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His Only Wife [Book Review]

Summary

His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie takes place in Ghana and tells the story of a young woman who enters an arranged marriage with the son of a wealthy family. When Afi Tekple marries Elikem Ganyo she assumes responsibility to ensure the success of their union. Her family members are hoping the marriage will grant them access to the Ganyo’s financial resources and connections. While his family is hoping her pretty face and personality will gain influence over the son who has a long-time girlfriend of whom they do not approve. Naivete and a sense of obligation to both families find Afi in a battle to convince her husband to leave his girlfriend and make her his only wife.

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Show Notes

I have some knowledge of Black culture in America and the Caribbean but am unfamiliar with many cultures from other parts of the Black diaspora. This is part of why in addition to the books that I read by Black American authors or Black people based here in America, I like to also mix in history and books by authors from Africa and other parts of the Black diaspora. It’s not the same as visiting or getting to know people from these places but offers some insight into other cultures. Though these things should be taken with a grain of salt.

His Only Wife begins with Afi getting ready on the day of her wedding. The families have gathered around and last-minute preparations are being carried out as the traditions of the day and ceremony begin. Afi is under quite a bit of pressure because her husband-to-be, Elikem (Eli), comes from a wealthy and powerful family. This union is important to her family members because it will help to bring, if not directly wealth, then access to wealth, power, and authority by proximity. This is a political marriage in the sense that it’s not just the joining of two people but rather the strategic joining of two families. Traditionally marriages followed this ideology though the exact details varied by culture.

A marriage could result in the obtainment of quite a bit of wealth in countries where the groom’s family pays a bride price. But it could mean the opposite in cultures where the bride’s family is expected to provide a dowry. It’s my understanding that dowries are provided to take care of the bride as traditionally women didn’t work. This along with the traditional division of labor play a role in the history of families in some societies frowning on having female children. Depending on the marriage tradition, having a daughter or several daughters could mean having to come up with quite a bit of money or the opportunity to get a lot of assets and resources.

With that context, I understood Afi’s family hovering and stressing that everything went according to plan. Though it caught me off guard that Eli wasn’t at the wedding. The bride is there. Her mom and her family are there. His mother and family are there. But the groom, the other half of this union, isn’t there. And what made it even more surprising is that this was kind of mentioned in passing rather than being immediately explained.

I would think even if this is an arranged marriage for which their families have worked out the details, they would at the very least meet up on their wedding day, if not earlier. I get that different cultures have different traditions but the consistent thing that I’ve seen in most weddings is that the bride and groom are both in attendance. Whether or not they spend time before the wedding courting, dating, or not having contact at all on the day of the marriage they’re generally both there. Afi explains that this sometimes happens due to unforeseen reasons such as a medical emergency, an unexpected business trip, travel delay, etc. But Eli’s absence is still weird enough to be worth mentioning.

Putting aside the missing groom, as Afi goes through the wedding day preparations and the ceremony, we get some insight into Ghanian wedding traditions. With the coming together of the families there is a lot of importance placed on how people are seated with older and prominent family members being given coveted seats and places of honor. It shows an appreciation for age but also status.

In the past, different societies used different resources to represent the value of wealth. Now currency might differ but most societies use some form of money and people who have a lot of money are regarded with respect and sometimes reverence due to the power and privilege it grants them. In this case, the groom’s older brother serves as the family’s representative and given their wealth and connections is almost treated like the second coming.

Eli’s mother, Faustina Ganyo (Aunty G), has been an active and prominent presence within this community for quite some time as she owns real estate and businesses. She has been a benefactor to the community as well as to Afi having provided her mother with a job and assistance when needed. Afi and her mother have been disadvantaged since the passing of her father as they found he spent all of his money helping his family members which left little to save. This marriage to Eli would provide financial stability for Afi and her mother as well as resources for her father’s brother, Uncle Pious. Uncle Pious is a selfish man and stood out as the character that annoyed me the most and His Only Wife has several unsavory characters.

Aunty G was the one that proposed the arranged marriage between Afi and her son. She intended to use Afi’s beauty and intelligence to lure her son away from his Liberian girlfriend with whom he has a child but she does not approve. Given his family’s standing in the community, Afi has been aware of Eli for much of her life but they only know each other in passing. He’s quite a few years older than her, probably in the range of 13 years or so. With her family’s future resting on Afi’s ability to charm Eli away from his girlfriend, there’s a lot of pressure.

Aunty G seems to be very controlling and attempts to involve herself in the lives of her children. There’s some tension between the Liberian woman and Eli’s family and this has resulted in some distance between him and his family. This marriage to Afi is an attempt to bring him back into the fold. Afi is a bit indebted to Mrs. Ganyo due to the help she’s received in the past. The hope is that in exchange for her and her family receiving more resources, Afi will get Eli to fall in love with her thereby giving his family indirect control over him.

From the beginning, there’s some foreshadowing that things might not go according to plan. You might plan a wedding and an emergency wrecks those plans. But who would choose to make business plans that cause them to miss their wedding?

Due to his family’s wealth, Eli has lived a life of privilege where he attended good schools and received a quality education. He has traveled and lived abroad and in the process has made quite a bit of money for himself. Of his three brothers, Eli is regarded as being the most successful and the choice pick amongst them. That’s saying a lot because the older brother who attends the wedding is well respected and successful in his own right.

Afi’s father had a government job with a good salary which provided the family with a modest but comfortable life. Afi’s dad was married to one woman and only had one child, her. And so despite the house provided by his job being relatively small, it was enough for the three of them. Meanwhile, Uncle Pious, her father’s older brother, had accumulated three wives and 11 children. He operates a chicken business but expected Afi’s father to help take care of his kids. Uncle Pious sounds like his life is comfortable. He chose to have a large family and lives in a fair-sized home but comes across as being incredibly selfish.

Uncle Pious tried to pawn off his responsibilities for his family onto his younger brother because he had a government job. He went so far as to pack some of his kids up and send them to live with their uncle. Afi’s father felt obligated to help out because Pious paid his school fees when he was a student. There’s nothing wrong with helping your family members to achieve a goal or if they’re going through a rough patch. But Pious was ridiculous as he sent the kids without even having a discussion or asking permission. Boundaries do not exist for him so when Afi’s mother pushed her dad to establish some there was a backlash.

Things got really bad when Afi’s dad passed away and she and her mom were no longer eligible for government housing. People rarely regard themselves as being selfish and in the case of Pious, he regarded himself as having been treated unfairly by Afi’s mother. He took joy in what he regarded as their rightful downfall and begrudgingly provided basic assistance while carrying on as though they owed him their lives for his meager generosity. A positive in this period of hardship for Afi is that with her and her mom sharing a room at Pious’ house with one of his wives and her kids, they formed close relationships with that particular aunt and cousin.

I couldn’t understand how in such a short space of time after Afi’s father died, she and her mother were destitute. But it turned out there were no savings because Afi’s father hadn’t saved much of anything because he was taking all of his money beyond household expenses and giving it to help support his extended family.

It’s fine to be generous and help your family if they’re in a jam as anyone can go through hard times. But generosity should start at home. Meaning you have to make sure you’re on a solid footing before you can help other people. Think of when you’re on an airplane and they advise you that in the event of an emergency you put on your mask before assisting a child or anyone else with theirs. Ensuring your continued ability to breathe allows you to better assist others. This applies to finances as well as we might want to help our family and friends but need to ensure that we’re on a solid financial footing. If you take everything you have and give it to your family without saving for a rainy day, what happens if something goes wrong?

It’s also important to encourage family members to be independent and responsible with their money. You’re enabling them by stepping in and giving them money after they make irresponsible choices. It’s one thing if someone loses their home to a fire or some other catastrophe and they need emergency shelter. But it’s something completely different when you have a family member who lives a lifestyle they can’t afford but they expect assistance with trying to fund it.

On the one hand, it seems nice to have a large extended family with whom you maintain close relationships rather than just seeing them a few times per year. But at the same time, with all of these people being involved in your life, there’s more potential for drama. There’s some degree of dysfunction in every family but it would be multiplied in a large family.

Afi is quite young, still in her 20s. She has had some experience dating having had a boyfriend and being sexually active. Afi had her first boyfriends while she was attending boarding school and away from the watchful eyes of nosy family members and neighbors. This was without her mother’s knowledge as she is traditional and would have frowned upon Afi having a boyfriend or dating.

Being at a boarding school you might expect the teachers and administrators to be watching over the students to a degree. But some of the teachers needed watching as they would proposition students in exchange for good grades, though Afi didn’t participate in that. This tidbit is important as despite her youth and living in a traditional community it shows that Afi follows her own path and principles. She’s not as naive and inexperienced as those around her might imagine.

In part, Afi was influenced by her childhood where she saw the examples set by her father and the aunt with whom she shared a room. Unlike Uncle Pious, Afi’s father was a bit untraditional as he was willing to compromise with his wife and was considerate of her feelings and needs. Her aunt is bitter, having married Uncle Pious and growing to dislike him she speaks openly to her daughter and Afi about him being incredibly selfish. Afi’s father was a good man so her mother had a positive experience in marriage so her perspective offers some balance and an idea of what a marriage could be.

Once married, Afi moves from her small hometown to the bustling capital, Accra. The descriptions of the environment make it sound like a bustling metropolis with masses of people moving at the hectic speed of light. Afi is given one of Eli’s apartments in a luxury building, a driver, a cleaning staff, and money to go shopping. Unaccustomed to not just the big city but also this new lifestyle afforded by wealth and privilege leaves Afi in awe. With her training as a seamstress and interest in fashion, there’s a lot of attention paid to the different types of clothing being worn in the big city.

Yet even after the wedding has passed and Afi is now ensconced in Eli’s apartment, he remains absent. Afi’s mother accompanies her to Accra to help her settle in but eventually returns to their hometown. Eli’s older brother who was a key figure at their wedding as well as his younger sister live in Accra and visit Afi. They along with Aunty G provide some info about Eli’s girlfriend and their relationship. According to them, the girlfriend is a smoker who does her own thing and being from a different country doesn’t have the same traditions. They regard her as being a rude and mean individual who doesn’t subscribe to their social norms. So again there’s this conflict between traditional expectations and modern women.

This was just red flags upon red flags for me. How do you marry someone you don’t know that already has a girlfriend with whom he is still involved in some capacity and believe everything will work out ok? That sounds like you’re intentionally launching headfirst into drama. It’s highly unlikely that any good will come from this.

There are phone calls between Afi and Eli but the elephant, giraffe, and hippo in the room remain undiscussed. As with dating, I’m sure there are also pros and cons to an arranged marriage. But with either method of getting together, how do you build a relationship with your new spouse with little to no contact and basic communication? He is like a mythical creature that you hear about but she has never seen. It takes forever for the two to meet in person and as expected the first meeting is awkward.

Fortunately, Eli is described as being handsome, in shape, and having a nice personality. At the very least we know he exists which is progress I guess. Afi is a bit uncomfortable because of the weirdness of their situation. But also because she’s young, from their small town, and her family is not wealthy so she feels insecure in this new environment. During the portion of the story where Eli is absent but looms in the background, it feels weird. She’s put in an unfamiliar environment and feels as though she has to measure up to this unknown woman to impress a man she also doesn’t know.

Some family members get involved in their children’s relationships and marriages but this was on a whole other level. Eli began to call Afi regularly and they had conversations on the phone, getting to know each other in the process. But then there were also these prying phone calls with family members who wanted to know what’s going on and then presented strategic and conniving schemes.

Now living in Accra, Eli’s sister, Yaya, introduces Afi to the local social scene which allows her to mix and mingle with the city’s young influencers, movers, and shakers. As it was in Afi’s hometown, everyone is in everyone’s business. And it so happens that Afi’s next-door neighbor is Eli’s younger brother’s girlfriend, Evelyn, and the two become acquaintances. In this social environment, Afi learns more bits and pieces about Eli, his girlfriend Muna, and their daughter.

It’s telling that Eli has been living and continues to live in his main house with Muna and their child. Meanwhile, Afi lives in a nice apartment next door to Evelyn who Aunty G does not view as a suitable wife for her son. Muna lives as man and wife with Eli and he randomly stops by to see Afi much as his brother does with Evelyn. Putting titles aside and looking at living situations and whose needs Eli seems to consider more, it’s unclear who is the wife versus the woman on the side. And at that point, it doesn’t matter because both women are sharing Eli while he gets what he wants and does as he pleases. To make matters worse, as time goes by and the triangle continues, the families place blame for the situation on Afi.

While we finally meet Eli, Muna remains an unknown enigma. Invisible but with a presence that looms large in the background. Everything Afi learns about this woman is second-hand information and the Ganyos present her as being a villain. She’s described as an uncouth woman who through seduction and/or sorcery has usurped influence over Eli, causing him to be distant from the family. Eli is a grown man but they blame Muna for taking him away and Afi for struggling to bring him back.

You often hear that when men are cheating on their wives, they tell their potential lovers that they want to leave but the kids, money, blah blah blah makes it impossible for them to leave right now. The Ganyos feed this rationale to Afi explaining that Eli has to tread lightly as Muna has threatened to harm herself and/or keep their child from him if he leaves her. Even if that was true, in the back of my mind I felt like Afi wasn’t getting the full story.

It can be difficult with just two people trying to feel their way through a relationship. But this situation is complicated by all of these other people being involved. The Ganyos are way too invested in Eli’s romantic life. But at the same time, the situation is ridiculous because how can these two be expected to start a solid relationship when he’s still involved to whatever degree with Muna? You should end a relationship before trying to start another rather than attempting to monkey-bar the situation where you hold on to one for security while tentatively testing the other.

It’s telling that the phone calls between Afi and Eli progressed to him visiting and then them regularly spending time together. But on his schedule. Everything about their relationship is based on Eli’s wants and needs. This is an incredibly one-sided relationship. Because of the imbalance of finances and gender roles, Afi is burdened with doing most of the heavy lifting to make the relationship work. There’s little to no consideration about what she might want or need to be happy in the relationship. Sure she lives in a nice place and has money as well as a few other luxuries but it’s all owned and controlled by the Ganyos.

The Ganyos have outsized control and influence over the lives of both Afi and her mother. Her mother works at a company and lives in a home owned by Aunty Ganyo. The relationship between their families is most certainly not one of equals. This arrangement creates an underlying threat that it can all be taken away if Afi steps out of line or is unsuccessful in her relationship with Eli.

In comparison to Uncle Pious, Eli doesn’t sound terrible but it’s due in part to the bar being set quite low. Eli has lived a life of privilege so he doesn’t obnoxiously flaunt his wealth. Pious on the other hand is just out for himself and trying to grab all of the money he can with constant demands for more.

Afi does most of the cooking but Eli makes breakfast and helps to clear the table and wash the dishes. When he learns that Afi is interested in fashion and design he encourages her to take classes and pursue her goals instead of just sitting around and waiting on him. Given the pressure for Afi to cater to Eli, she’s uncomfortable with the idea of him performing any of the tasks traditionally expected of a wife. In this group of characters, Eli is the person that she is pressured to try and impress but he places the least amount of demands on her. He doesn’t seem to have any real expectations and at least to a degree recognizes her as a person independent of him.

Yet, his relationship with Muna remains an unspoken subject. Time goes by and when Afi understandably asks Eli about his intentions, he makes it clear that the subject is taboo and not for discussion. He had an incredibly irrational response to her questions and it was ridiculous that Afi ended up apologizing for even wanting to know where things stood between them. It made for an interesting story but couldn’t have been me. His Only Wife overall and some of the situations Afi experiences will have your blood pressure rising on her behalf.

I wouldn’t want to deal with any of this drama as it’s just way too much mess and stress. At first glance, I thought it was unrealistic that a woman would find herself in such a situation. Granted these types of situations might have been more prevalent in the past but still occur in the present to a degree, especially in instances where the man is wealthy and/or well-connected like Eli. Put aside the story taking place in Ghana as this is not a Ghanian or even an African culture thing. I don’t pay celebrities much attention but now and then stories pop up about some athlete or entertainer who is involved with multiple women and they’re jockeying for position to become his wife or if not that, the man’s number one.

There is a great sense of family obligation and pressure to keep up appearances to avoid gossip. People feel pressure to live a certain way based on what their family and/or community deems acceptable. This whole concept of Afi fighting to capture Eli arises from that.

It’s not like Afi graduated from school and now has a great job to afford her this lifestyle. She’s taken some positive steps in establishing a career in fashion but only begins an advanced design apprenticeship after moving to Accra. Even after making the smart move to launch her own business, it will take time and effort for it to grow to a level where it enables her to be independent.

Attempting to put her foot down with Eli or leaving him could result in her losing the apartment and other resources as well as her mother losing her job and home. Knowing the hardships that they faced following the death of Afi’s father, her mother pressures Afi to try to make things work. When Afi’s father was still alive he didn’t have any of the drama of these other men. He was willing to be open and share decisions with Afi’s mother but she preferred to leave the management of the family’s finances to him.

Before he died she had no real idea of their financial situation so she was caught off guard and unprepared for dealing with those responsibilities. Her husband and his job were her only survival plan, there were no contingent plans. In her time of need, she turned to others to help figure things out but unlike her husband, Uncle Pious and Aunty G only helped with the idea that they might one day want something in return.

Afi living in Accra and then returning to her hometown to visit presents a contrast of different experiences. She’s from a small town where she lived a rather basic life but now lives a life of comfort and privilege. Before she left for Accra, the house and her bedroom seemed big enough and she was quite happy and content. But having experienced the big city, everything seems so much smaller and rather shabby. As long as there is a roof over your head and food in your belly you can grow up unaware that you’re poor, especially if the people around you are living much the same. It’s not until you’re exposed to a different type of living that most realize that there are differences in lifestyle.

When a son or daughter is single, their parents or siblings might grow accustomed to walking in and out of their home as they please with no advance notice. They might also just be present in the home all the time. Living with a significant other who is unaccustomed to such informal practices might understandably result in that person trying to put boundaries in place. It’s cool to be close with your family but as someone that values her own space, I need boundaries, advance requests to visit, and for you to go home at some point.

In this case, I found it troubling because Uncle Pious in his leeching way at one point sent two of his kids to live with Afi assuming that she and Eli would be happy to take care of them with no conversation. Eli takes pity on the kids but still sets boundaries with Pious and sends the kids back home. Yet, he’s far more passive when he and Afi are living together in a house and his family members just drop by and hang around as they please.

To my understanding, some African cultures still practice polygamy but it’s not as widely practiced as it might have been in the past. In America, polygamy is outlawed in all states though a man might have his wife and a mistress. A woman’s partner seeing another woman might be a deal-breaker for some while it’s not an issue for others. The problem comes about when people are dishonest about what they truly want from the relationship.

This might be wanting to be monogamous but tolerating their partner seeing other people in hopes that they’ll one day choose to only be with them. Or claiming to be monogamous to get someone into a relationship when they intend to continue seeing other people. Either way these people are being dishonest about what they want and are willing to give in the relationship. Instead of trying to manipulate someone into wanting what you want, find someone whose desires and vision for a relationship are compatible with yours.

There’s a bit of push and pull here as Afi has gone through this weird marriage with Eli but there are different types of marriages that come with different levels of recognition within their society. But either way, there’s still this underlying question that remains: if Afi and Eli are now together and he’s supposedly committed to their marriage, why is this other woman still in the picture?

If you’re a man that wants to be with multiple women, fine, seek out women who are ok with that arrangement. But don’t pursue a relationship with a woman who tells you she wants to be monogamous. If you’re a woman that wants to be monogamous, don’t marry a man who doesn’t show up to your wedding and already has a girlfriend regardless of what his family might tell you. When you enter into a marriage, it should be that you want to be married to this person as they are not with the hope they’ll change into who you want them to be.

Sure there will be instances where you have to compromise but you should be rather steadfast about the things that you need to be content in a relationship. You shouldn’t begrudgingly tolerate things in a relationship that make you miserable. An individual should have a good grasp on things that are nice to have or relatively unimportant to them versus what they consider deal-breakers. You have to ask yourself if these are things that you can deal with for the rest of your life. And if it’s not, you’re better off letting that person go. That was all I could think of as I read the story and saw where things were heading with this triangle.

I highly recommend reading His Only Wife but prepare yourself to be annoyed and stressed. Some of the situations that happen in His Only Wife…I was like Afi I don’t know about this. It’s not a deep or difficult read but it’s also not your typical romance book. Sometimes I need a break from the more serious heavy topics and just want a story to get lost in for a few hours, this completely fit the bill.

I wouldn’t say that His Only Wife is predictable but along the way, I kind of had an inkling that there might be some twists and turns. As His Only Wife neared the ending, I had an idea of where things were headed but was still surprised by the details. It’s like I could sense the approaching car crash but couldn’t tell what direction the cars were coming from or how bad the damage would be.

For the most part, all of the characters were interesting or elicited some kind of reaction, even those that I didn’t like. I consider one of the trademarks of a good book to be that at the very least, the main character as well as some of the secondary characters go through some kind of transformation. They don’t have to become perfect but rather that there’s some degree of growth or development.

Afi is pretty and rather young at the start of the story and the people around her act as though that’s all she has to offer the world. In the beginning, I didn’t particularly feel one way or another about Afi but I enjoyed reading about her growth and her becoming more sure of herself as the story progressed. She began as this somewhat mousy-type young woman who was doing what her elders said. But put in a difficult situation she began to focus more on trying to figure out what she wants and who she wants to be.

Note, that this isn’t one of those books that you read in bed for a few minutes before settling into sleep. You’ll start reading with plans to just complete a chapter only to find yourself still awake in the early hours of the morning trying to find out what happens next. Read this during the day when you don’t have anything else to do or anywhere else to be.

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