Lola Shoneyin’s debut novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is a family portrait of a man’s quest to find a solution for one of his wife’s barrenness. Baba Segi has three other wives who all have children, and he is determined to add to the brood with his recent wife. This pursuit leads to the unearthing of some skeletons that should have been let to lie.
The book is anchored on Baba Segi’s fourth wife, Bolanle. Unlike the other wives, she is a university graduate and has not given Baba Segi offspring. Baba Segi already has seven children and finds it unacceptable that Bolanle cannot conceive. Bolanle is the most educated of the four wives and will not entertain traditional medicines to sort out her issue. She is inclined to find the solution through the hospital, an option that Baba Segi eventually accepts. The large framed Baba Segi is also a wealthy man with a respectable reputation and would have preferred this matter is addressed discreetly.
The earlier chapters of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives introduces the reader to Baba Segi’s other wives— Iya Segi, Iya Femi and Iya Tope. The wives, together with their children, make up Baba Segi’s household. The book gives a glimpse into a polygamous marriage filled with hierarchy, schedules of when a wife gets conjugal visits, and the honour of escorting Baba Segi on business trips. The wives have established a system of the way things operate in the house. The three wives also have a secret that they need to protect. Even though polygamy is no longer widely practised due to the spread of Christian values in most African countries, it is still acceptable in Islam and other cultures. In Africa, one’s position on polygamy is usually guided by religious and cultural beliefs. For example, some feminists school of thought have strongly condemned the practice because it does not allow the same privilege to women to take multiple husbands.
The story navigates to tell of how the women came to be Baba Segi’s wives alternating between first and third points of view. It reveals their early traumatic childhoods, poverty and different societal pressures that each had to endure. For instance, the first wife, Iya Segi who had ambitions of being a successful woman, had friction with her mother. In one part, her mother says, “I have told you before that you cannot buy land and build your own house. The village men will say you are ridiculing them doing what they can’t.” This scene depicted the patriarchal stranglehold that looms large like a cloud in Nigerian culture, much like most of Africa. It is often the perception that women should not do anything that will emasculate the man. One of those ways is the wife earning more than her husband; this is after the man has been told that he should be the provider.
The novel depicts the challenges that come with childless marriages as a result of society’s expectations. Having children is often seen as a seal of womanhood, and an inability to do so reeks with shame. It can also bring into question a man’s masculinity. However, unbalanced pressure is placed on the woman. Bolanle narrates, “One day, I will have a child of my own and everything will fall into its place. My husband will delight in me again; the way he did before my barrenness ate away at his affection.” The situation worsens for Bolanle in the polygamous marriage as the other wives have children and feel threatened that she is about to disrupt the status quo.
Lola does not always explicitly state what certain situations in the book mean and leaves that interpretation to the reader. For example, the reader is not sure what to make of Iya Segi’s admiration of the tomato seller, was she sexually attracted to her or not? This admiration is not explored or discussed further in the book. Multiple narration points of view usually make it confusing to figure out who the narrator is until you are a few paragraphs into the chapter. The book ends anti-climatically because of an unconvincing conclusion, a dampener to an otherwise enjoyable read.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives tackles complex topics of infertility, polygamy, poverty, rape, physical and emotional abuse delicately sprinkled with a dose of humour. Infertility is still a challenging topic to talk about because it is viewed as one’s body has malfunctioned or damaged. Male sterility is even rarely discussed among men, with most of them opting to suffer in silence. The issue of barrenness can become even more pronounced in a polygamous marriage. The emotional and physical stress that women have to endure is still prevalent. The onus is on government, civil society, health practitioners and the community to increase sensitisations on the issues of infertility if we are to get rid of the stigma and to get more people seeking professional help. Baba Segi’s story might be common, but we may never know about them because such cases are often shrouded in secrecy. We also find out that sometimes the truth does not set you free.