Polygamy: for worse and worse

Published Feb 8, 2011


The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Lola Shoneyin

Cassava Republic Press

REVIEW: Eva Hunter

Given President Jacob Zuma’s recent exercise of his understanding of tradition by marrying for the fifth time, taking his third current wife, a novel that focuses, critically, on polygamy, even if in another African country, is relevant.

The line of novels that expose the suffering caused to women by polygamy includes some of its most distinguished titles: So Long a Letter by Senegalese writer Mariama Ba, described as “the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction” and awarded the first Noma Prize for Publishing in Africa in 1980, The Joys of Motherhood by Nigerian Buchi Emecheta (1979), and And They Didn’t Die (1990) by South African Lauretta Ngcobo.

All three novels recount the sufferings of the first wife when a younger wife is taken. The main character in Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is the youngest of four wives. Bolanle, a young educated woman, seeks refuge in Baba Segi’s household – she is depressed after being raped and having an abortion – but what she steps into is a hornet’s nest.

Nigerian Shoneyin has written three volumes of poems and a children’s book, and currently works at an international school in Abuja, Nigeria. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is her first novel.

Says Shoneyin: “Growing up in Nigeria, it’s hard not to be confronted with the everyday realities of polygamous families, through friends and relatives. You don’t have to live in a polygamous home to appreciate the extent of the bitter rivalry, the intrigue and competitiveness at its most unhealthy. The worst part was seeing lovely women tearing themselves to pieces, fighting for the affections of the man who pitched them against each other in the first place.”

Although Bolanle’s reasons for her choice do not include marrying for money or for the promise of becoming a First (or Third) Lady, we are meant to understand that for educated women polygamy is confining, and may even, as in Bolanle’s case, become life-threatening.

Shoneyin says that she sees “more and more seemingly educated people from my generation opting to take a second wife. This happens mostly amongst my Muslim friends who justify it by saying their religion allows it. For me, the only thing that drives polygamy is greed.”

And when questioned on her opinion of Zuma’s marriages, she is clear that African leaders have a responsibility to practice the less destructive elements of their culture, rather than promoting traditions that are opposed to liberty. What example has he set for the young men and women in a country that has been so tragically ravaged by Aids?

Africa fantasises about the idea of development, but surely institutions such as polygamy are antithetical to this. We should be building a society where women are empowered, where there are equal job opportunities, where women know that their success in life will not be based on how conveniently they can wedge themselves between a man’s thighs.

The tale is, despite its elements of tragedy, an enjoyable one. This is due mostly to Shoneyin’s sardonic satire. Baba Segi, for instance, may smugly enjoy his power as head of the household, but is slave to his bowels when upset in any way, while his first wife manipulates him shamelessly. The story is also nuanced by the light shed on the damage done to children in polygamous households where the mothers are engaged in an unforgiving struggle for power, and by the sad histories of the two “nasty” older wives, which their creator allows them to tell in their own voices. The more vicious of these two, Iya Femi, is also, amusingly, deeply religious.

Through the other hostile wife, Iya Segi, Shoneyin explores the unacceptability of lesbian relationships (polygamy is a matter of lifestyle; homosexuality is genetic, she believes), an issue pertinent in a time when “corrective” rape is practised in South Africa in the name of African culture.

Shoneyin’s prose is fluent, pacey and uncluttered, giving the reader a sense of modern-day life in Ibadan, where the illiterate wives may bow to their husband, but the children watch TV soapies.

Adding to the book’s pleasures are lyrical passages filtered through Bolanle’s consciousness, such as: “A blazing sunray struck the darkened glass and filtered into the room through a small chip. The chip broke the beam with its jagged edges and scattered embers all over the room. One landed on my foot like a fallen firefly.”

Shoneyin’s novel has been published by a Nigerian publishing house, Cassava Republic, founded in 2006 with the goal of “feeding the African imagination” through stories taken from contemporary African life. They also published Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s début, I Do Not Come to You By Chance, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for first book in 2010.

l Hunter is a research fellow in the English Department at the University of the Western Cape.

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