Lola Shoneyin’s (daughter in law of Nigerian Nobel Laurete, Professor Wole Soyinka) debut novel is an example of social realism and I was taken in by the story from page one. I’ve read enough novels that depict polygamy but this one was different; like the writer was an invisible, silent observer of the rather dysfunctional household of Baba Segi; which consists of his four wives and several children. Baba Segi was not a man I liked at all, actually I despised him. Marrying three more wives and siring children from them was to prove he was a virile “all man” male; most of the time in the novel, he couldn’t stop talking about it or them, like it was a real achievement. The wives are his property and they cook and clean and of course carry out their matrimonial duties when it gets to their turn. They are proud to be his wives and mothers of his children.
We find out that the household was thrown into disarray when Baba Segi suddenly took a fourth wife. The wives are immediately angry and jealous because the fourth wife- Bolanle- unlike them is a University graduate; a young woman Baba Segi met through a customer at his building store. The reader will immediately wonder why an educated girl like Bolanle would throw her life away by marrying a middle aged pompous illiterate like Baba Segi; and who already has three wives and several kids already. It appeared later that the enigmatic Bolanle was harbouring a secret and got the misguided idea that she would find refuge in Baba Segi’s household. Which in fact she didn’t, the wives are hostile and unfriendly towards her. Mama Tope- the second wife- however was friendly towards her, but she was in the minority and rather weak spirited. The children are instructed not to have much to do with her and Baba Segi- seemly oblivious to Bolanle’s problem- treats her like a trophy. Worse still, it’s obvious that Bolanle married Baba Segi for the wrong reasons and the reader is eager to know what exactly she’s hiding.
After two years of marriage and no child from Bolanle, Baba Segi’s ‘trophy wife’ is suddenly tarnished in his eyes and he feels she’s not so perfect after all. When he proposed they get to the root of the matter, the wives- well at least the first and third, seem even more hostile towards Bolanle until we realise their behaviour towards Bolanle isn’t just mere jealousy but a secret they were terrified would come out.
Shoneyin paints a very grim and unglamourous picture of polygamy; where the new wife is treated like an outsider. Also, she depicts the emphasis of having children since in African society; a woman’s crowning moment is when she becomes a mother- the more children she has for her husband, the higher her status. As the reader turns each page, they see the story through the eyes of several characters; their back stories and their point of view of the present situation and slowly the readers learn Bolanle’s secret and what the wives don’t want their husband to find out. In the end Bolanle finds herself reconciling with her estranged family and reevaluating her life after revealing her painful secret and the wives find themselves at a very tight corner after theirs is exposed.
“The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives” wasn’t the least bit disappointing. I wasn’t fond of some of the characters but it was filled with intrigue and emotion and rich in African tradition. I’ve read it several times over now and it’s still as gripping as when I first opened it.