I just finished reading The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, seven years since it was first published. The way Lola Shoneyin spun this story, dexterously weaving the words and lines to create events like an experienced weaver bird, is as if the story was meant to awaken lulled noises in your head. It is difficult to tell whether that (awakening) was the initial intention of the author though.
The theme is conspicuously African, and the author does not make any effort to be politically correct. That is an aspect I respect a lot as I continue exploring African literature.
Baba Segi, the son of a hunter, is sent away from his village so as to live a long fruitful life, unlike his father whom he never saw. Somehow, he ends up being a successful businessman in Ibadan. And he pursues what a big man like him, with money, is likely to pursue: women. But he does it in a more ‘mannered’ way following the advice of one Teacher, a man who cannot get aroused himself. He marries one wife after another, satisfies them all in bed but then there is one devastating problem.
Baba Segi is the typical man who believes that men cannot and should not be unable to get children, and in case they do then it is because of the wife’s inability to sire. He loves children, and he has several with his three wives who are illiterate women happy to kneel before and pay obeisance to their master who provides everything in the house.
Trouble starts when Baba Segi brings home a fourth wife, a graduate who realizes she is unable to sire, even though she recognizes her place in the whole setup. From here, the author lets the wheel free, rolling the ball point in all directions that leave the reader a little bit confused, yearning to discover what happens afterwards, and somehow very angry at the end. The stereotypical characterization in this book doesn’t really bother me from the African point of view. The choices of a woman to get married as a second, third or fourth wife are personal. There are many out there who have made and are still making that choice, whether graduates, illiterates, power women and high-flying professionals.
Whether the man at the centre is a chauvinist or a realist is a matter for debate. The truth is, there are many people who would be angry at the way Shoneyin has portrayed women in the story, but does it matter? Literature is largely a portrayal of the society and narrowly dictates how the society should behave. I would therefore applaud the author for not shying away from the controversial themes explored in the book. It is a story I would recommend to both lovers and critics of African literature.
Review by Hillary Namunyu
About the Book
Title: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
Author: Lola Shoneyin
Price range: Approx KES 1000
Available at: The Magunga Bookstore (Nairobi)
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