When the time comes for you to marry, take one wife and one wife alone…listen to your wife’s words.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is Lola Shoneyin’s 2010 debut novel. It provides an intriguing portrayal of the lives of a polygamous family in Ibadan, Nigeria.The family patriarch, Baba Segi, is an uncouth, illiterate polygamist prone to digestive problems and a superstitious streak.
An avowed chauvinist, his three wives (Iya Segi, Iya Tope and Iya Femi) attend to his every whim but it is his fourth wife, the young university graduate Bolanle who causes him distress. After two years of marriage, Bolanle is still barren. He seeks advice from Teacher, who lives in a disreputable neighbourhood called Ayikara. Teacher advices him to take her to hospital.
However unbeknownst to Baba Segi, his wives are tangled in a web of secrets and they are worried that Bolanle will cause the façade of calm that they put on to come tumbling down.
Shoneyin’s narration is often light and ironic but it exposes the rotten underbelly of Nigerian society. Baba Segi’s wives may as well not have individual identity, indeed they are addressed with their children’s names. Their place in society is determined by not only how many children one has but also their gender. We are told that Iya Femi smugly gave birth to his (Baba Segi’s) two sons, Femi and Kole.
The polygamous family structure is held in place by cultural practices that supersede common humanity. Baba Segi as the head of the household is not to be questioned and his authority is immutable. He provides for his family and in exchange expects total subservience from them. He does not show his children familial love but instead views them as proof of his libidinous nature. His wives are trophies of his prowess and wealth. His objectification of them ensures that he does not really know them and hence is not privy to the secrets they harbour.
His wives do not particularly care for him and make do with their marriage to him because of circumstances that made them have little choice. They are however not exempt from criticism, indeed Iya Segi and Iya Femi display conniving and bad personalities tampers our dislike for Baba Segi to a certain degree. Bolanle despite being a university graduate comes across as naïve and complacent.
However, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s wives is a fast paced novel that is highly entertaining while also addressing an important issue like the place of women in the society. It is clear from reading the book that Shoneyin is averse to polygamy and the lens shone in this kind of family structure exposes oppression, unhappiness, vanity and patriarchy.
– by Winnie Ochieng’