Many readers might question why any sane person would desire to become the second, third, or even fourth wife of a polygamist. But not after reading Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
Baba Segi is a polygamist with four wives. Of his four wives, Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle, only Bolanle, the last, is the wife of his choice. (“Iya” in Yoruba means “mother”. Each woman is called by the name of her first child). Bolanle is a university graduate. She has no “Iya” alias because she is unable to conceive. The other wives, especially Iya Segi and Iya Femi, who are both illiterates, see a common enemy in Bolanle. Baba Segi, who is old enough to be Bolanle’s father, believes she is barren. They go all out to ensure that she gets pregnant but Baba Segi gets more than he bargains for.
Baba Segi is a male chauvinist. As a traditional African man in contemporary times, he believes that his affluence should also be measured by the number of wives he “acquires.” He believes that he is a ‘complete’ man. As in the novel, the truth is that, for men like Baba Segi, the very women whom they claim amount to nothing are the ones that hold the key to their lives. Shoneyin may be telling us that there are a zillion things that a woman can do without a man.
At many stages in the novel, the other wives believe that Bolanle has spiritual powers. The average reader will almost believe that as well. Bolanle is a stoic, and largely, she is not of this world. One would even argue that she is one of the most unrealistic characters in African literature. Not only does she not react when she is provoked by the other wives, all things – natural and supernatural – work together for her good. Her character may not be easy to swallow. Of course, one understands the fact that she married Baba Segi to escape from some other forces in her life, but it doesn’t mean that she has to submit herself to every ill treatment like a saint. Yes, we all know there are no saints! Conversely, one may desire to ask: If the character of Bolanle is wholly realistic, where is the fiction in the story?
Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is an exposé of a polygamous home. It shows how common enemies can become common friends overnight. It is an examination of the comradeship and pride of the African man. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is the playground where simple diction, hard-to-find truth and rib-cracking narration converge.