The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Ishola Alao, aka Baba Segi, is a powerful man in his community. He has three wives, seven children (or so he thought), and a thriving business. It is after marrying his fourth wife, the young educated Bolanle, that all hell breaks loose in the Aloa family. The seemingly solid tranquility and normality of the respected Alao family is tested and fractured.

In this passionate story of deceit, betrayal and conniving, Shoneyin brings to the fore the centrality of procreation to the identity of both men and women in African traditional societies. But the primary responsibility for it lies with women. It is the bearing children for one’s husband that seems to bestow full womanhood and wifehood. The very fact that the young wife does not have children yet, makes her “less than”. She does not have the “Iya” (mother of) prefix her name. While the other wives are Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, she is just Bolanle. By having children, the other wives earn themselves couches in the family lounge. Bolanle sits on the floor. In a sense, she doesn’t yet have “a defined place” in the Alao family.

Shoneyin brings to light the workings of polygamous families. In particular, I gained better understanding of the powerful role of the first wife both amongst the wives, in managing the husband and the household as a whole. I was equally saddened by how children are used as pawns in these feuds. I was also touched by Akin`s (Segi’s brother) secret efforts to bring harmony to the family.

Shoneyin presents us with believable, complex and multilayered women characters. They are at once vulnerable, strategic, deceitful and self-centered. They marry the powerful and rich Baba Segi not for love, but for financial security. They also understand the importance of bearing him children, and they proactively devise means to fulfill this role. One can interpret this as either “conniving”, or as women in control of their destiny. It is ironic though that in the processing of securing their womanhood and wifehood, these women strip Baba Segi of his manhood and leave him a wounded man who grunts, grumbles, and puffs. He excretes human fluids and gas. He sweats, vomits, farts, and urinates, even in front of children and his driver. This behavior symbolises a man who has lost control not just of his physiological organs, but of his very manhood.

I was surprised by how Shoneyin ends this book. I had expected that the depth of betrayal between Baba Segi and his three senior wives would lead to the crumbling of the Aloa family. But the family survives and is held in balance by a secret that is at the very core of wifehood and husbandhood. This secret is in interest of both Baba Segi’s and his wives’. It protects their standing in the community.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is a feminist treat! Shoneyin challenges womanhood, manhood and the politics of sexuality and fertility therein. She also challenges the overt power of man and instead presents a more nuanced understanding of women’s power in these gender relationships. I was equally fascinated by Shoneyin’s treatment of the complexity that underpins relationships between women in polygamous families: feuds; unholy alliances; competition; and battles for survival.

I am not surprised that this book was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011. It is a fascinating read.