While Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was unsuccessful in ridiculing patriarchy in African society, it wasn’t a perfect feminist novel either, Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy reviews
Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is a humorous tale which revolves around a paterfamilias, Baba Segi, and his four wives—Iya Segi, Iya Femi, Iya Tope, and Bolanle. It so happens that while illiterate Baba Segi goes around bragging about his conquests as an accomplished polygamist (his fourth and latest being a university graduate to boot) and how he dominates his household, it is revealed that our proud man is just a soldier without ammunition, or a paper tiger.
Worried about his fourth wife’s infertility, Baba Segi comes to discover that he is actually the one afflicted with sterility and that his purported children from his first three wives were actually fathered by other men. We also come to see that his idea of control over his household is a figment of his imagination as his home is actually run by his first wife, Iya Segi.
The story is told using the voice of the characters alongside that of the narrator. By allowing the characters tell their own sides of the story, we obtain profound insights into their personality and history. I wonder if combining the voices of the characters with that of the narrator was necessitated by the inadequacy of using the characters’ voices only or perhaps the writer felt compelled to bring in a narrator to embellish the tale. However, this has little effect on our enjoyment of the story.
Reading through the story, I could not help noticing that it is pro-feminist and a veiled attack against the institution of patriarchy, albeit an unsuccessful one, as the images of men in the story are largely negative.
From the man who raped Bolanle to Igbo fabric merchants who “tugged women slightly by the sleeve” (23) in the marketplace, or Bolanle’s father who is portrayed as a weakling and a drunk, or maybe it is Segun who is a philanderer or his father who endorses his son’s virility and is himself famed for Casanovan endeavours. Men are all cast in solid negative lights.
You may argue that these are minor characters but other characters do not fair better too. Tunde who is Mama Femi’s lover is the hedonist who takes advantage of the household help and later abandons her to travel abroad. Iya Femi’s uncle is the cruel man who gives his brother’s daughter out as a maid so as to snatch her inheritance. Iya Tope’s father gladly gives out his daughter’s hand in marriage to his benefactor as compensation for a bad year’s farm yield. Taju is the rogue driver stealing ‘meat’ from his ‘master’s kitchen’, and Baba Segi himself is portrayed as an anachronic buffoon who farts in his living room before his wives and children immediately after dinner and regurgitates all over his dress whenever he hears or sees anything unpalatable. Even Teacher who appears to have some level of decency at the beginning of the tale has his own designs on Baba Segi.
What one normally expects in a story as this is a foil to propagate the authoress’s expectations of an ‘ideal man’, but this is clearly missing. Since this character type is missing, perhaps then we could look to the female characters for a contrasting feminist heroine but there exists none, for the female characters are a disappointment in this wise.
Aside Iya Tope, the other two wives have an existential outlook to life. Iya Segi is hardly the woman to look up to as she is more concerned about securing Baba Segi’s wealth which she thinks of as ‘her investment’. To make sure of this, she seduces her husband’s driver to get pregnant twice.
Iya Femi is an evil-minded church-going woman who also sees Baba Segi as someone she could latch unto to escape poverty and hardship. To ensure their position in Baba Segi’s household remains stabilised, both women would hatch a plan of eliminating Bolanle via poison, a plan which boomerangs.
What I find most disconcerting is that these two women come from a background where women were maligned and degraded, but given the slightest opportunity they visit their spleen on Bolanle, their rival but a fellow woman too. If even women oppress fellow women, could we still say patriarchy is the problem?
Still on the search for a feminist heroine, Bolanle’s role in the story, aside from helping the story reach a denouement, is almost insignificant. Bolanle herself must have sensed this role when she describes Baba Segi’s reaction towards her leaving thus: “it was as if it had just dawned on him that our paths had crossed for a purpose and we were never meant to be together” (166). Unlike the character of Liza in Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband has Gone Mad Again, Bolanle will be leaving Baba Segi’s household pretty much the same way she meets it. The women are none the wiser and have subjected themselves to even stricter measures under Baba Segi’s domination.
I believe that while the authoress sets out to ridicule Baba Segi and puncture his heightened sense of an accomplished polygamist, she inadvertently ends up making us pity him for like Iya Segi, he is but a victim of the social standards of his time.
Iya Segi, brought up by her mother to see men as evil, initially wanted to work and amass wealth for herself; maybe break away from societal norms and get involved with another woman (I believe the hint at homosexuality is to pander to western audience). But her mother saw her attachment to money as an evil urge which ought to be suppressed. So, she cajoled the younger Iya Segi into marrying the man who would later be known as Baba Segi.
In revealing this past, we are made to come to the understanding that women’s fate in life are often determined by society. The same could be said of Iya Femi who was forced into becoming a house help because she was a girl who could not inherit her father’s estate, and Iya Tope whose father willingly discards to appease a benefactor for a bad year’s yield.
In a similar vein, Baba Segi did not ask to inherit Iya Segi’s amassed wealth, he does not even know how his mother came across the huge amount of money she bequeathed to him. But he knows what is expected of a man of his newly acquired status in the kind of society he lives; he should take more wives and populate his household with children and that is exactly what he does.
You see, the reason why other men in the tale revere and envy Teacher, is because of his nonconformist attitude as he is not subject to the wiles of the flesh and societal demands. Teacher is looked upon as one in a million as only a few can go against the temptations offered by society.
But back to Baba Segi, one cannot say that he is a bad husband or father. He does not rule his household with an iron fist and tries his best not to be partial to his wives. Even after he comes to the knowledge that Segi is not his biological daughter, he mourns her death still.
At the end, he exhibits grace by accepting the children borne in his household as his, so long it remains a family secret. Hence, one may wonder if Baba Segi truly deserves the kind of cruel fate he gets at the end while the wives are easily let off the hook.
But if Shoneyin thinks she has given patriarchy a punch in the face, she has failed since, at the end, it is still Baba Segi making the rules in his household with his three wives still subservient to his control and dependent on him for their survival.
He restricts his wives’ movements, bans them from engaging in business activities, and orders Iya Segi to relinquish every kobo made in her business (which would now be closed down) in return for his favours and they all willingly agree. Ha! Talk of women empowerment!
At that point, I began to wonder if Baba Segi remembers the lesson he learnt from his ordeal and which he passes on to Akin, his ‘son’:
“Before you go, child, I have some words for you.” Baba Segi started abruptly; his eyes unnaturally eager. “Keep these words in your left hand lest you wash them away after eating with your right. When the time comes for you to marry, take one wife and one wife alone. And when she causes you pain, as all women do, remember it is better that your pain comes from one source alone. Listen to your wife’s words, listen to the words she doesn’t speak so that you will be prepared. A man must always be prepared.” (161)
I half-expected the wives to leave Baba Segi and chart their own future as well as their children as with most feminist tales, but it appears that Shoneyin is averse to the idea of family fragmentation. However, in imposing even stricter measures on his household, Baba Segi is certainly not listening to his own advice to Akin and appears to be setting himself up for even greater disaster.
Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is a humorous story I shall gladly pay to see on stage or in cinema. I can already visualise the popular Yoruba actor, Kayode Aderupoko, as Baba Segi. He seems a perfect fit for such a funny role and would carry the character well.
The novel creates such memorable characters and unforgettable comic scenes that would leave one reeling with laughter long after reading the novel. Although I would have preferred the characters narrate their stories without a narrator’s intervention, my enjoyment of the story remains unhampered.
Nonetheless, I think Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is an unsuccessful endeavour at ridiculing the concept of patriarchy in African society and were I to subject the novel to the feminist ideology, I would not select it as a perfect feminist novel.
Rotimi, Ola. Our Husband has Gone Mad Again. Ibadan: University Press, 1997. Print.
Shoneyin, Lola. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Epub Edition.
© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2022