Friday 7 October 2011

"The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives" by Lola Shoneyin

CLR showcases Oyebanji Ayodele's analytical review of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives, a novel written by Lola Shoneyin. Savor!


Set in the ancient and 'complex' city of Ibadan alongside Ayilara (where both wisdom and promiscuity are on sale). Just like the city in which the story is set, there is a link to something as ancient as the city – Polygamy; the complexity of the story (unlike the city) which is as conspicuous as a soup stain on a bridal gown is also toned down by the simple language the author employs.

The Alao household is the crux of the whole story. Baba Segi, a rich and illiterate polygamist who is also confident of his libidinal ability decides to make his harem larger by adding Bolanle, a learned lady to his list of wives.  This makes the universal commodity of the wives – Baba Segi – very 'scarce.' Thus, envy crawls into the hearts of two of the older wives – Iya segi and Iya Femi – and they resort to showing Bolanle the exit route. Baba Segi who doesn't see beyond his insensitive nose does not know this. All he needs is a child from Bolanle. He 'screws' as hard as he can but the lady's stomach would not heed his sexual incantations. Then, Teacher, Baba Segi's friend gives his piece of advice – that Bolanle be taken to a hospital.

The quest for the cure for Bolanle's barrenness results in a revelation that rocks the Alao household. 

The conflict is resolved by Baba Segi's wisdom but perdition doesn't fail to pinch Iya Segi for indulging in so many horrible acts: 

The story is that which bothers on betrayal, innocence, promiscuity, triumph, hypocrisy, lust mingled with love and joy concocted with sadness.

What sense does a story make without apt characters? Or what sense does a character make without the story?  Lola's novel brings into limelight what suitable characters can make of a story and vice versa.

For a character like Baba Segi, illiteracy pervades all he does (even in bed). Despite all he goes through, he causes the reader to laugh and smell the stench his life produces. His wives present to the reader how plausible it is for the feminine folk to swim against the most violent storm their immediate niche triggers. Each of the wives has a reason for venturing into Baba Segi's household. The only reason that evokes in the reader a sort of pity is Bolanle's. Hear her speak:

'I chose this family to regain my life, to heal in anonymity…'

Really, she needs to regain her life after a traumatic experience.

The situation of the first three wives of Baba Segi gives an insight into what a story can make of its characters. Their husband's heart's desire causes them to be deceptive. Taju, Tunde and the meat seller are mere provisions of providence and Teacher, Baba Segi's friend, confidant and partner is a very important character. His case is better summarized with this proverbial saying:

'That an Islamic cleric's head is not fertile enough to support hair growth is nothing, the chin is always there to serve as a better location'

What he lacks in some areas, he possesses intellectually. Obliquely, Teacher's advice settles the conflict in the novel. Unlike Baba Segi, he deciphers the best way to solve problems as they crop up. His trait is in contrast to Baba Segi's who is both illiterate and insensitive.

What LAYMEN will call obscene and lewd in Lola Shoneyin's diction, I'll say makes her work factual and detailed ('open'). The diction keeps the reader glued to the ebb and flow of the storyline. Shoneyin tries to make use of her concise language: a product of the amalgamation of the White man's language and the narrator's creative Ibadan patois to 'torch' the thatch that has rested for centuries on the rigidly planted poles of African culture. This is the age of enlightenment and thus, Lola has afforded the youths the opportunity to allude to the Yoruba proverb:
Afefe ti fe; a ti ri idi adiye.
The breeze has blown;
The hen's feather-concealed anus is revealed.

The question the author puts forward to any analytical reader is: 'Why do we need to be hypocritical when it comes to bedroom issues?' and I believe she is justified. If at all Shoneyin is to be criticized, criticize her not for her diction, but for having such a strange taste that she almost exhausted the sex register.

Shoneyin at a reading in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife some months back said confidently:

'I'm a feminist…'

To that, I say:


Feminism has always shared the same meaning with egalitarianism but with a different facelift – the voices and fists may not be vigour-nourished but they bear on them the scars that breed in their owners indefatigability. Imagine African women, who don't see anything wrong in peeling off the textile skins on their breasts just to make sure that their grievances are eviscerated.

Feminism in Shoneyin is balanced. Balanced? The work doesn't fail to sight the need for emancipation, not for the feminine folk alone but also for their masculine counterparts.

The issue of emancipation arises in the novel as the feminine folk are seen as mere sex machines. None of the male characters in the novel shows their female counterparts the regard they deserve but the real lesson Shoneyin wants to teach becomes overt in Baba Segi's advice to Akin:
'When the time comes for you to marry, take one wife and one wife alone… listen to your wife's words…'
And that is what emancipation means to the womenfolk: freedom of expression and attention without intrusion.

The balance comes when Shoneyin shows that females can also hold their masculine counterparts captives through their deceptive, obstinate, hypocritical and impudent nature. The result is totally unfair to the masculine folk. Discrimination aside!  This is still obtainable in the non-fictional world.

The narration is another aspect one cannot but touch. It serves as the backbone of suspense, which pervades the piece. The narrative technique is as eclectic as the diction. Thus, the narrator is not the altruistic type that helps the characters to open their mouths as well as live their lives. He leaves them at the centre of the proscenium to struggle with their strengths and weaknesses. None of them is denied the freedom of expression, not even Taju, Baba Segi's driver.

This type of narration helps the story to develop and unfold at its own pace making the exposition as detailed as possible. You can imagine each of the major characters narrating their pasts as well as their roles and perceptions as regards the conflict.

'The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives' is such a mature and stinking opulent work. It is told in a dramatic way by the funniest and most sincere story-teller. From the day the book is picked and till the read is completed, the reader cannot but 'murder darlings' for this new-found darling to be fully savoured.

Oyebanji Ayodele could be contacted via


  1. The 3rd paragraph ruins this review as well as my desire to read on. The way a conflict is resolved in a book under review, should never be revealed. Otherwise, why should the reader want to read the book? This particular novel has been done a disservice time and again by reviewers who spill the beans. 'The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives' hinges on a crucial secret, and this reviewer, like many others, has let the cat out of the bag. More's the pity.

  2. @Wordsbody. Thanks for the observation. The review has been re-edited and the spoilers in the review taken care of. Thank you.

  3. Wordsbody thanks for that observation