Star Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
Serpent’s Tail, January 2011
Online Price: R209
Lola Shoneyin evokes an extraordinary Nigerian family in splashes of vibrant colour.
— from the blurb of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
I have never read such an odd book in my life. It starts off slow, funny and witty as you are getting to know all the characters, but by the end you find yourself enthralled and holding on to the last pages of the book in extreme anticipation as to how the story will conclude.
To the dismay of her ambitious mother, Bolanle marries into a polygamous family, where she is the fourth wife of a rich, rotund patriarch, Baba Segi. She is a graduate and therefore a great prize, but even graduates must produce children and her husband’s persistent bellyaching is a sign that things are not as they should be.
Bolanle’s arrival into the Alao family also rattles Baba Segi’s three other wives. His first wife, Iya Segi, will stop at nothing to maintain her rule over the house. She is the heart of the family and mischievously controls Baba Segi and the other wives. Iya Tope is the shy, timid second wife whose life is shadowed by fear, but can you trust her? And Iya Femi is a schemer, with crimson lips and expensive tastes – a born again Christian who is possessed by the belief that punishing Bolanle is God’s will.
Baba Segi, plump and prosperous, realises it is not easy to keep the peace among four wives and seven children, but will his desire for more be his undoing?
Bolanle is too educated for the ‘white garment conmen’ Baba Segi would usually go to for fertility advice, so when he takes her to hospital to discover the cause of her barrenness, following the discovery will she stay?
The impoverished search for cassava flour
While the rich consume rice by the measuring bowl
The tide of the earth turns
No one knows tomorrow.
— from The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
Written in conversational anecdotes, in a way I have never seen any writer do continuously without dropping the beat once, Baba Segi’s Wives reminds us how Africans spoke, and still speak – well, for those of us who grew up in rural areas, at least, the writing brings memories of the cadences and connotations immediately to the fore.
Shoneyin beautifully intertwines her characters’ stories to make you understand how they became who they are, and how it all began. Her book is a story which tables the dangers of infertility, toxic masculinity and family secrets and lies with great compassion.
— Review by Nondumiso Tshabangu, editor of Africa’s Lit, the African literature themed newsletter from Exclusive Books