Thursday 8 May 2014

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

Bolanle is the fourth wife of Baba Segi, and she is childless.  Already an outsider in the family home as the only wife to hold a university degree, her inability to conceive gives the other wives ammunition against her. First wife Iya Segi sees Bolanle as a threat to her dominance, third wife Iya Femi doesn't like being upstaged by a newcomer, and second wife Iya Tope is beaten down and unable to speak up on Bolanle's behalf. Seen as snobbish and different, Bolanle is isolated and unwelcome.  Finally, Baba Segi decides to take Bolanle to the hospital, where the medical investigations into Bolanle's fertility have some unexpected results, exposing the secrets of all the wives.

I've seen The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives described elsewhere as a tragicomedy, and that label is just perfect for it.  Shoneyin deals with some pretty weighty issues like the role of women in Nigerian society, the views of different classes on polygamy and domestic abuse, but it's always done with a light touch and a bit of black humour.  Baba Segi wants to keep his wives hidden away, announces that Bolanle's infertility shames him and doesn't hesitate to assault her, but he's also a comically pathetic figure, bought down by the women in his life.  Shoneyin's talent for finding the humour and pathos in tragic situations means that the book never feels too depressing or preachy.

As I read The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives, I was most interested in the examination of the role of women in Nigeria.  There's references to domestic violence being seen as a waste of police time, a woman discussing her rape is assumed to be a liar and women are frowned upon for wearing trousers.  Through the wives' stories and the power they had seized for themselves over the course of their marriage, Shoneyin's novel is quietly feminist, and we get to see glimpses of a newer Nigeria, in which women are more valued. Of course, whilst I was reading this novel, the news was full of the story about the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian schoolgirls and the intent to sell them into slavery, so it's clear that women still have a long way to go.

I really would recommend The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives.  It examines some interesting issues through a story that is quick, engaging and a lot of fun to read.  If I had the time, I could have read it all in one sitting. It shines a light on a polygamous marriage in Africa in a non-judgemental way and it's a book that hasn't really left my thoughts since I finished reading it.

Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 2009
Score: 5 out of 5


  1. I read this one a few years ago and was quite taken with it. This, plus Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, has been on my mind with the terrible recent news.

  2. It seems like the timing was perfect (or terrible?) for reading this one. This sounds like a powerful read.

  3. I've never heard of this one, but it sounds fascinating.

  4. Lovely review again. Sounds like my kind of book!

  5. I read this book a few years ago, but reading your review made me remember how much i liked it. I think it was one of the first ebooks i read! Thanks.

  6. I heard about this just last week (and was spoiled the ending) and I loved it. Now I have seen a couple of bloggers review it and I think I should read it as well.

  7. This one is an amazing book! I loved it when I read it a few years ago. I liked how it is written in a very casual manner and yet it talks about important issues.