The Running Woman (2003) by Kehinde A. Ayoola is a riveting story of poverty in its extreme form, its impact on an African woman and her family, and the oppressive power of the government over the helpless governed. This emotive novel tells in graphical details the abject poverty that exists in third-world countries, laying particularly much of the blames on the feet of an insensitive and unresponsive government whose self-chosen duty is to perpetuate the impoverishment of the citizenry.
The Running Woman in effect combines crime, poor living conditions, children mortality, malnutrition, stunted dreams and alcohol escapism as the established order in an impoverished society.
Molara, the protagonist heroine, grows up in Koroma, a place she describes as “the slum of my birth” and “a classic example of what a town should not be” (P. 8). Like every teenager of her age, she is easily derailed from her academics by her love affair with Vincent. This little affair results into pregnancy. Her father sends her out of his house, calling her “a prostitute”. Her mother however stands by her. This mistake marks her descent into poverty.
Few months after her delivery, she conceives again, this time with twins, thereby thwarting her lifelong dream and ambition to become a nurse. Her husband, Vincent, once with a promising dream himself, sinks into bottles of alcohol after he is robbed, detained, rendered jobless and homeless too.
The author, over the next few chapters, shows the cat-and-rat or hawk-and-chick relationship that exists between the military government of Chango City and its citizens. The Mayor of Chango, Colonel Ignatius Omokhodion, in his bid to wipe out poverty from Chango City decides on his own to bring down the houses in Koroma slum. By this decision, he renders many homeless — Molara’s parents inclusive. The harshness of his decision and the brutality inflicted on Molora’s father culminate into his death. Besides, Molara and Vincent too have to start all over again.
The author compares Omokhodion’s brutality with that of “Didi Ramin of East Africa” (P. 94), a subtle caricature of the brutal Idi Amin of Uganda.
With the demolition of Koroma, the couple have no choice than to relocate to Mutandi Estate where they manage to put up a poor excuse of a house: “a rotten little sausage sandwiched between two delectable loaves” (P. 102).
Molara, describing their state of penury, puts it this way:
Ours was a unique kind of poverty. It was a poverty that had twisted horns like a Sallah ram. If it dug its horns into its victim, no one could rescue the person. It had arms, long and strong enough to crush the toughest human bones right to the marrow. Its eyes were as sharp and far-reaching as an eagle’s. Once it set its sights on its prey, there was no room for escape. It had legs the size of an elephant. Once it stepped on its victim, that was the end, he stayed flattened forever. It gripped firmly, the way a lioness grabbed its prey at the jugular until it bled to death. Our brand of poverty specialised in breaking the human spirit, rubbishing his soul and ravaging his flesh.The Running Woman, (P. 103)
Another striking description of the abject the couple find themselves in is:
We filled our lungs with polluted air, drank polluted water. We went to our rickety beds hungry and woke up starving. Hunger was our shadow; it never let us alone; not for a single moment. It taunted us with discordant rhythms in our bellies, callously playing several native musical instruments like bata, iya ilu and omole all night long. When this wicked orchestra was performing, there was no admittance to any other matter.The Running Woman, (P. 104)
Commenting on these excerpts, Mr Dotun Olufokunbi, a student of Kehinde Ayoola and writer, wrote in a series of WhatsApp messages: “Beautiful language use, almost making poverty endearing, unmasking it, exposing the condition called poverty to any one to whom it may be alien. I dare say too, it must have been a personal experience for the author, he infused so much life into that particular topic.”
Molara, after having her first set of twins, delivers another two; making three sets of twins together with the first child, Titilayo. This, among other things, complicates her life the more.
In the space of two weeks, she loses her middle twins, Kehinde Girl and Taiye Girl, to circumstance arising from poor health care and living conditions — to poverty. The novel also puts up the reversal of roles between the duo of Molara and Vincent and their first set of twins, Taiye Boy and Kehinde Boy. The twins, rather than being fed, become the breadwinners of the family. They feed their parents and siblings from proceeds from scavenging.
When fortune starts to smile on them, then the oppressive machinery of state descends again. Their house is dismantled, their means of livelihood incinerated by hungry-looking policemen. They are unfairly accused of having a hand in the robbery that happened the day before.
In this moment of Hobbesian chaos, Molara loses it all and keeps running — for days. She is on the fringe of insanity for days. She couldn’t take it anymore — having to be called “a prostitute” by her own father; having to cope with an irresponsible drunk of a husband; having to see her children die by her hands; being stifled and frustrated by Omokhodion’s brutality and kleptomania.
She keeps running and running until she gets to Garbageland. It is here she decides on how to kill herself. However, while contemplating on this, she sees a settlement below the Garbageland, away from the eyes of the world. She goes there and is initiated into the fold.
It is at Garbageland that Molara realises that she is not totally helpless, that she can effect a change however little; that she can make a difference despite her stunted dreams. She buys drugs and penicillin to treat the sores of the children of the Garbageland. She mandates them to always take their bath. She, unlike Man in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born, comes to term with her usefulness in the stench; she realises the impact one good could have. Here, she also learns to deal with the exploitive and oppressive forces, as evident in the way she handles the potbellied Kakaki and His Rotten Highness, The Chief of Garbageland.
She anchors the transformation of Garbageland into a beautiful sight. This shows how much change one good can bring.
At the end, she is brought happy news too when she is about going on a journey of no return. A lawyer, Dr Ngozi Ezekwezili, has taken the case of her family’s molestation to the court and won against the government. Molara’s family is then awarded a compensation to the tune of millions of naira. A transformed and well-dressed Vincent in the company of the lawyer and a psychiatrist visits her at the end of the novel with the good news and a promise of a better future.
Molara’s discovery, Vincent’s transformation to his excellent alcoholless youthful look, the lawyer’s victory are significations that one can always fight the system and succeed; that one can’t change a country sunk into quagmire of poverty and thievery by choosing to be bystanders or taking as first resort forms of escapism like religion (especially when it promises a parallel sybaritic eternity in place of the suffering present) and alcohol. We need to face the problems, either the ones caused for us or those caused by us, head-on. They are our “wahala” and we have nowhere to put them.