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

★★★

I picked this out at the library as part of my plan to read more fiction set in other cultures, and it was certainly illuminating, though I’m not able to judge how far (if at all) it’s exaggerated in regard to the characters’ beliefs, habits and interactions. Set in contemporary Nigeria, it follows the educated young woman Bolanle as she joins the prosperous household of Baba Segi as his fourth wife. Her arrival worsens the already fraught relationships between his existing wives and, ultimately, will destroy the very foundations of this uncomfortable ménage.

Bolanle’s mother is aghast at her decision to marry a man so much older than herself, and as a fourth wife, no less! Why has she scraped and saved to send Bolanle to university, if not to see her become an independent woman and the wife of a worthy, monogamous husband? But Bolanle has her own reasons for seeking obscurity and she comes to Baba Segi’s house determined to learn to love her husband and to gently nudge him towards a lifestyle of greater sophistication. Certainly, Baba Segi is no great catch. He’s a mountain of a man, both in height and girth, and he’s deeply old-fashioned in the way that he rules over his household like a cockerel over a roost. He’s arrogant, narcissistic and cursed with an overly delicate stomach (Shoneyin’s descriptions can be uncomfortably scatological). But behind the bluster and tyranny, there is a core of sentimentality: he loves his seven children and he secretly admires Bolanle for her learning and for the prestige it confers upon him. Just think! He has a graduate as his wife; and fourth wife, besides!

Unfortunately Baba Segi’s smugness isn’t shared by his existing three wives. Iya Segi, the head wife, bristles at the idea that this graduate upstart is going to challenge her preeminence. What does a degree matter? The most important thing is to understand your husband and anticipate his every need. She’s primed to squash any delusions of grandeur that Bolanle might entertain. The second wife, Iya Tope, is too conscious of her own low status to have any hopes one way or another. She pities Bolanle, realising that her position will be made untenable by the other two wives, but she doesn’t have the self-confidence or courage to stand up to them. And Iya Femi already has her claws out. Primped to within an inch of her life, groomed and manicured and svelte, Iya Femi is used to being the apple of Baba Segi’s eye: the young one; the pretty one. And now some frumpy graduate is going to come and steal all her thunder? Not if she has anything to do with it! Thus, Bolanle’s entry to the household is an unwitting first move in an increasingly dangerous game.

You may notice that Baba Segi’s wives all have similar names. I was initially rather puzzled by this, but it seems that in Nigerian families people aren’t referred to by their given names but by designations of their positions within the household. Each wife is named as the mother of her eldest child: Iya Segi’s first baby was a daughter, Segi; Iya Tope’s another girl, Tope; and so forth. And Baba Segi, at the apex of this familial pyramid, is addressed as the father of his eldest child, rather than by his legal name, Ishola Alao. Bolanle is the only wife who is currently childless – indeed, her supposed barrenness kicks off the drama – and so she is still addressed by her given name. As you can see, it’s something of a crash course in Nigerian etiquette, and all the more interesting for it!

The narrative voice jumps around a bit, which can be confusing, moving from a third-person narration to first-person chapters told from the perspective of each of the wives and Baba Segi himself. The chapters aren’t headed with the name of the character who’s ‘speaking’ and so one has to figure this out from what they’re saying. Sometimes it’s easy to tell – for example, Bolanle has a distinctly more sophisticated ‘voice’ than Iya Tope – but it isn’t always clear until you’re several paragraphs into the chapter and it means that it’s hard to lose yourself in the story. Personally, I also found it slightly hard to engage with characters who don’t have an awful lot of charisma: a couple of them are downright nasty, without even the saving grace of panache. That is perhaps the biggest challenge for the book: the fact that, despite the addition of backstories, the characters don’t expand much beyond their two-dimensional roles: the bragging husband; the queen bee; the downtrodden one; the conniving, spiteful flirt; and the calm educated one.

Nevertheless, there was a lot to learn here about the tensions between traditional Nigerian life and changing contemporary attitudes, and how people seek to resolve these. The sense of place is marvellously done and the action has an almost theatrical exuberance. But the truths that the book reveals are sobering, especially in its depiction of relationships between men and women. It seems that traditionally women are regarded very much as second-class citizens, judged for their bedding or breeding potential – and the relationships between women aren’t exactly inspiring either, as everyone tries to secure their own station in a single house. It would be too superficial to sum this up as a record of the miseries of polygamy; perhaps its enduring legacy is to stress the importance of equality and openness within a marriage of any kind, rather than a mini-kingdom which the man believes himself alone to rule.

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One thought on “The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives: Lola Shoneyin

  1. Helen says:

    I read this a few years ago and although most of the story has faded from my memory now, I remember having the same problem with the lack of chapter headings to show who was speaking. Such a simple thing that would have made a big difference!

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