THE SECRET LIVES OF BABA SEGI’S WIVES
by Lola Shoneyin

The first set-in-Africa book I want to highly recommend is THE SECRET LIVES OF BABA SEGI’S WIVES by Lola Shoneyin. I adored it, cherishing every page.

A contemporary urban tale, it’s set in Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State in south-western Nigeria, and one of the country’s largest cities.

I don’t want to give away much about the plot. Personally, I like to discover a book one page at the time, the way the author planned it. But I do want to tell you why I found it so fabulous.

The fluid, easily accessible, and brutally honest prose pulled me in from the start, making me swipe my index on my iPad to reveal the next double-page spread, and the next, until I had gobbled it all up. Then I just had sit there in my comfortable blue armchair, and revel in the after-joy of the 580 pages (that turned out to be the book’s length at the font size I chose). 

Perfectly cut phrases lingered in my mind, like this one: “Kai! What a terrible appetite this ground we tread on has! It eats blood and bones heartily, no matter how good they are.” Other images stayed with me. I could see Mama as “she collapsed to the warm earth like an old linen cloth”, and the night guards who “dipped their fingers into their glasses to remove dead insects.” My ears still heard “the uneven roads that sighed dust clouds every time a car upset their calm.” 

Over the course of the story, I found myself chuckling, shaking an imaginary fist at the cruelty of life, and inwardly weeping. Shoneyin doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics, including rape, an armed robbery, and a necklacing (if you don’t know what the latter means, it’s explained in my blog post entitled, “Of neck laces, necklaces, and necklacing”). And when I reached the last page, I was left believing in happiness and the goodness of life—what gift could be more precious?

The occasional use of foreign words (I’m guessing they’re from the Yoruba language, one of the over 500 languages spoken in beautiful, powerful, important Nigeria) like agbada, buba (similar to the Beninese boubou), eja kika, moyin-moyin, elubo, ogun, added a little spice, teasing my tongue as I let them roll around, and reminding me that we live in a polyglot world. 

THE SECRET LIVES OF BABA SEGI’S WIVES is written with multiple points of view and that is my favorite kind of read. To me, the most compelling stories flourish at the intersections of human trajectories, which, by a series of logical, fortuitous, or tragic events, end up touching and irreversibly changing each other. And, just like a Rubik’s cube that needs all its sides manipulated in order to conjure up its single-colored faces, a novel’s full humanity can only be understood by diving headlong into the hearts and minds of all those involved. 

As a reader, I appreciate getting a little help in keeping characters straight when there are more than a handful. A delightful family tree of the Alao family adorning the first page of Shoneyin’s novel serves that purpose well. The main members of the cast are right there, with Baba (i.e. Father) Segi, his four wives, and their combined seven offspring. Wives number one, two, and three are known, in that delightful pan-African custom, by the name of their firstborn. You’ll meet Iya Segi, the first (senior) wife, along with the next two wives, Iya Tope and Iya Femi. The fourth wife is simply called Bolanle or Mrs. Alao.

The books I value the most take me on unexpected journeys and I’m grateful to Shoneyin for immersing me in an unfamiliar environment. By that, I don’t mean Nigeria, although I’ve never been there (apart from touching down at Lagos airport enroute between Senegal and Ethiopia), despite having worked in all its neighboring countries (Benin, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon). I’m referring to polygamy. If you’re anything like me you probably don’t have any polygamous friends. In fact, I hadn’t met anyone from a polygamous family until I shared a sweltering and mosquito-ridden train compartment with a Beninese woman. By the end of the thirteen-hour overnight journey from Cotonou to Parakou, I'd heard how her husband broke her heart. When she returned home from visiting her mother, her husband introduced her, without the slightest preamble, to the second wife he’d taken in her absence.

This novel helped me deepen my understanding of African polygamy. I absolutely loved the protagonist, Bolanle. Her point of view is the thread that runs through the story as it weaves in and out of the other characters. Any strong female character who picks herself up after a tragedy is bound to capture my interest. I quickly found myself cheering for this young Nigerian woman who views her co-wives as “inmates” and describes herself as “the wicked wind that upturned the tranquility of their home,” as well as “the uppity outsider”.

The authenticity of the story was evident from the start. The characters are so well portrayed that I felt as if I were living with them. Shoneyin knows what she’s writing about. Her maternal grandmother was the senior of five wives. In a Guardian article entitled “Polygamy? No thanks," Shoneyin explains that as a young girl she “thought how fantastic it would be to be one of many wives. I imagined my friends and me being married to the same man, going shopping together, eating out together and wearing the same clothes, like sisters.” But as an adult, she argues—and gets my unconditional thumbs-up—that “husband-sharing is ugly and, one way or another, someone's dreams are crushed when a new wife joins a household.” 

It’s an added treat to read up about the author of a book I’ve devoured and discover this is someone I’d like to meet in real life. I haven’t met Lola Shoneyin yet, but she sounds like an amazingly energetic and passionate person. I wasn't surprised to learn that she is not just a novelist, but also a poet (I’ve added a link to some of her poems below). That’s not all. She’s a wife, too (married to the son of Wole Soyinka, who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature), and the mother of four. The Guardian article I mentioned shows her surrounded by her four children, radiating warmth and kindness. Her Twitter handle is @lolashoneyin if you want to connect with her.

Having witnessed a little African girl being literally peeled off her parents’ arms in northern Botswana before being carried onto a plane to start school in the UK, my heart constricted when I read that Shoneyin left Nigeria for a boarding school in Edinburgh at the age of six. No stranger to sorrow, Shoneyin was only ten when her father was wrongly jailed at a time when Nigeria was ruled by a military government. Can you imagine how you would have felt in her shoes?

What made me buy the book? The cover grabbed my attention on the Internet, eliciting that first impulse, “Hey, I think I might want to read that.” Black silhouettes jump out from an electric lime green background. Three women are walking close together, while the fourth one lags behind, already hinting at the divides between the four. My interest piqued, I tapped my index to get a sample delivered to my iPad, and minutes later I bought it. My only two wishes? The inclusion of a map—I find maps captivating and not everyone knows where Ibadan lies—and ... a movie based on the book. 

On Goodreads, a reader called Susie Gaines commented, “This book blew me away. I never thought I'd be interested in a book about Africa; it's usually not my thing.” To that, I say, “Bravo, Lola Shoneyin! You succeeded in opening one more reader’s heart to Africa.” 

Africa matters. Deeply. Not just to Africans themselves, but to our whole world. I hope more of you will go out and buy this fabulous novel and let Africa, in the multishaped beauty of its fifty-five countries, seduce you. 

References:

Shoneyin, Lola (2010, March 20). Polygamy? No thanks. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/mar/20/polygamy-nigeria-abuja-tradition

Shoneyin, Lola (2015, January 31). How my father’s jailer can offer Nigeria a fresh start, Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/31/nigeria-elections-president-muhammadu-buhari-lola-shoneyin

Poems by Lola Shoneyin can be found at http://www.mtls.ca/issue3/writings-poetry-soneyin.php