Funny, engaging and smart portrayal of polygamous family

Lola Shoneyin's book is a perfect example of how to portray people’s complexities. PHOTO | FILE
Lola Shoneyin's book is a perfect example of how to portray people’s complexities. PHOTO | FILE  

This book, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, about four Nigerian women married to one man is as entertaining as it is thought provoking. Lola Shoneyin’s humorous writing style keeps you turning every page, awaiting the revelation of the big secret belying this polygamous home.

Baba Segi, a rotund man whose very manhood hinges on managing a collection of wives and children, runs his bustling household with the help of his beloved first wife and matron in charge — Iya Segi.

In the course of his marriage to her, Baba Segi takes on two more wives; Tope and Femi. However, it is the arrival of the fourth wife, university graduate Bolalnle, that sets off what can only be described as a series of humorous and eventually earth shattering events for this household.

Each wife has spun a web of deception that gradually unravels as Bolanle’s presence shines a light on hidden secrets, much to the chagrin and ire of the first three wives.

While Baba Segi is relatively successful, he is not a rich man. However, an examination of how he comes to end up with each wife is a story that mirrors much of African traditional and contemporary society: of how African men are able to leverage their economic power to gain access to women.


The women, on the other hand, turn to life with Baba Segi as a way out of the misery of their own lives. Bolanle, who is the only educated adult in the house, is ironically the only wife Baba Segi actually chose, which also serves to spur further hatred against her.

Bolanle’s strained relationship with her parents is also an eye opener as it shows how complicated it can be for young educated African women to relate with their parents.

Shoneyin’s narrative is raw and unapologetic in the way it portrays Nigerian men and women and the country’s politics of gender. Despite their varying levels of education, the women in this book aren’t voiceless.

They’re also as vicious as they are pragmatic in their handling of each other and their husband —whose ego is carefully (and sometimes humorously) handled and kneaded almost as often as yam is pounded in that house.

The book is also a perfect example of how to portray people’s complexities — no one is wholly evil or a saint, just human. The most entertaining character in this book, at least for me, is Baba Segi — whose portrayal almost borders on boorish buffoonery.

I can honestly say that The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives left me with a broadened perspective of polygamy. The book presents the subject in a non-judgmental tone — all the women chose to be here and to share a husband.

Each woman’s story, as well as Baba Segi’s, is told from the first person narrative, giving a very personal view of the lives of each in a way that allows the reader to appreciate the complexity of their characters.

The interaction of the four wives with each other and with their husband obviously forms the crux of this story.

Shoneyin — a Nigerian poet — certainly has a way with words that is so engaging and funny, it is hard to believe that this is actually her debut novel. She paints a vivid picture of what family life in Africa looks like that will be familiar to Africans and an eye-opener to the reader that’s not.

Splendid book. Read it.