that I have a man to call my husband, and must show my gratitude by not probing into his private affairs. It’s my duty to build up my husband’s sexual confidence, and I must achieve it by all means possible. I must not express any sexual interest in other men, in private or in public even if my husband fails to satisfy me. I must tolerate the way he diminishes me. I must render him moral, emotional, psychological and financial support in all his undertakings. I must love him through health and sickness, wealth or poverty.”

But when Sade finally arrives Ibadan to assume her matrimonial duties, she finds Gbenga a sexual pervert, who brings in young lovers to his matrimonial home without a care in the world. Sade is scandalized, but Gbenga is lost to his debauchery. Sade simply moves back to her parents’ home to resume her interrupted ‘spinsterhood’.

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‘Caged Bird’ and ‘Nocturnal’ are also two stories where Akande chronicles how women are sexually, emotionally and psychologically abused in their relationship with the men in their lives. Osas and Ohije had led quiet lives in Maiduguri before Boko Haram’s bombs started falling with abandon. Lagos becomes the next destination. But Lagos presents its harsh challenge for the arrival. But when Ohije meets the Akannis, life takes a turn for the better. However, Mrs. Romoke Akanni has other designs for Ohije other than the contracts he helps them execute. She turns him into her side cock and has him caged in an apartment within their palatial home, such that he is lost to his wife, Osas, who can no longer have her husband to herself, because another woman has unyielding possession of him. Ohije is so sucked into his amoral acts with Romoke he forgets he has a wife. Osas has no other option than to move back to her native Benin City with her children to begin life afresh without her husband.

Akande’s stories yield multiple layers of meaning and enjoyment to readers. ‘Suitors’ is her metaphor for just how few proper eligible men are in the city by the Lagoon. Akande arrives at the damning verdict that most so-called married men don’t as yet qualify for the tag of ‘suitors’ or real men. In these stories, men’s villainy to women is stark and unrelenting. Akande’s underlining thesis would be for women to be fiercely independent, both financially and emotionally, so men don’t so often mess them up. But this is easier said than done.

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While some of the stories are compactly written, like ‘I Fixed It’, ‘Keep My Secret’, Suitors Are Scarce in Lagos’, ‘Caged Bird’, and ‘Nocturnal’, the same cannot be said for ‘Who Is Sane in Lagos’, ‘A Bullet from Nowhere’, Testing for Motherhood’.

So while these stories hold women up as underdogs in the man-woman equation in typical feminine gaze, Akande, who teaches literature at university, looks away from the triumphs and victories majority of women have attained in Lagos and elsewhere. Perhaps, Akande and other female writers will find moments to celebrate women’s triumphs in the relationship space and elsewhere.

Mrs. Romoke Akanni is an approximation of the possible triumphs and successes women are capable of, but her infidelity and sexual perversion that denies fellow women their husbands put a question mark on whatever her achievements are. Certainly, there are women out there who provide sterling examples worthy of emulation. More importantly, there are women out there who have mastered the management of the men in their lives and who live robust lives other than the women in Akande’s fictive imagination has conjured. They too deserve to be toasted.

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