Near the beginning of Daughters Who Walk This Path, narrator Morayo is picking wild mangoes with her fellow schoolgirls as they coyly watch the boys on the nearby soccer field. She is 12, soon to feel love and confused about “how to put [her] new emotions into words.”
This period of innocence is fleeting in Yejide Kilanko’s debut novel. The Nigerian-born writer, who now resides in Ontario, uses this coming-of-age story to explore the code of silence that often exists around sex crimes and violence toward women.
Morayo lives in Ibadan, Nigeria. When we meet her, in the early 1980s, she is a young girl shadowed by her adoring younger sister, an albino named Eniayo. Her family is well off and she is mostly protected from realities of life in modern-day Nigeria, though Kilanko weaves telling details throughout.
There are constant threats to woman, often from officials in charge. A teenage Morayo and her aunt try to flee a bus stop at the sight of a military truck. “Like everyone else in the city, I had heard the stories of missing girls and women … task force officers who went about under the pretext of ridding the streets of prostitutes abducted young girls in broad daylight. There were whispers of gang rapes at the barracks and mutilated bodies found in nearby bushes like unwanted trash.”
But it is not this danger that shatters Morayo’s innocence. “No one told us that evil is found much closer to home, and that those who want to harm us can have the most soothing and familiar of voices.”
When Morayo is 12, her cousin Brother Tayo (Bros T) comes to live at her house because his widowed mother feels he needs the influence of a man like Morayo’s father. Morayo starts to feel uneasy with her cousin's hugs and physical attention. “It was starting to feel like a game whose rules I did not know.”
One night, Morayo wakes to find Bros T on top of her, and a period of abuse begins. A cunning predator, Bros T knows to hold the threat of similar treatment against Eniayo over Morayo’s head if she tells anyone. Though his crimes are discovered and Bros T is sent back home, Morayo is haunted by her experiences and feels abandoned by her parents’ refusal to acknowledge what happened.
As Morayo descends into a suicidal depression, she bonds with her cousin, Aunty Morenike, who because of her own scarring “experience with men” is able to talk about these “shameful secrets.” Morenike becomes a lifeline as Morayo carries her emotional trauma through her adolescence, university years, marriage and eventual encounter with Bros T.
Daughters Who Walk This Path is a compelling read that deftly captures the complexities of its sensitive subject matter. If the author can be faulted, it is perhaps in being overly ambitious in the scope, which at times feels rushed in its need to accommodate details, such as banter in class at college or the marriage rituals of a minor character.
Ultimately, Daughters Who Walk This Path is an unflinching representation of the attitudes that existed – and in some places still do exist – toward victims of sexual assault. Kilanko’s true accomplishment is to give readers access to the women’s pain and, sometimes, their redemption.
Athena McKenzie is an editor at Zoomer Magazine.