The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
Author: Lola Shoneyin
In this intriguing recent novel (published in London: Serpent’s Tail, 2010) Lola Shoneyin has tackled several widespread contemporary African cultural stresses, though her text is clearly located in urban Nigeria with a preponderance of Yoruba practices and presences overlaid by Muslim and Christian affiliations. Personal relationships, individual value systems and each character’s ways of managing and negotiating her (and sometimes his) circumstances are much more central to the text, however. With a plot as complex as the one deployed here, one needs to keep one’s wits about one as the secrets alluded to in the title gradually unfold or are suddenly exposed to the reader and to one or other of the characters.
As the story begins we learn that Baba Segi’s most recent, youngest and single formally educated wife, Bolanle (his fourth spouse), is causing him bellyaching worries through her failure to conceive. He is, after all, the father of seven children by his earlier marriages and since he is no slacker in his marital sexual obligations, something needs to be done to address this wife’s condition. Bolanle scoffs at traditional healers and remedies, so Teacher (Baba Segi’s celibate mentor) advises the troubled husband to take this modern, sceptical wife of his to the University Hospital for tests. This is the process that will in due course unleash a torrent of unforeseen consequences.
To set this account of the novel going, I include a lengthy reminiscences from the first chapter:
[Baba Segi] sat at his desk, reached into a drawer and brought out the photograph Bolanle had pressed into his palm the day they met. As he thumbed away the film of dust on it, he thought how much her personality had changed, how she’d slowly lost her meekness and become full of quiet boldness, how discord had followed her into his home and made his other wives restless. […. At this he recalls that on the day they met, he thought to himself:] the gods have sent her to me, […] as his eyes rested on Bolanle’s bosom. [He had then asked her:] “Now that you and your friend have finished university, are you going to marry a man who will look after you?” [And she had replied:] “When I find one.” (6)
Despite having clearly flaunted “her lean face, her dark, plump lips and her eyes” and their deliberately “slow and comely” blinks (6) at Baba Segi, Bolanle is not merely the ruthless gold-digger that the preceding descriptions seem to imply. Although we will learn some deeper reasons much later, she does make it clear, in her own voice, that she has made an honourable commitment: “I chose this family to regain my life, to heal in anonymity,” she says, “and when you choose a family you stay with them”. Bolanle defies opposition and criticism from her friends who call him “a polygamist ogre” and from her mother, who terms Baba Segi “an overfed orang-utan” (160), but, says Bolanle, she “look[s] at him in another light”, seeing “a large but kindly, generous soul” (17). We, too, earlier on learnt that Baba Segi is an affectionate father who “look[s] lovingly into the faces of the older children and pinche[s] the cheeks of the younger ones”, making “each child feel special” (8) as he returns home from work. This fatherly side of him is rewarded by his indisputable position as reigning head of the household and his wives’ indulgence of somewhat crude sexual techniques.
Most of the story is told from Bolanle’s perspective, but the other three wives, Baba Segi himself and even his driver are all given one or two turns to tell their stories and convey their perspectives on the family dynamics in this household. The authorial tone is perhaps at times sardonic, but there is no doubt of her both incisive and compassionate understanding of the deep influences of power competition and class dynamics in the household sphere. When we first encounter this phenomenon it comes across as crude nastiness, jealous possessiveness and cruelly exclusionary practices on the part of the other wives. The most powerful of the spouses is, predictably, Baba Segi’s first wife, IyaSegi (Iya being the Yoruba term meaning “mother of”), whose daughter Segi is the eldest of the household’s children. Segi’s younger brother Akin is the only one of the children who shows occasional appreciation of Bolanle, the other children having clearly been primed to shun her. IyaSegi is a huge, and also hugely wealthy, woman (she owns a string of shops), and is in charge of the distribution of household supplies to the wives for themselves and their children. The middle wife, Iya Tope, would evidently have liked to be on friendly terms with Bolanle along with her three timid little daughters, but is forbidden to be so – she is herself a quiet, put-upon personality. Much the boldest and fiercest woman among the three, not to mention her frequently mean and vicious conduct, is Iya Femi – Muslim by birth, but a converted Christian of an extremely self-righteous bent. Having previously been the favoured youngest and prettiest wife among the three older wives, she bears an especially intense resentment towards Bolanle. Bolanle is mocked, her books smeared with palm oil and her attempts to help the children with their homework or to teach the three illiterate wives to read and write are immediately thwarted. She withdraws into her shell; at least she has a room of her own here. IyaSegi firmly believes that Bolanle “wants our husband to cast us aside as the illiterate ones”, but also that “these educated types have thin skins” and that, if “poke[d] […] with a stick, she will fly away and leave our home in peace” (52, 53). Things come to a crisis on the morning when Baba Segi first takes the new wife to the hospital, IyaSegi declaring: “She will reveal our secret. She will bring woe” (55).
The first serious attempt to oust Bolanle is immediately hatched: vile substances (involving a rat’s corpse and fresh blood) are planted around the house; the other wives (primarily Iya Femi, whose plan it seems to be, and IyaSegi) claim to have discovered by good fortune that Bolanle was attempting to cast a fatal spell over Baba Segi’s life. But Bolanle’s calm logic disproves the false accusation.
At this point in the text, having captured our interest in the family politics and seemingly established a clear line between a “good” Bolanle on the one hand and the “bad” wives on other, Shoneyin begins to complicate matters somewhat by providing us with fuller information about all four wives’ histories and home backgrounds, incidentally giving us an overview of various lifestyles in this society. The mousy Iya Tope has a surprising tale to tell, for instance. Having grown up in a many-childed, dirt-poor peasant family, where she was always even then considered the “strange”, excessively quiet and slowest developing member of the household, it is she who is chosen as the “trade-off” (with Baba Segi) for her father’s inability to raise abundant crops for the wealthy man from the city. Iya Tope (as she will become later in her life) hears her father describing her as being as “strong as three donkeys” and telling Baba Segi that “What she loses in wit she makes up for in meticulousness” (81-2). Her own thoughts on hearing this are reported:
Even a child would have worked out why my father was extolling qualities that had previously vexed him; I was compensation for the failed crops. I was just like the tubers of cassava in the basket. Maybe something even less, something strange – a tuber with eyes, a nose, arms and two legs. Without fanfare or elaborate farewells, I packed my bags. I didn’t weep for my mother or my father, or even my siblings. (82)
So she is packed off to be Baba Segi’s second wife and to undergo IyaSegi’s schooling as to what her place will be in the household. IyaSegi gives Iya Tope the most crucial marital advice several months after the marriage: “Get pregnant quickly or he will start to force-feed you bitter concoctions from medicine-men until your tummy rumbles in your sleep” (83) is her secret night-time caution. To this is added Baba Segi’s own ugly warning: “If your father has sold me a rotten fruit, it will be returned to him” (84). At last the penny drops and Iya Tope contrives a liaison with the local butcher, gaining not only by falling pregnant three times in quick succession, but by experiencing the erotic joys of gentler love-making than Baba Segi’s crude manhandling and thumping sexual techniques. But she is under no illusion that this is true love, since she pays the butcher handsomely from her household allowance for each encounter. However, she becomes sexually besotted, until IyaSegi shames her for completely neglecting her little daughters and warns her to stop seeing the butcher, which she wisely does. For Iya Tope (as she has become by the birth of her eldest daughter) has no desire to be sent back in disgrace to her impoverished family in the village.
IyaSegi begins her tale with the blunt statement: “I was an enormous child” (96). She soon adds (to the information that she was not appealing to the opposite sex) the point that her mother had brought her up to distrust males. Her own father had deserted her mother for a more attractive woman, so that her mother’s creed became: “Only a foolish woman leans heavily on a man’s promises” (97). Pillar of respectability as she has seemed to be up to this stage of the text, we are given unmistakable evidence that IyaSegi in her youth developed an intense passion for a flirtatious, heterosexually inclined woman who would have scorned her feelings had she known about them. IyaSegi compensated for her loneliness by “worshipp[ing] money” and accumulating large stores of it. Having declined due to an incurable illness, IyaSegi’s mother (also an enormous woman) suddenly developed an obsessive desire to get her daughter into marriage and motherhood before she died. She plotted with her best and equally obese friend, Baba Segi’s mother, to get their children married, confiscating all her daughter’s hoarded cash to make the marriage an attractive prospect for the young man, who had long ago left the village. Baba Segi’s business prospered and IyaSegi managed to produce two children, Segi and Akin. She did not mind, she says, when her husband Baba Segi brought home two other wives, later on, but when the fourth one arrives, she resolves: “I will not let Bolanle turn my future upside down” (103).
The next secret revealed to the reader is the origin of Bolanle’s wounding that she had sought to heal by marrying into Baba Segi’s polygamous household – and it is a terrible one. Not yet sixteen, the apple of her ambitious mother’s eye and the star performer of her class at school, Bolanle had one day on her way home from school been caught in a terrible rain storm. She reminisces how at that point she had “stood beneath that same agbalumo tree not far from here. I was alive then. I was head girl of my secondary school, head of the school literary and debating society. I knew I was the daughter every parent wanted” (110). Then an old, ugly pattern inserts itself into her unblemished life. As she stands there, drenched and bedraggled, a gleaming car passes her by, stops and reverses. The wholly respectable-seeming driver persuades her to get into the car, offering to take her safely home, but instead drives her to his luxurious home, locks her in and violently rapes the virginal girl despite her tears, appeals and protestations, claiming (of course) that this was what she had wanted. She cannot bear to tell her mother and destroy her dreams for her “good” daughter (Bolanle’s younger sister is a rebel and a principled under-performer). No longer “pure” (in her own mind), the youthful Bolanle starts an affair with the university student son (an only child) of their wealthy landlord and his wife, the neighbours of Bolanle’s family – whose circumstances are modest, her father being a lowly schoolteacher who drinks his income away. On the night that the hugely wealthy, drunken and promiscuous landlord is murdered by armed robbers and his home ransacked, Bolanle (who had, as usual, sneaked over the fence from her own home) learns how little she means to Segun, the neighbour’s son – he is embarrassed that she saw him weeping as they hid, witnessing his mother’s humiliation by the thieves, and shuns her afterwards. Segun had also unblinkingly arranged for her to have an abortion when she fell inconveniently pregnant. This hidden history begins to emerge when Bolanle is questioned by the hospital doctor in order to establish whether she is barren.
Iya Femi, the most unpleasant of the three wives and the one who feels and behaves most viciously towards Bolanle, has a story that makes one see her ugly conduct in a somewhat softer light, even if her acts are terrible. She was, we find out, the treasured only child of a prosperous Muslim couple who had both died in an accident when she was about ten years old. Her uncle, who had lived with them and seemed to love her, used the opportunity to take over her parental home for himself and his girlfriend, packing the child off (one must assume, for monetary reward) to slave unpaid in the household of a wealthy older woman who insists on being addressed as “Grandma” to make clear that this servant girl is not one of her children. As she was driven away from her parental home by this woman, Iya Femi tells us, she “glared” back at her uncle and “licked [her] lips” (123) to indicate that she would seek vengeance for his betrayal.
In the years I have lived in Baba Segi’s house, I have never forgotten the evil my uncle did to me. Every day the children come home from school and talk about science and maths, my head is flooded with anger. They use words like “biology” and “geometry”, words I don’t understand. Words I would have understood if my uncle had sent me to school. If he’d remembered the kindness with which my parents dealt with him, he would have seen to it that I became a greater person than I am today. I would have been rich and powerful, not a third wife in an illiterate man’s home. My uncle deprived me of opportunities. Grandma did, too. Thieves – that’s what they are! Filchers of fortune. I won’t rest until they are punished. In the Bible, God said: “Vengeance is mine.” If God can delight in vengeance, how much more a poor soul like me who has been misused by the world? I must have revenge. Only then will I accept that there was a reason for all my suffering. (133)
Here one begins to understand why Iya Femi in particular so resents Bolanle’s well-meaning attempts to assist with the children’s homework and to teach her co-wives to read and write. After her fifteen years of slavery and drudgery in “Grandma’s” home, her bitter vengefulness is unassuaged by the relative luxury and security she and her children enjoy in Baba Segi’s home. Part of Iya Femi’s revenge may have been achieved by her having children by “Grandma’s” unusual son Tunde, a point she intends revealing to her cruelly exploitative former “employer” at a strategic, later time. Another act in Iya Femi’s vengeful plan is achieved by her burning down her parents’ former (now her somewhat impoverished uncle’s) home – Tunde’s having driven her there and applauding her resolve – but Bolanle is the new thorn in her flesh. Iya Femi had formerly been the “Queen” of the household – “I couldn’t even walk across the sitting room without Baba Segi salivating,” she boasts, but then adds: “[E]verything changed the day the monkey [Bolanle] stepped into this house” (137). Her other acts of fury may have some justification, or at least be understandable, but when she is shown whipping herself into a righteous fury against the unwitting fourth wife, the reader recognises her violent injustice. Even so, she declares in her own mind, “The Lord is going to use me to conquer my enemy. The mantle of justice has fallen on me. Ha! I am blessed” (139).
A terrible plan is hatched by Iya Femi and IyaSegi; one that will go terribly wrong.
Bolanle, in the meantime has gone to visit her mother, who has been made unusually vulnerable by a stroke that Bolanle had not been told about, probably because their relationship had all but broken down. This happened when Bolanle, after completing the degree studies that her mother had paid for by superhuman efforts, had gone and married into an illiterate, polygamous man’s household. Her mother reiterates her usual reproaches even during this visit, calling Bolanle “ruined! Damaged! Destroyed!” (148). It is at this point that Bolanle at last reveals to her mother how she had been raped and achieves a compunctious near-apology from her remorseful mother. She explains that the “buffoon” Baba Segi had been prepared to take her as a wife without raising uncomfortable questions and that she had sought a sort of haven in which she could heal. Then Bolanle cooks her temporarily disabled mother a meal, which they eat out of the same bowl. As Bolanle returns to Baba Segi’s home she walks past a shack set up as a bar to which young men go to booze, enticing girls to join them. Even though Bolanle has not spotted her, Segi (her husband’s eldest child and daughter) comes rushing out after her, begging her not to reveal to her father that she was in the shack with a youngster she is in love with. Because Bolanle undertakes to keep her dangerous secret, Segi suddenly begins confiding in the sympathetic Bolanle, and (to the disgust of her mother, IyaSegi) joins Bolanle in the latter’s bedroom, where she cannot resist cleaning up a delicious chicken dish left (as obligatory) for Bolanle by her co-wife Iya Femi.
That night Segi falls violently, dangerously ill. The food had been poisoned (as the reader learns) in a plot by IyaSegi and Iya Femi finally to get rid of the detested Bolanle. Instead, it is Segi who lies on the floor in agony, her toes “flex[ing] and contract[ing] as if she was in the throes of an epileptic fit”, her father on his knees beside her, imploring the unconscious girl to “Tell the gods you want to stay here with me” (159). Segi is taken to hospital, from where, after every intervention is attempted, she is eventually brought home, bald and physically ravaged, to see whether further recovery can take place at home. At this time, the medical investigators of Bolanle’s apparent barrenness have required Baba Segi to come in for a sperm test. Before they reveal the results to him, they ask him to bring one of his other wives to the hospital with him. Profoundly shaken by her daughter’s condition, IyaSegi volunteers to be the one and, at the hospital, at last reveals to Baba Segi and the doctors what the reader by this time has guessed: the “father” of seven children is, in fact, sterile, having had a very serious case of mumps as an adolescent. The news shatters him. At home that evening, deeply drunk, he denounces his unfaithful wives and in the midst of the dreadful scene Segi releases her last breath. When a distraught Baba Segi discovers her body the next morning he “must have believed no one could hear him” as he “let out consecutive howls so haunting that the neighbours hurried to their gates” (235). After the quick Muslim funeral, Baba Segi summons his wives. “It is not every day,” he tells them, “that a man finds out his children are not his own” (240). He tells them they are free to go.
At this point the bereaved and utterly chastened IyaSegi intervenes. “Who is the father of the children?” she asks him (241), insisting that it is he, Baba Segi, the man who has lovingly and generously brought up and supported these seven (now six) children who is their only real father. She begs Baba Segi to keep them and to allow the wives to stay, having acknowledged earlier that it was she who had instigated the plan for the other two wives to seek impregnation by other men as she had done. But this secret, she says, must be kept within the family. Baba Segi accepts this suggestion. For her part, Bolanle announces, she will leave and resume life on her own. She remarks quietly to herself, “I will remember Baba Segi. I won’t miss him but I will remember him. […] Perhaps on some days,” she adds, “I will remember him with fondness [having] learnt many things from the years I spent under his roof” (244).
So concludes this sometimes harrowing and sometimes poignant account of the numerous dark secrets of Baba Segi’s wives.
We leave Shoneyin’s narrative as Bolanle declares her resolve to meet the challenges of her new, post-marital life with hope, for she is back “in the land of the living” after her years of depression, “and the world is spread out before [her] like an egg cracked open” (245).