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The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin [Book Review]

Summary

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin is a novel about a polygamous Nigerian man, Baba Segi who has four wives and seven children. The household was stable and had a steady rhythm until the arrival of the fourth wife, Bolanle. When she joins the household her being younger and more educated than the other women incites their jealousy which leads to them plotting and scheming to get her out. Her position is made even more precarious as she and the baby-obsessed Baba Segi struggle to conceive a child which leads to some big family revelations.

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Show Notes

Baba Segi is a man in his 40s lamenting over the fact that after two years of marriage his newest and youngest wife, Bolanle, is still not pregnant. By the time they married he already had three wives and seven children. Yet he is insecure about his marriage to Bolanle because unlike himself and his other wives she has graduated from a university. When Baba Segi began showing an interest in Bolanle his friends warned that he was taking a chance with her. They planted fear in him that she is a beautiful young woman who is only interested in using him for his money and she would eventually leave him for a younger man.

He has been passively trying to impregnate Bolanle but with two years passed and her still not being pregnant, he starts to worry. It’s telling that his first instinct isn’t to have a conversation with Bolanle to express his concerns. Instead, he goes to Teacher, a medicine man and advisor who the local men visit and hang around. I was kind of expecting Teacher to give Baba Segi problematic advice but was surprised that he was reasonable during their first conversation and throughout The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.

Teacher advised Baba Segi to try to communicate with Bolanle in the manner in which she might be most receptive. He felt the first step should be to have a conversation with Bolanle. And given that she has attended school and values learned people, he advises that they go to a hospital instead of relying on traditional medicine and potions. I think there is value in traditional medicine but there is also value in modern medicine so there’s nothing wrong with using your discretion and mixing the two.

Baba Segi owns a business that employs quite a few people and over the years has been able to create a comfortable life for himself and his family. His financial status within the home and the wider community has resulted in him being treated with a great deal of respect to the point of deference. He is the husband and father to all of the women and children within the household and thus provides for them. Baba Segi receives a grand welcome when he returns home from work at the end of the day. The children bow and prostrate themselves while his wives hustle about seeing to his needs. Respect is a big thing in the culture so there is an expectation and thus a whole routine around his family showing their appreciation for him.

The children are genuine but a lot of the deference and fussing over Baba Segi on the part of his wives is just a performance. There’s a different vibe amongst the women when Baba Segi isn’t around. The women have been married to Baba Segi for different lengths of time. This has resulted in a pecking order and petty squabbles as they try to secure resources for themselves and their children.

In order of marriage, the wives are Segi, Tope, and Femi with Bolanle being the fourth wife. They each have individual relationships with him and play a particular role in the household. The children get along well and don’t have any issues with each other but sometimes they get pulled into the squabbling between their mothers. As the women attempt to ostracize Bolanle some order their children not to have any contact with her.

When Baba Segi is around the women aren’t any warmer towards Bolanle but at least try to hide their disdain. Unlike the women, Baba Segi is free to go and come as he pleases so he spends a good amount of the day out of the house. This means that Bolanle who doesn’t have children is alone much of the time and doesn’t have anyone within the home that she can talk to or spend time with. It’s a hostile environment but she doesn’t respond in kind to the other wives’ hostility. This further annoys the other wives as Bolanle’s naivete pushes her to be friendly and reach out to them which leads them to suspect that it’s just a clever plot against them.

Baba Segi is rather insecure and has grown accustomed to the household revolving around him and everyone seeking his permission before making a move. The first three wives have learned how to stroke Baba Segi’s ego and manipulate him to get or do whatever they want. Bolanle has had a different life experience than the others and without fully understanding the flow and expectations of the household she sometimes unknowingly commits breaches of protocol.

When she has an idea or wants to do something, she just does it. Yet, such is the household that her making seemingly insignificant decisions such as leaving a room without asking permission is a big deal. Without knowing why Bolanle has become a catalyst for discomfort within the household. The wives immediately regard her as a potential problem and Baba Segi slowly begins to share their feelings as well.

We get a glimpse into how Baba Segi and Bolanle met and began seeing each other but it’s largely from Baba Segi’s perspective. It seems they met and he was attracted to her while she thought that he was nice. But it becomes clear that there were some details about her life before their marriage that have not been shared with Baba Segi. That’s not to say that she lied to him but rather that they likely didn’t spend enough time getting to know each other and discussing their expectations before getting married.

It turns out that Bolanle is not against becoming pregnant and as Teacher assumed is open to visiting a doctor with Baba Segi to figure out why they haven’t conceived a child. The entire exchange at the hospital offers insight into Baba Segi’s psyche. He storms through the place like a bull in a china shop. It’s not a matter of him not having much of an education because you don’t have to go to school to learn manners. The bigger problem has more to do with him living in a very closed world where achieving financial success has allowed him to stagnate as a person. There’s a difference between book sense and common sense and there’s value in both. But in Baba Segi’s case, he seems to have none of either and it shows in the way that he moves through the world.

A simple thing like going to the doctor with him is an entire ordeal. You get the sense that he’s never been to a medical doctor before. Visiting a hospital is a new and uncomfortable experience for him and to deal with his discomfort, he takes offense at everything. Refusing to ask for or accept directions he instead stamps around the hospital going in the wrong direction until Bolanle gently redirects him. Basic questions about what brings them to the hospital are met with his overly aggressive and hostile responses. When asked demographic questions, he speaks over Bolanle to the point where the nurse becomes annoyed and asks why Bolanle can’t speak for herself.

It becomes clear that when Baba Segi doesn’t know something or feels out of control he responds by becoming aggressive or shutting down. He can’t bear anyone giving him advice or telling him what to do. They meet with the doctor and begin discussing their experience thus far with trying to conceive. Their infertility as a couple, if they are infertile, can be a result of a medical issue with her, him, or both of them. Yet, he automatically assumes that Bolanle is likely barren.

The doctor asks questions that seem typical for discussing reproductive health yet he’s offended by everything. Part of this might be because the doctor is a man asking Bolanle about her menstrual cycle and their sex life. These are intimate questions but to be expected and I would also assume that a physical exam would be required at some point.

Granted some terms used by the doctor are unfamiliar which leads to Baba Segi becoming upset. He feels like they’re talking around and trying to make fun of him because of his comparable lack of education. The nurse did a double-take upon learning that Bolanle was a university grad because it doesn’t seem to make sense that she’d be with Baba Segi. I felt sorry for him because it was obvious that he was uncomfortable but his behavior was also unacceptable. The doctor at one point threatened to call security because he was getting out of control and disrupting the appointment.

Often when we think of the pressure placed on people to get married and have children it seems to be aimed at women. And thus we think of women, their identities, and their sense of self-worth as being tied up in marriage and having children. Yet, in this case, a large part of Baba Segi’s identity is tied to his wives and children. Having this fourth wife who is young and beautiful but has given birth to no children is a poor reflection on her but also a poor reflection on him. He feels that the suspicions expressed by the other men might be true and he will become a laughing stock.

He’s then shocked into silence upon learning that Bolanle had sexual experiences before they met. And not just that but her first experience was around 15 and she became pregnant around 16 though that pregnancy was terminated. Surprisingly, Baba Segi didn’t seem angry but rather became very subdued.

This was another instance where I found myself questioning how well these two knew each other before getting married. They’d been married for two years at this point, the courtship seemed short but was there an engagement? I don’t think you have to tell your partner about everyone you’ve dated or sexual partners unless it might affect your relationship in the present (ie: it resulted in children, the person is a relative/friend of theirs, the person might pose a danger, etc.). But wouldn’t there be at least a basic overview of your past? You guys don’t have conversations where you mention the basics of what went wrong or right in previous relationships and what you’re looking for/need now?

It’s revealed that Bolanle had been consensually sexually active but her pregnancy was separate from that relationship and had been a result of rape. Experiencing a sexual assault or rape is something that a lot of people keep to themselves as an unfortunate result of feeling shame or a host of other emotions. I would like to think that you should feel supported enough in your relationship to tell your husband or wife about having such a traumatic experience but I understand why some might choose to keep it to themselves. In this case, Bolanle has kept this to herself and the experience has changed her tremendously as a person in the sense that there is a clear divide in her personality as far as who she was before and the person she became after.

Her rape played a role in her decision to marry Baba Segi. Without understanding the catalyst, Bolanle’s mother (Mama Bolanle) was very upset that she married this older man with multiple wives. She worked hard to put Bolanle and her sister through school and then university. Mama Bolanle had high hopes that having obtained this education she would put it to use and find a job that would enable her to live a good life. Mama Bolanle regards polygamy as an antiquated way of living but also seems to dislike Baba Segi as a person. Bolanle married Baba Segi without her family’s approval but she still goes back to visit though there is now some distance between her and her mother.

By the time Bolanle arrived in Baba Segi’s household the other three wives were already dividing the resources he provided amongst themselves according to their pecking order. A fourth wife now meant they would each get a smaller piece of the pie. None of them are described as being any more or less beautiful than any of the other wives. Though Femi (third wife) is regarded as a sharp dresser who Baba Segi enjoys taking out to show off. Yet, Bolanle is younger than the other wives and there is fear that her youth and newness will make her Baba Segi’s favorite.

Baba Segi has been married to Segi his first wife for about 16 years so they have the longest history and are likely the closest in age. This would put Segi’s age at around the late 30s to 40 while Bolanle is now 25. The ages of the other two wives fall somewhere between. The oldest wife is seemingly the most mature though that’s not to be confused with kind as she’s with the foolishness too. It’s just that she’s more sure of herself and it’s reflected in her calculating demeanor.

The second wife, Tope is sympathetic towards Bolanle so when things start getting hectic she pulls back on trying to give Bolanle a hard time. Femi, the third wife, is the one who really brings drama to the story as she is lowkey borderline insane and becomes more of an instigator as the story progresses.

In addition to Baba Segi, none of the three wives have gone to school or obtained much of an education. In an attempt to get into their good graces, Bolanle offers to teach them how to read and write. Segi and Femi flippantly brush her off as they only deal with her when they must and regard this as her putting on airs.

Tope on the other hand is hungry to learn. It’s not a matter of having aspirations for a Ph.D. or some other big dream. She’d just like to learn at least the basics so that she can understand her kids’ schoolwork. But her lessons with Bolanle are cut short by the other wives dissuading her from interacting with the new wife.

Tope is sympathetic towards Bolanle as she doesn’t feel as threatened by her. She seems like a genuinely nice person, or at least she’s less petty and conniving in comparison to the other two wives. But given the structure of the household, and the pecking order, she’s torn between the two factions because in being overly kind to Bolanle she might end up finding herself ostracized as well. Thus when the other two wives begin to conspire against Bolanle, Tope tries to stay neutral as much as possible.

This lack of education in comparison to Bolanle inspires a lot of insecurity and because some of the wives are themselves doing wrong, they see offense where none is intended. They view her through their prejudices and insecurity causes them to assume that she’s looking down on them when she’s not. Bolanle is quite kind and makes efforts in good faith to be courteous but the other wives have already made up their minds to not like her.

With Baba Segi, Bolanle having been pregnant before but now being unable to conceive is cause for concern. His underlying insecurities come to the forefront as he views there being two possible explanations for the situation. One possibility is that Bolanle medically can’t have kids and the other is that she’s specifically choosing not to have children with him. He sees it as a possibility that she seduced him knowing that she could not or would not have children. This feeds his concern that she’s just with him for his money.

There’s a building undercurrent in their relationship that when things first began he was sweet, generous, and kind towards her. But he’s very preoccupied with proving his manhood by having children with each of his wives. With no children conceived, his feelings towards her began to change.

I enjoy books like this which have stories within stories. In this case, you get the background of Baba Segi’s four wives but also his story as well. Though the details differed, all four of the wives wound up married to Baba Segi due to problems within their family’s home though Bolane’s situation was further complicated by her rape.

Her father was an alcoholic who escaped from his responsibilities and difficulties in life by either physically leaving or through alcohol. To say Mama Bolane was overbearing is an understatement as she’s described as being very difficult and constantly browbeating her kids. She has never-ending criticisms, is never satisfied, and has nothing good to say.

She encouraged her daughters to go to school and get an education so they could do something positive with their lives. Part of this was advocating for them to live modern rather than traditional lives so their experiences would be more full. Parents should encourage their kids and be hands-on and actively involved to keep them on track. But some parents such as Mama Bolanle go overboard to the point that their demands and unrealistic expectations stress the kids out and have the opposite effect of their intent.

Bolanle looks back over her life and remembers coming home from school with great but maybe not perfect report cards. She’d fear having to face her mother as anything less than perfect would result in a complaint or punishment. To further give Bolanle a complex, Mama Bolane would browbeat her about her grades and complain she’s not trying hard enough only to turn around and tell her sister to be more like Bolanle. Mama Bolanle’s method of motivation was counterproductive and what was likely meant to encourage Bolanle instead destroyed her confidence and self-esteem.

After the rape, she felt like she couldn’t go to her mother and tell her what happened out of fear that it would be viewed as another disappointment. Thus it became a secret that she would carry with her. Over time the various traumas she’s experienced eat away at her. This is because instead of viewing herself, rightfully as a victim, she instead regards it as a failing on her part and feels as though she’d been defiled in some way.

As a young woman, Segi was quite ambitious and had various hustles that allowed her to earn and save quite a bit of money. She might not have attended school but was smart and used her mind to figure out how to provide for herself. Segi worked hard and rightfully took pride in what she achieved and prized her independence. But her mother was concerned that Segi being a female and openly displaying her wealth might make men in the neighborhood uncomfortable because they weren’t as financially secure. She feared that it would spark jealousy and insecurity which could lead them to violence.

Seeing that her money gave Segi pride and independence, Mama Segi’s solution was to arrange a marriage between Segi and Baba Segi. When Segi and Baba Segi first met, Segi still had burning ambitions to be independent. She had a great mind for business and upon entering Baba Segi’s household she used her business savvy to help establish and grow his business.

It’s unclear if she still plays a role in Baba Segi’s business but she is the one that actually runs their household. She distributes resources to the wives and is the one to figure out how to provide what anyone in the household might need or want. For all intents, Segi is the power behind the throne running things from the shadows. She realizes that Baba Segi is insecure and needs to feel like he’s in control. Having been together for so long and knowing Baba Segi the best, she can often easily manipulate him into doing whatever it is that she wants.

Tope’s father worked on one of Baba Segi’s farms and he arranged their marriage as a result of a crop failure which put him in arrears with Baba Segi. She too dreams of independence but her ideal situation doesn’t involve money or other assets. Instead, she would like the freedom to live a simple life where she can once again experience the freedom she felt at having her hands in the soil.

Unlike the other wives or even Baba Segi, Femi comes from a financially comfortable family and lived a rather privileged life until her parents passed away. She was still very young when her parents died and family members grabbed up their assets before casting her into a life of poverty. She spent years working as a servant to people who treated her horribly. Being downtrodden took the fight out of her and it felt like she’d never find a way out until she was introduced to Christianity by chance.

Femi is a prime example of hurt people hurting people. She’d been kicked around as a child and young woman and those wounds have scarred her as a person. When the opportunity arose she got revenge on the people that wronged her and now sees herself as being chosen. Femi is devoutly religious to the point of being a fanatic and puts a great deal of faith in “prophets” at her church which sounds like high-ranking members. Having come through her hardships she sees herself as being good and anyone she perceives as being a threat or against her as evil.

Baba Segi isn’t a bad husband on purpose I guess but rather because he’s clueless. He doesn’t treat his wives terribly but because of his ignorance, Baba Segi doesn’t really know how to make them happy and content. Part of the issue is that his wives tend to lie to him instead of having honest conversations about his shortcomings.

As he and Bolanle go through the process of fertility testing, Baba Segi’s limited understanding becomes more evident. Bolanle goes through the required tests and they now need him to undergo testing as well. It turns out that Baba Segi has been sexually active with his wives and understands the basics of how to conceive a child. But for the most part, his sexual experience has been less motivated by pleasure and more by his overwhelming desire to have as many children as possible. He’s not concerned with being a good lover to his wives or even enjoying himself. Conceiving children is the mission and he’s focused on getting the job.

Baba Segi has to visit the doctor’s office to provide a sample and is completely lost when placed in a room by himself. Being embarrassed or uncomfortable in such an environment would be understandable. But in his case, he doesn’t know what to do to produce a sample on his own without assistance. And he becomes frustrated as occurs throughout the book when he doesn’t know or understand something.

This is a grown man in his 40s who isn’t sexually inexperienced but there’s just so much that he doesn’t know about the world or himself. He’s able to complete the mission despite being out of touch with his own body. But he then feels a sense of shame as he worries about what his family, friends, or employees might think. I sympathized with him because it showed that while his wives were going through their issues, he is as well. And none of them are talking to each other about their internal hardships or insecurities. Baba Segi doesn’t strike me as a bad guy but he’s trying to fit the expectations of what his society tells him a man should be even if he doesn’t quite understand why or this isn’t really who he is or wants to be.

Throughout The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives we see that because of the culture, children are very highly prized. Regardless of whatever other success you might have, life is viewed as being incomplete without children. Not even necessarily being happily married but specifically having children. For women being a mother and for men being a father. Not having children reflects negatively on that individual’s manhood or womanhood. Being unable to conceive or not having children is seen as a personal flaw and internalized as a failing. This might be decreasing in America but is arguably still a widely held view.

Something pretty interesting here which also exists in the real world is that often any fertility issues are assumed to be on the part of the female. Men and women contribute to conceiving a child but an outsized proportion of responsibility for reproduction and raising children falls to women. Sure, Baba Segi already has children so one would assume that he is fertile. But biologically speaking he’s now a middle-aged man and it’s been a while since one of his wives has been pregnant. It’s natural for people’s bodies to change over time. Yet, he’s caught off guard at the idea that he would also need to be part of the assessment of their fertility as a couple.

Segi’s and Femi’s plotting begins as petty behavior but escalated to uncomfortable pranks and finally dangerous measures. In my mom’s culture, there’s a saying that when you dig a hole for someone else, make sure you dig two. One for the person you’re plotting against but also a second so there’s one for you as well. Meaning that when you plot and scheme against other people you should prepare yourself for bad things to happen to you as well.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives begins innocently enough but became a page-turner as the story unfolded through twists and revelations. I was drawn into the story from the beginning but became even more vested after getting a bit of background on each character. It made everyone feel fleshed out. With all of the plotting and scheming, it reminded me of a milder Game of Thrones where allies and enemies change and no one feels safe as they compete for resources.

I find that with poorly written books the characters tend to be saints or devils but fortunately, that’s not the case here. The characters are very complex with both good and bad points. They do bad things but it’s typically for understandable reasons. Learning everyone’s backstory puts their motivations into context where you sympathize and understand. Understanding their backstory doesn’t excuse their actions but helps to explain their motivations. They might not be good but as The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives progresses, you come to care about what happens to them. I began to want them to get the things they wanted for themselves but didn’t necessarily agree with the means that they were attempting to use.

I’ve just touched on the surface level of things but there are quite a few twists and turns that will draw you in and keep the story chugging along. Although this is a work of fiction, both the characters and story felt realistic as this is something that could truly happen. Polygamy is a theme within The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives as it’s used to shed light on these women strategizing against each other to obtain resources for themselves and their children.

But you can also look at the story and apply it to life in general with people trying to get and obtain things for themselves. The pressures of society to progress along a predetermined path and have certain things in your life. That doesn’t have to just be material possessions but even experiences and relationships to be valued and respected within society. Pressure to do, be, and otherwise live up to these expectations can sometimes lead to people doing unsavory things in desperation. And they can go through all of that and end up unhappy at the end because they’re clinging to or have chased after things that are at odds with what they truly need and value.

There are quite a few themes and topics explored here one of which is tradition versus change and more modern ways of doing things. There’s a contrast between polygamous versus monogamous marriages though neither is shown as being perfect. My preferences don’t have to suit anyone else or vice versa so I don’t have an issue with either kind of marriage though I’m not interested in being in a polygamous marriage. It seems like what’s more important is paying attention to why people in a relationship are getting married and how they see things playing out as a couple. Failure to discuss these important topics and keeping secrets seem like the key to unhappiness.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is an incredible book and I started stressing a bit as I got closer to the end. I consider that the mark of a great book. When you’re reading and you just don’t want the book to end. The story is so engrossing that you want to spend more time with the characters. That’s not to say that I felt anything was left unfinished or unresolved within the story but rather that it was just so enjoyable. It was just the perfect length with nothing here that felt like fluff.

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