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.