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Onagoruwa’s Dear Alaere takes on patriarchy, sexism

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There are some familiar themes that will not go away because society seems like a dried, crooked stick in harmattan that refuses to bend one way or the other. So, right from the days of Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta down to Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo till now, the preoccupation with some basic issues that agitate women still finds expression in the creative space. And rightly so too; the African society tends to lay claim to modernity only in platitudes rather than concrete action borne out of genuine desire to change.

And so the usual issues like a woman being looked down upon for being barren or her inability to bear male children that is solely determined by what a man contributes to the baby-making process and the scorn she receives for failing her husband; or the extremely dangerous and ridiculous extent she is sometimes subjected so she can rescue her husband’s inconsequential name from going extinct. What about the toxic politics of the workplace that is enough to kill a horse? How does a married woman navigate these booby traps in a supposedly civilized society, that is still looking backwards, and survive?

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These are some of the issues that Eriye Onagoruwa has endearingly fleshed out in Dear Alaere (Paperworth Books, Lagos, 2020), her woman-centred fiction couched in a breezy, diary format. With the author’s intent to entertain, teach and amuse and make her readers think, this evocative narrative about a married woman’s journey in Lagos City is laced with all the familiar tropes of a city constantly decrepit and always in motion.

Married for well over 10 years, Alaere is having a hard time getting pregnant. ‘Laja, her husband’s low sperm count, does not help matters; but ‘Laja’s mother, and indeed family do not know this. ‘Laja’s mother is desperate to carry grandchildren from her son, but Alaere is failing in that department. She even hatches a plot to marry a young, fertile woman for her son to overcome her daughter-in-law’s barrenness.

Through her father’s recommendation, Alaere gets a job at a company where employees are best at playing office politics rather doing the actual job. When the environment becomes too toxic for her, she quietly quits. Before getting another job with a French multi-national firm, however, Alaere takes out time to get financial literacy, particularly how to trade on the foreign exchange (forex) market. When she eventually gets a job at Criole, it seems such a big deal. But soon, Alaere begins to experience the same pettiness she left behind at her former place of work, this time, even more powerfully. Her boss openly thrusts his penis at her; a co-worker is keen to lure her in lesbian affair. Her refusal to cooperate with these two means Alaere will be bypassed during promotion.

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But she faces her ordeal with equanimity and marches on regardless. She works her quiet magic of being a devoted worker and her reward eventually comes. But it is not all bad at Criol; she has amazing co-workers as well. Aubrey is a hopelessly fantastic lover who is struggling to regain the love of his life in Magarita; he would go to any length to win back her love. Is Onagoruwa contrasting love between the French and Nigerians? Just perhaps.

Back home, Alaere is struggling with her marital and childbearing issues. She takes in but experiences stillbirth just before she hugs her joyful bundle to her breast. She and ‘Laja are devastated. How do they face each other after that sad moment? ‘Laja’s mother’s plot to get her son a wife, who can reproduce comes thick and fast. She really brings home the girl she is intent on thrusting on her son as second wife.

Alaere’s diary captures the moment so vividly and poignantly: Nowhere is the African society at its crudest than in its relationship towards women whose bodies have sagged from the weight of waiting and wanting children. Society wears a different set of glasses for the men. They are never to blame. Ironically as women, we become our own worst enemies and collude hand in hand with society – acidic in our bite and callous with our empty display of warmth.

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Onagoruwa’s narrative is a skillful weave among three strands of stories that collide in the life of her heroine, Alaere. There’s Alaere’s own narrative quest for a child to keep her home with ‘Laja, so she is not pushed away by his mother whom ‘Laja is powerless to fight at first. There is also the story of her driver Alhaji Wasiu and his wife, who must keep having children until she gets a son to keep his name alive; she succumbs eventually and leaves Wasiu to cater for all the girls alone. The two places Alaere works run parallel lives with her country, Nigeria, where there’s motion without movement, stories of decrepit organizations and country that are falling apart. Onagoruwa masterfully crafts these three inter-related materials into a pleasant read.

Women and young girls will find the book a fascinating read as an exposition of the precarious times they live in. They will find that not even a woman’s education is enough to enable her ward off certain primordial, societal expectations like childbearing and the sex of a child she bears. Men, too, will find it unique for giving them their own voices back to defend the women they swore to spend their lives with, child or no child, male child or female child.

Alaere is representative of downtrodden female voices that Onagoruwa seeks to amplify the cries of women, who, for no reason their own, find themselves in the peculiar position of childlessness. Eventually, however, a joyful Alaere cuddles her baby, but ‘Laja’s mother had worked herself to such a fever she is no more to partake in the bundle of joy that arrives. Such ironic twist to a frenzied quest is how Onagoruwa regales her readers with.
Dear Alaere is both dark and joyful read.

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