BOOK: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
Author: Lola Shoneyin
Publisher: William Morrow
Date Published: 2010
Reviewer: Vincent de Paul
When the time comes for you to marry, take one wife and one wife alone. And when she causes you pain, as all women do, remember it is better that your pain comes from one source alone. Listen to your wife’s words, listen to the words she doesn’t speak so that you will be prepared … are the words of Baba Segi, one of the protagonists in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wivesby Lola Shoneyin, to his son, Akin. That’s because he has just learnt the truth: ALL HIS CHILDREN ARE NOT HIS, thanks to his fourth wife who drags him to the hospital for medical tests which reveal that he is impotent. His wives’ secrets, all of them, are at last out: they had extramarital affairs to have children and keep Baba Segi, a lover of children, happy; and to safeguard their marriage to Baba Segi. Baba Segi is infuriated when he learns the truth.
It is a story of how far women would go to secure their future with a man, the secret lives they live for marriage, things they can do to a man, and the blindness men have when it comes to women. In the end, it’s all about survival and putting on faces and safeguarding masculinity because, when Baba Segi’s wives decide to stay, they all enter into an agreement: Baba Segi will always be the father of their children, and he will always be their father (they will take his name) and their husband; the Alao family name will forever be honoured, and the wives’ children’s futures are secured.
Baba Segi has three wives before he meets and marries Bolanle, a university graduate who brings him joy and sadness in equal measure. The other wives (Iya Segi, Iya Tope, and Iya Femi – all illiterate) are not happy with Bolanle, who never holds the Iya title because she doesn’t have children of her own. They plot to kick her out, but in the process they end up committing a much more grievous travesty: they poison her only for the poisoned food to be eaten by Baba Segi’s first wife’s first child, Segi. Segi starts dying slowly, by the day, by the hour, like a cancer victim. At the same time, Bolanle, the unwanted intruder, desperate to give Baba Segi a child, goes to the hospital to know what’s wrong with her. Is she infertile? She suspects so because she believes gods are punishing her for the abortion she procured when she was fifteen after being raped. However, Bolanle is OK, but to ascertain, her husband has to be tested — and that’s when the lid opens:
“I know the reason why Bolanle has not conceived …” Iya Segi (Baba Segi’s first wife) says. And it is not one that a thousand doctors can cure … I was a young wife when I found myself in a cloud of sadness. I was childless and restless … My husband and I tried everything … Then, I had an idea … If my husband did not have seed, then what harm could it do to seek it elsewhere? … So, I found seed and planted it in my belly. The man who planted the seed in her belly was her husband’s driver, Taju. Iya Segi would advise the other wives to do so, and they had children from other men to keep their marriage to Baba Segi safe, until the She-Devil, Bolanle, waltzed into the peaceful Alao home and disturbed everything, everyone.
When Baba Segi calls his wives, after much pondering, to let them go, because the wisest man whom he believes in told him so, it is Iya Segi who rationalizes: “You talk of the father of our children. Who is the father of our children? … There is no other but you … You named every child in this house, every one. You have nurtured them so it is your name they will bear. You may say that there are other fathers but you are the only father they know. You alone have been their father, for it takes more than shedding seed to be a father.” And that is the wisdom that summarizes the story: ANY MAN CAN BE A FATHER, BUT NOT ANY MAN CAN BE A DADDY TO A CHILD. It doesn’t matter to whom the sperms belonged, it’s the one who brings up a child is the real father.
All the wives stay, but Bolanle has just been handed over the keys out of the jail. She has ‘woken up from a dream of unspeakable self-flagellation’. Bolanle is both a blessing and a curse to Baba Segi: had she not gotten married to him, Baba Segi’s first child, Segi, would not have died. Then again, Baba Segi would never have known about his wives and their deceit. She would remember Baba Segi, she won’t miss him but she would remember him, she concludes.
It is a nice read, with the right amount of humour, suspenseful, and in touch with the African culture. It is a commendable contemporary novel against the backdrop of traditions and culture.