The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is a novel of two hundred and eighty-eight pages, written by Lola Shoneyin, and published in 2010 by HarperCollins Publisher.
Lola Shoneyin is a Nigerian poet and author, born in 1974 in Ibadan. She has written three volumes of poems and two children story books. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is her first novel. She lives in Lagos and coordinates the Aké Arts and Book Festival.
The novel is set in the contemporary city of Ibadan at the time “when the dark buildings in Ayilara were full of women whose faces glowed” under the neon lights,” and “who lived for other women’s men”. A time when “men slapped their womenfolk as if it is a national sport.”
The author brings to light the reaction of men towards educated females and how some men never try to meddle in their wives affairs especially the fights and hatefulness of the polygamous homes. Also, she looked at the grapple of women to define themselves and their fierce longing to protect the ones they love, the brawls, darkness and survival in polygamous homes.
The main characters are Baba Segi, Iya Segi, Iya Femi, Iya Tope, Taju and Bolanle. Iya Segi is the avaricious “wife of his youth”; obviously the first wife. As a young lady, she does not want marriage. All that gives her thrills is to count her money after each daily sale of “fufu” and rolls “dreamily” in her dirty wads of naira notes every night. And when her mother finds her one night “wearing the notes like a garment!” she starts to look out for any young man available to give Iya Segi to. She eventually marries Ishola Alao, a woodworker apprentice because her mother gave all her money to him which she dreams of getting back.
Until her secrets threatened her continued stay in Baba Segi’s house. She becomes the second- in-command in the house and according to Bolanle, she is also “the mother of the house” “as the other wives scurried after her”. As the story progresses Iya Segi soon brings the other wives under her lessons of throwing Bolanle out because she fears “that Bolanle is a troublemaker …she will destroy our home. She will expose our private parts to the wind. She will reveal our secret. She will bring woe.” She said to the malignant Iya Femi who on her avenging trip to her hometown almost burnt her uncle’s wife to death some years ago, and whose secrets will also threaten the foundation of the Alao household. Upon Bolanle’s arrival to the house and in response to her compliments she said, “Uneducated women wear good things too”.
“Some people are born to shit and some, like Bolanle and me, are born to pack….”
The faint-hearted Iya Tope was also present; she longed to be close to Bolanle and feared Iya Segi’s bitterness. She receives littlest portions of toiletries Iya Segi shares for the household.
As Bolanle moves into Baba Segi’s house, she does so not only to get away from her mother’s incessant nagging but also from the “filth that follows” her. Baba Segi’s wealth is nothing compared to the peace she longs for. She only does so to hide “the soiled, damaged Bolanle” and to protect her own secret too. Her “barrenness” exposes the darkest secrets under the Alao household.
Her sister, Lara says: “You want to marry a polygamist and be part of a big, ugly family? Mama will go crazy! When will you tell her?”
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives explores family relationships as in the Alao household as the rivalry heightens at the arrival of Bolanle, the fourth wife. Also family politics mainly in Bolanle’s family as her mother often ring into Lara’s ears how she wants her to be like Bolanle, and how she wants Bolanle to live the life she her mother fails to live.
How we as humans either educated or uneducated struggle with subjugation and independence in the society:
In the story the wives rally around their husband and wait on him, and at nights when he goes into their rooms at each person’s turn, they lay with a cloth over their nakedness expecting him. Except of course for Bolanle who “was wearing those accursed pajamas”. These women still manage to control their husband and do whatever they want him to do when need be.
Bolanle as a “University graduate” depicts how the society, the men especially fear the educated women, Baba Segi and his friends have too much respect for Bolanle.
“Who would dare to drag a graduate? When she opens her mouth and English begins to pour from it like heated palm oil, the constable will be so captivated; he will throw our friend behind bars!”
How they do not argue with them but show off and blurt out at the slightest provocation as during the hospital visit… “What is the meaning of coitus? Don’t think the two of you can bamboozle me because I did not go to university!”
He feels threatened.
My favorite character is no other but Iya Segi, I cannot help but look into her development as a character as the events unfolds. From the young lady who “has made money her husband” to the “mother” of the Alao household who plays her deceit so well and of course knows when and who to be submissive too.
The story starts with a third person narrative. Then as the story continues the author allows the first person narrative, giving the characters; the wives and even Taju; the driver a chance of telling their stories and secrets.
The diction is simple, well detailed and of course bringing images, memories and feelings to mind. The author’s frequent switch to her native language is commendable. Satirically Lola Shoneyin mirrors the polygamous family of the western part of Nigeria, showing exposed its deepest decay.
As the end nears, the message is clearly passed to Akin, Baba Segi’s “first son” and us, the readers. “Keep these words in your left hand lest you wash them away after eating with your right. When the time comes for you to marry, take one wife and one wife alone”