A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of Lola Shoneyin’s ‘The Secret Lives Of Baba Segi’s Wives’ after promising myself that in 2014 I’ll read more of Nigerian and African authors. It is the best way to appreciate their efforts and their works.
Here at FAB we always seek to appreciate the Fabulous, African and Black – we hope to extend this to literature and art too. So every Friday I hope to sift through the good, the bad and the terrible as I bring you personal book reviews of works that I have read and feel you must read (or avoid).
In a bid to formally introduce myself – Hello FAB Readers, this is Adesola Ade-Unuigbe in my special niche of “FAB Reads & FAB Reviews”. Today I’ll put you through my thoughts as I read all two hundred and forty-five pages of Lola Shoneyin’s ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives”.
One thing I found interesting is how this happens to be Lola Shoneyin’s first novel. A few days before I started reading a friend on Twitter had commented on how much he was getting to learn about women in his first few pages and I immediately thought “Gosh, feminism again?” – but to be honest it is nothing like that. For someone with a busy schedule also, seeing that the book wasn’t too bulky had an instant appeal. In between work and domestic chores I finished the book in 3 days.
For a polygamist like Baba Segi, his collection of wives and a gaggle of children are the symbol of prosperity, success and validation of his manhood. Everything runs reasonably smoothly in the patriarchal home, until wife number four intrudes on this family romance.
Bolanle, a graduate amongst the semi-literate wives, is hated from the start. Baba Segi’s glee at bagging a graduate doesn’t help matters. Worse, Bolanle’s arrival threatens to do more than simply ruffle feathers. She’s unwittingly set to expose a secret that her co-wives intend to protect, at all costs.
Lola Shoneyin’s light and ironic touch exposes not only the rotten innards of Baba Segi’s polygamous household in this cleverly plotted story; it also shows how women no educated or semi-literate, women in contemporary Nigeria can be as restricted, controlled and damaged by men – be they fathers, husbands, uncles, rapists – as they’ve never been.
Lola Shoneyin (born Titilola Atinuke Alexandrah Shoneyin, 26 February 1974, Ibadan, Nigeria) is a Nigerian poet and author who launched her debut novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, in the UK in May 2009. Shoneyin has already forged a reputation as an adventurous, humorous and outspoken poet (often classed in the feminist mould), having published three volumes of poetry. She lives in Abuja, Nigeria.
Review – Spoiler Alert!!
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is a book that explores the dynamics of a polygamous home in urban (think 2001) Ibadan in Nigeria. It is told with a dry wit, very satirical and earthy. The author employs irony and honesty in equal bits as she carefully develops her characters.
Bolanle is a University graduate who chose to be a fourth wife because of the emotional scars that lacerated her life. She preferred the emotional detachment that comes with being another wife and not an only wife. The first and third wife did not take to Bolanle mainly because they felt threatened by her since they were unlearned. They also knew she was going to disturb the rhythm of their home. More so, if they were not careful they feared she was going to bring their much guarded secret to light. An uneasy atmosphere settled on the Alao home with the wives doing their best to drive Bolanle out but not succeeding. Things however came to a head when after two years Bolanle was yet to conceive and Baba Segi became desperate to find a solution to this. [The Emerge Review]
To be honest, by page 45 I knew where the book was headed. I knew the secret of the wives and had a clear picture of how it was going to unfold. I however still did not drop the book because I was genuinely interested in Bolanle’s character. I wanted to understand her without judging her. I wanted to give myself time and reasons to forgive her. Also a few issues stood out to me in the book as a whole and this is what held me on.
Polygamy – It’s a little hard to see a well-educated girl with educated parents marrying a polygamist, and worse – marrying an uneducated polygamist with three uneducated wives. The author tries to palm off emotional imbalance but I just did not see myself buying that. Thankfully at the end of the book I found forgiveness in my heart for Bolanle mainly because sense was knocked back into her head with her realizing that wasn’t the home for her.
Rape – I also felt quite a lot of anger. Lola Shoneyin touches a very sore subject in the society – rape. She makes one understand that rape can happen to anybody regardless of education, financial standing and such. I felt so much anger when Bolanle recounted her rape experience mainly because a lot of people do not see that a rapist does not have to be a stranger. Even though Bolanle’s was someone she had never seen and would never see, he made her feel so familiar with him. People you don’t expect and actually invite into your lives. I wish people will take that away from this book more than anything. When Bolanle tells her mother finally that she was raped her mother says “You couldn’t have been raped. No daughter of mine could have been raped. That is not the way I brought you up”. It’s amazing but we actually have mother’s who are this way. More than anything I hope this book opens up African’s to the prejudice that falls on rape victims. This was one of the strengths of the book for me personally – that Lola Shoneyin was not afraid to explore this issue.
Mother/Daughter Relationships – Maybe I tilted towards this theme personally because I am a woman with a mother and as such can relate easier. The book shows us that even though a mother is supposed to be the easiest person for a girl to talk to, we more often than not close ourselves off totally. Mothers look at age and respect while daughters look at generational gaps and reproach. So what we have is words unsaid and help not rendered. I hope mothers and daughters who read this book see how it can help change relationships.
Financial Stability – For me this stands out in the book through Baba Segi. In as much as he is able to provide for his family (and this is a good thing) he sees it as his sole responsibility. It is a case of financial stability should equal happiness but everyone knows this cannot work hand in hand. His financial stability makes him arrogant, uncouth, unapproachable and a generally dis-likable character.
Education & Ignorance – I think strongly that even though Bolanle was educated she was still largely ignorant – and almost as unforgivably as Iya Segi, Iya Femi & Iya Tope. This might be because of Bolanle’s young age or lack of exposure, but there were so many things she could have done different regardless of her emotional imbalance. But I also try to remember that the book is set in an era where the highest denomination was 50 Naira so maybe modern help was limited for her in terms of therapy.
Health & Modern Medicine – Another strong theme of the book and basically what the whole book boils down to. People cannot continue to look at traditional medicine as the way out and even though it works for some people, modern-day medicine works too. The African custom is such that a case of bareness instantly causes people to point fingers at the woman or even a case of constant female children. But modern medicine (thankfully) has shown that this can be just as much the fault of the man too. We are grateful for this exploration by Lola Shoneyin.
What I Liked About The Book
Did you notice the hints of homosexuality with Teacher and Iya Segi also showing affection for another woman? No? Maybe it was just me then. I liked how the book was extremely easy to relate to – the streets and markets in Ibadan, hawkers in traffic, the African home, and so much more. The description was on point and apt. I like that with such natural & flowing humor that the reader is immediately caught up in a sense of warmth or understanding for the characters, even where they are the antagonists. We are made to understand and pity these women such that when you drop the book it is with satisfaction and closure.
There are also several lines that stand out in the book. The humour of the book is consistent and helpful. When Iya Segi says “Men are so simple. They will believe anything…Men are like yam. You cut them how you like”, in a way you understand that and when Iya Femi says “When we stand before God on the last day, will he ask whether we went to university” you understand where she is coming from too.
I found “The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives” an interesting and FAB read. It is definitely worth the purchase and time.
Check out this fantastic reading guide from Harper Collins Publishers.
You can buy the book on Amazon or on Konga.