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

This story is told from the perspectives of Baba Segi and his wives. It follows the story of the patriarch Baba Segi and his four wives and how his need for more children opened a can of worms he was unprepared for. This book is pure drama and is set in a typical African home.

First, let’s talk about the Alao (Baba Segi’s) household and how it so much represents a typical African home.

  • The wives were not allowed to work, well, except Iya Segi, the first wife.
  • They cooked in turns and slept with their husband in turns
  • Iya Segi was in charge of distribution in the Alao household. Whatever quantity of provisions she gave, you took without question.
  • They had a tradition of earning armchairs in the house. This meant that no wife had a comfortable seat. You were not entitled to one unless you were pregnant, breastfeeding, or watching over toddlers.
  • The male children were the pride of the household
  • Baba Segi was the sole provider

Baba Segi represents the typical African man who is loud and boastful of his conquest (conquest of women especially). His pride is in his children, especially his male children. His wife or wives must respect him, honor him and treat him as the center of their worlds. In fact, he is the center of their world, and he becomes that through the power he wields over them: financial power.

He, in turn, would take care of them. He would provide for their every need and every whim. And for the African man, sex is beyond just pleasure. It’s not even pleasure at all, judging from how Bolanle describes their sex life- no romance, no kissing, nothing. He just empties himself into her and stands up, no post-coital conversations or smooching. Absolutely nothing! That emptying of his sack must yield fruits, which are children.

One interesting thing to note about Baba Segi was that he was open-ended. Lola describes him as a man whose senses were directly connected to his gut.

“Baba Segi could never keep things in. He was open-ended. His senses were directly connected to his gut and what didn’t agree with him had a way of accelerating his digestive system. Bad smells, bad news and the sight of anything vaguely repulsive had an expulsive effect: what went in through his mouth recently shot out through his mouth, and what was already settled in his belly sped through his intestines and out of his rear end. Only after clearing his digestive system could Baba Segi regain calm.”

Another thing I found interesting about Baba Segi, which is rare for African fathers, is their display of emotions for their kids. Anytime he came home from the shop, all the kids and wives would pour out of their rooms just to greet him. He touched each child with love. In Lola’s words, he made each child feel extraordinary. I really loved that about Baba Segi.

Iya Segi, the first wife of Baba Segi, was the woman who was pivotal to the success of Baba Segi, unknown to him. Iya Segi, having learned the business of fufu making from her mother, was very successful. She made a lot of money and was rich in her own right as a young girl, and this worried her mother. She worried that no man would marry her daughter because of her wealth, so she devised a plan to marry her daughter off. She gifted all her daughter’s money to this man, who happened to be Baba Segi, so he could marry her.

Iya Segi did not forget this, and she hated it because she loved money, and at that point, we could not miss seeing that Iya Segi had a thing for girls. She was daydreaming and chasing a tomato seller at that point. We cannot pretend not to see that what Lola tried to do subtly is to show how queer people adjust their lives just to fit in a homophobic society.

Later in the book, we see her ogle Bolanle’s friend. That was a way of Lola saying that queerness exists in the older generation and that just because they married and had kids is not an automatic queerness fix. You don’t become straight just because you conform to the status quo. It also shows that queerness is not limited to the same sex; you can like men and still like women.

Also, Iya Segi’s anger in the beginning about marrying Baba Segi and her money given to him did not ebb as she plotted on how to leave him. She was the only one in that household who worked, had shops, and made money.

Her leaving was just a matter of time.

When Baba Segi found out the lie he was living and the foolery he was subjected to by his wives, led by Iya Segi, you would think that it was the opportune moment for Iya Segi to leave the house. After all, she had it all. Her feeling remorseful and easy acquiescence to Baba Segi’s demands to give all her money to him and close down her shops was something we were not expecting as we had been groomed to believe that she wanted independence.

But that is what grief and loss do to you. It breaks you, makes you vulnerable, it scatters your best-laid plans.

Bolanle was the wife who came to spoil it all. Bolanle, a graduate, expected to aspire for more, to her parents’ disappointment, ended up marrying a polygamist as a 4th wife. No one understood Bolanle’s actions, but for Bolanle, all she wanted was a place to hideaway. It wasn’t for Baba Segi’s money. She felt unseen and dirty. The rape made her feel dirty, irrelevant, not worthy of anyone, and so when Baba Segi showed interest in her, she immediately settled for him, a polygamist.

It was Bolanle’s marriage to Baba Segi that undid everything in the Alao household.

The most sordid story that got me was Iya Femi’s. She had been through a lot . Life had dealt with her, and everything she did was calculated, including who fathered her children. I admired her audacity and bravery.

This book shows us what patriarchy is like, and it tells us how patriarchy manifests in a household, the gendered roles that exist, and the importance of children in a patriarchal household.

The saddest event for me was the death of Segi, but it was a necessary evil. Not once was Baba Segi sorry for pressurizing his wives to give him children, and not once did we see that he owned up to his fault, not once!

A true reflection of a patriarchal society.

In a patriarchal society, women hardly wi. There are no happy endings for women, only acquiescence and servitude to the men in their lives. And men remain the most powerful benefactors of patriarchy. Women remain the ones who must always feel “shame,” ashamed for their choices, actions, and living.

They are the sorry “creatures “and second-class citizens of society.

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