Lola Shoneyin says, polygamy is alive and well in Nigeria. Her novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, portrays such a family. Baba Segi, a prosperous spare parts salesman, has four wives. Each of his wives is known by the name of her firstborn child, Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi. All except wife #4, Bolanle, who has thus far failed to conceive.
For this and other reasons, Bolanle is the outcast in Baba Segi’s household. She is the newest rival for his affections, disrupting the schedule of nightly visitations. Moreover, she was born and raised in the city, unlike her co-wives. Worst of all, Bolanle is college-educated. Of course, she is blamed for her childlessness.
Shoneyin pits polygamy against Westernization, urban versus rural, education versus superstition. Baba Segi wants to take his woman to the medicine man for treatment but he is advised to treat Bolanle differently.
You are running from post to pillar when the answer is there in front of your face. Since the woman is educated, she will only listen to people from the world she knows. The place to take her is the hospital.Lola Shoneyin, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives (Serpent’s Tail 2010)
And so begins the unraveling of the secret lives of Baba Segi’s wives.
A Numbers Game
Bolanle’s mother is horrified when she learns of her daughter’s plan to marry Baba Segi. She scolds her daughter:
Polygamy is for gold-diggers and bush-dwellers, not educated children brought up in a good Christian home.
When Shoneyin’s novel first appeared in 2010, Pew Research put the percentage of Nigerians in polygamous households at 28%. In her interview with The Guardian that year, Shoneyin was more precise. Women account for one third of those polygamous unions while men (aged 15-49) represent a mere 16%.
A decade later, in 2021, Shoneyin is asked to comment on polygamy in Nigeria. It’s dwindling, right, asks the interviewer.
For me to believe this, I would need to see a massive increase in the number of choices and opportunities that are open to women and girls. If anything, the widespread poverty, insecurity, and deprioritizing of education will lead to an increase in the incidences of polygamy. When girls have choices and women have opportunities, success follows.Writers Should Write Whatever They Want: Interview with Lola Shoneyin, The Muse Journal, 30 May 2021
Technically speaking, polygamy is a gender neutral term that refers both to a man with two or more wives (polygyny) and a woman with two or more husbands (polyandry). Only the male-privileged version is legal in Nigeria.
Misogyny is casual in Shoneyin’s novel. Wives are expected to clean and cook, welcome their husband into their arms and between their legs. Their comfort or pleasure is irrelevant. When a male senator slaps his female colleague, the people follow his lead.
Men were slapping their womenfolk as if it had become a national sport. At every street corner, disgruntled wives swung suitcases onto their heads, hoping to be persuaded to return home. At the market place, the Igbo fabric merchants tugged women roughly by the sleeve. Peeved taxi drivers prodded the heads of mothers who bargained with them; young girls were assaulted and stripped naked in the streets. Even in the labour wards baby girls were frowned upon by their fathers.
The Royal We
This month, Shoneyin gave a master class for the International Writers’ Collective and I got to interview her. The focus is, as always, on the craft of writing. For example, why did Shoneyin choose to alternate the narration among each of Baba Segi’s wives?
The typical, craft-based, answer is to allow each of those characters to narrate their own story. First person narrators can generate sympathy and connection with a reader. But, in the case of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, there is a political reason, too.
In polygamous unions, it is traditional for the husband speak for the entire household. Yes, we will attend that event. No, we do not want your services. It is the royal we writ small. Shoneyin wanted to restore the individuality of the wives by giving them each their own voice.
Humor is another craft device Shoneyin deploys to great effect. She says that comedy is natural to her, coming as she does from a pair of “silly” parents. But there are many forms of comedy and not all of them are kind. Humor could have just as easily been deployed to turn Baba Segi into a buffoon.
His most comical trait is the way he takes bad news, straight in the gut, with an immediate and palpable reaction. I was sure that Shoneyin had made that one up, but it turns out her mother reacts the same way.
They say the elder who soils the floor with shit immediately forgets; but the stench remains in the memory of the person who has to scrape it up.
When I was still a fresh newlywed, a friend brought me the little statue depicted above. She said it was a goddess of fertility. The rest, she left to my imagination and internalized expectations.
As a husband, Baba Segi has many failings. As a father, however, he shines. His dismay at Bolanle’s childlessness is less an issue of pride than it is a potential loss. Baba Segi loves his children. And thus, Shoneyin asks the question: what does it take to be a father? Is he the one who provides the seed or the one who loves the child?
Hence the evergreen appeal of a novel of a Northern Nigerian man and his many wives. Since its publication in 2010, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives has been adapted for the radio (BBC), the theater and, coming to a small screen near you, a soon-to-be Netflix series. Polygamy, as Shoneyin would say, is alive and well.
29 Apr 2023 | Karen Kao