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In this review of Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me, the author recounts her personal experience with friends who were affected by sickle cell anaemia, a malady that adversely affects many families on the African continent.  

I grew up in a small town in Kenya that felt like it had too many families affected by sickle cell disease. We knew of so and so’s brother or sister who was a sickler or had unfortunately passed away as a result of the disease.

From a young age, I enjoyed reading. The only way I would avoid being on the noisemakers’ list in class was if I had a book to keep me busy and my mouth shut. My friend Adam was also an avid reader. I remember one time an assembly noticing some coins on the ground and wondering aloud how come no one had claimed the money. “Ama they are counterfeit?” I asked no one in particular, wondering if the money had remained unclaimed because it was counterfeit. You know how it goes – “finders keepers!” Adam smiled from the next row and said: “So you have also read The Melted Coins?” with reference to a what was then a recent issue in The Hardy Boys series. We probably read the same copy, knowing how books are shared amongst friends.

Adam was a sickler. He lived with the illness until his early 20s when he succumbed to the disease when he had just enrolled for his second year at university. Reading Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me reminded me of Adam and the many families I know that have been affected by the disease. This is because Adebayo uses the story of a couple’s upheavals to explore how the chronic illness affects families. I actually emailed two of my literati friends to ask if they had read any other work by an African writer that talked about sickle cell disease. Like me, prior to Adebayo’s novel, they had not encountered an African writer who addressed a malady that adversely affects many families on the continent.  

Adebayo’s debut novel is an engaging read that explores the lives of a young married couple, Akin and his wife Yejide. Through these characters, Adebayo narrates life and death, and everything in between — love, loss, disease — in a manner that gets the reader invested in their lives, rooting for characters to triumph over hurdles that threaten to tear families apart. Adebayo weaves the narratives of dis(ease), both on a mental and physical level, in an engaging manner.

The novel is set in Nigeria in the 1980s, against the backdrop of political upheaval in the country as she struggled to transition from military to civilian rule. The setting is a fitting reminder that even in times of civil strife, citizens continue to live and experience their own upheavals, separate from the national chaos. This is not to say that macropolitics do not have a significant impact on the lives of individual citizens.

Polygamy is one of the issues addressed in the text. Just like in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, Adebayo explores polygamy intertwined with fertility. Both novels explore the drama that comes with secrecy in polygamous families. On page 106, we learn just how important secrecy is from Yejide. “In a polygamous home, eavesdropping was not just rude, it was criminal. Everyone has secrets, secrets that they were ready to guard with their lives.”

In a commentary published in The Guardian, Shoneyin tells us about the dating advice her parents gave her brothers. Unlike many Nigerian parents, Shoneyin says her parents were not particular about the ethnicity of the girls their sons dated but they drew the line on girls from polygamous families. Shoneyin thought this was unfair but her mother explained the rationale behind her stand.  “She said she didn’t have anything against the girls themselves, but that children from polygamous homes were often conditioned to be devious,” writes Shoneyin. Both writers use their polygamous families to present the reader with complex characters.

Adebayo uses flashbacks and flash-forwards to keep the reader glued to the page, trying to figure out the motivations behind the characters’ actions. She also uses the narrative to draw the reader into Yoruba orature, skilfully using descriptions of storytelling sessions to draw us into the characters’ homes. I think human beings are drawn to aetiological narratives because they provide explanations to seemingly inexplicable phenomena. The author uses this type of narrative to explain how human beings stopped communicating with trees. The author also uses the oral narratives to draw parallels to the characters’ lives, perhaps as a way of explaining loss.

Despite highlighting somewhat dark issues, such as disease and death, Adebayo manages to infuse humour in her work. One example is the personalised letters sent to the families in the estate where Akin and Yejide live. The thieves write to their targets in advance to secure an “appointment”. They warn the estate residents not to move and state their demands indicating when they will come to collect. Even as they issue threats, they still find time to offer advice.

Iya Bolu’s family is advised to consider family planning as she had had six daughters in six years. “The robbers congratulated the Agunbiades on the birth of their twin daughters. They congratulated the Ojos on the brand new Peugeot 504 station wagon they had just bought, consoled the Fatolas on the loss of their chieftaincy title…” writes Adebayo on page 80. These letters also speak of a community under close surveillance as the robbers have updated information on each family’s fortune and misfortunes.

On reading Stay with Me, you will be transported into the cars, business premises and homes of the characters.  I particularly enjoyed reading the passages set in the salon. The description of the conversations also brought to mind Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah minus the discussion on politics of black hair. Adebayo manages to tie even seemingly peripheral characters like Iya Bolu, Yejide’s friend and neighbour, into her narrative. Readers will be pleased to note that there are no orphan characters—those that are introduced and forgotten along the way. 

Stay with Me was shortlisted for the 2013 Kwani? Manuscript project and has been shortlisted for the 2017 Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi won the Kwani? top prize for her novel Kintu. Stay with Me is a book that would spark robust discussions on the vagaries of life.

Indeed, Stay With Me is an important literary work that highlights a disease that is common on the African continent but is largely not talked about in policy circles. Perhaps the literary exploration will act as a sp board for wider conversations on the disease, in particular, policy conversations to bring African countries together in helping families cope with sickle cell anaemia, particularly the stigma. In Kiswahili, there is a saying, “Asifuye mvua imemnyea,” translated loosely, it means, s/he who praises the rain, has experienced it. Adebayo has spoken about being inspired to write the novel because she has the sickle cell trait. 


* Florence Sipalla is communication consultant with a keen interest in African film, literature and media