July 2010

The problematic life of a polygamist’s wife

By Lola Shoneyin
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Some choose hobbits, some choose Harry Potter, but the most interesting of all fantastical cultures to read about may be the ones that actually exist—across deserts or oceans or continents. In The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, the title character’s family (to this American reader, at least) is a good example of the possibilities of strangeness that abound in the real world.

Baba Segi, rather endearing with all his boastfulness and digestive problems, is a Nigerian businessman who sells construction materials and prides himself on his four wives and seven children. Greedy Iya Segi, timid Iya Tope and malicious Iya Femi, all known only in reference to their oldest children, have been married to Baba for many years, and they are not happy when he brings home his fourth wife, Bolande—who is, startlingly, a university graduate. This prestige complicates her life, not just doubling the wives’ resentment but also restricting her husband’s options when it comes to discipline. (As an acquaintance asks, “Who would dare to drag a graduate” by her hair?)

After two years of marriage, Bolande still has secrets, but she is not the only one. Each of the other wives, speaking unmistakably in separate chapters but without formal identification, reveals that not a one is exactly as she presents herself. Though he does not know it at the time, neither is Baba Segi. When Iya Segi finally takes action to deal with the interloper, all goes tragically wrong, and the lesson learned too late for this generation is passed on to the oldest son: “Take one wife and one wife alone.”

Lola Shoneyin lived in Scotland as a teenager, returning to her home country to teach English and drama. She was a fellow of the Iowa International Writer’s Program and has published both poetry and fiction. Her message in this book is clear: In the end, polygamy in Nigeria, and no doubt elsewhere, is a tricky row to hoe.

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