The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives – Lola Shoneyin

Review copy given to me by Cassava Republic, the publisher.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives (2010) is a tale about an urban polygamous family in Nigeria. Baba Segi has four wives, seven children and is comfortably well-off. All would have been right with his world except that his fourth wife, Bolanle, is infertile. This mystifies Baba Segi, and it is his search to find the cause of, and to heal, Bolanle’s infertility that shatters the tentative peace and ultimately changes this family forever. This novel has exposed polygamy for what it is; a system that overwhelmingly favors men, dehumanizes women and more often than not, creates insecure children.

Most of the chapters in the novel are narrated in the first person, after an opening chapter in the third person. Every adult member of the family is given the opportunity to fill in their back story. There is Iya Segi, the first wife, who is skilled at making money. She showed signs of independence early in life and yet was unable to escape an arranged marriage to Baba Segi. The timid Iya Tope was married to Baba Segi as a replacement for foodstuffs when her farmer father suffered a bad harvest. The third wife, Iya Femi, married Baba Segi to escape a life filled with a long line of misfortunes. But it is Bolanle who is most intriguing and whose reason for marrying Baba Segi is the most mysterious in the novel. Bolanle is a university graduate. At first appearance, she seems to have a lot going for her. And she is awfully out of place in this household, where all the other wives hate her with a passion equaled only by their love and reverence for Baba Segi. This hatred reaches a boiling point and culminates in a plot against Bolanle with tragic consequences.

Written with an acerbic wit, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is a romp. And it is direct with subtle touches of irony. Lola Shoneyin is a poet and her ability to write about serious issues with brevity is very much on display in this book. Yet for all its good points, I did not find the novel fully satisfying. Chief among my problems with the book stems from the characterization of Bolanle. She is only portrayed as a vehicle of change for Baba Segi’s family. I expected more of this character once her reasons for marrying Baba Segi were revealed. However, Bolanle’s feelings remained vague and hazy throughout the novel. At the end of the book, she suddenly gains a strong voice and morphs into someone with a clear vision of self. Unfortunately, I could not trace, within the narrative, her evolution from what she was at the beginning of the book to this new woman, confident and receptive to what life will bring. It seemed also that the new Bolanle results from a neat resolution of the novel’s central plot as opposed to a real growth and change in character. The author set out to expose the ugliness of polygamy. And she does achieve this but it comes at a cost to her characters.

I’ve thought about The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives a lot since reading the book. In particular, I’ve wondered about writing about an oppressive system, without any interrogation, as opposed to focusing on the people who find themselves in that system. I’ve thought about God Dies by the Nile, in which Nawal el Saadawi successfully writes against a patriarchal system while utilizing a stunning evolution in character. Am I wrong in wishing that Lola Shoneyin had done more with Bolanle and even the other wives? Nonetheless, I do look forward to more novels from the author. She got me talking and thinking for a while there. I shall be reading her poems in the meantime.

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29 comments

    • Thanks for coming by and leaving a comment. Certainly, this book’s take on polygamy is very different from the view in So Long a Letter . Of course, this book is written in a different era when women have more options so the author quite rightly interrogates the modern woman’s acceptance of the system. Please do check it out.

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  1. Kinna, have you read So Long a Letter? I just read that and then I picked up this book, despite your reservations. I don’t think I can read this one so close on the heels of the other. It just is such a different portrayal of polygamy… and I guess I want to enjoy the first a little longer! I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it yet. Anyway, I’m still intrigued by The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. I may have try again in a few months.

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    • Yes, I;ve read So Long A Letter. It’s actually one of my top 10 African novels. And yes, the portrayal of polygamy is very different from The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. The two are really different books.

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  2. Hello everyone,

    Thanks again to you, Kinna, for reading the novel and finding it worthy of a review. As you can imagine, responding to reviews is always awkward for an author. Yet, as an avid reader myself, I don’t think these opportunities to communicate with readers should be dismissed.

    Let me start by saying that I have had considerable exposure to polygamy. Both my grandfathers were polygamists. Here’s an article I wrote about that experience: http://bit.ly/8Yg8ZG . I also have several friends and family members who have chosen to join polygamous households as junior wives. This is not a rare occurrence in Nigeria where 33% of women are in polygamous unions. Where most of them are poor and uneducated, a number of these women are middle class, university graduates. I think I should add here that having a university degree has become meaningless because anyone can get one.

    I had a bit of a giggle over Kinna’s comment about ‘wanting more from Bolanle’ because this is exactly how I used to feel about the women I modelled Bolanle after. I became very frustrated with their seeming docility, their passivity, their failure to see the absence of logic in their decision-making processes, their ability to reduce the world to small things that fit in the palms of their hands.

    But after asking why these women made this unusual choice in the first place, I realised that many of them had insecurities which were based on experiences they had had earlier on in their lives. They felt unworthy of anything better: some of them became junior wives because they saw it as a convenient escape route; for others, it was some crazy penance that they’d convinced themselves they had to pay. Given that Nigerian society can be extremely judgemental and uncaring, and women have very few avenues for expressing grief or pain after trauma, some women go into polygamy believing they will be able to blend into the furniture and quietly get through each day without causing a single ripple.

    Bolanle is one of such woman. She is depressed and desperately unhappy; she has never had the opportunity to lighten her load by sharing her own secrets. Her home life is awful too because her mother, like many unfulfilled mothers, seeks to live vicariously through Bolanle. Bolanle is in a daze. Her life ‘stopped’ in her teenage years after a ghastly experience but as she confronts her past and takes stock of her life, she learns to accept herself and is nudged back to life.

    My concerns about polygamy and what it does to women are significant but secondary. In this novel, I was more interested in the choices women make in order to survive in Nigerian society and whether, in reality, other options are truly open to them.

    I had to rush through this a little but I hope I have addressed some of your queries/ questions. I am here if there’s anything else you want to ask.

    Thanks again,
    Lola

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    • Lola, first I have to apologize for replying late to your comment. I’ve been really swamped at work.

      It is really an honor for an author to comment on a book blogger’s review. So let me thank you profusely for taking the time to post a comment in response to my review. I agree with most of your comments, especially the issues that informed Bolanle’s decision to marry into a polygamous household. Her reason for marrying Baba Segi actually made sense to me given what she had been through. I could understand her need to disappear into something, anything. But once in the house and with the passage of time, I wanted her to wrestle with the decision. In a way, and even with all the turmoil and hateful activities in the house, she had all the space and time to interrogate her own actions and choices. That part of her life, and her motives, she kept hidden away from the other wives and from Baba Segi. So I expected, that in her private moments and over time, she would broach the issue gently with herself and work her way through what had happened to her and the choices that she had made. This could have happened in tandem with the impending conclusion of the infertility plot. In a way, the plot’s conclusion stole the spotlight away from Bolanle. I agree that she is “nudged back to life” but it was not in response to a new understanding of her situation nor to a realization that she could have done things differently. I guess what I was looking for Bolanle to think, feel and work her way out of her situation. A transformation and a transforming situation. Such that a woman who finds herself in a similar situation would be emboldened, made uncomfortable and be inspired by Bolanle’s interrogation of her choices.

      Once again, thanks so much for your comment.

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  3. Interesting when a writer tries to advance an agenda at the expense of the characters- and too bad, because ideally they’d work together harmoniously.

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  4. Hi, it seems this book would be interesting reading. Maybe I would have to find time and read this novel. By the way I disagree with you on your conclusion on polygamy. I believe every system has it good and bad sides. Anyway, we can debate this issue later

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    • Hmm… I think the elements did come together. It’s just that I wanted more from the character of the fourth wife, Bolanle. The novel works if I overlook wanting more. It’s a very funny book that deals with some serious issues.

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  5. This is a book I want to read, but after seeing a few reviews like yours I’m thinking it might not be a new favorite. Still, sounds like it was good at least.

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  6. Yours is the first review I’ve seen of Baba Segi’s Wives. I had heard of it before, but I didn’t know much about it. It certainly sounds interesting. It’s too bad the characters were somewhat sacrificed in favor of the author’s message.

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