A novel, a play and three women on the politics of polygamy, and what can change it.
“I will not give up on them. I will bring light to their darkness,” announces the feisty, damaged hero of Lola Shoneyin’s poignant, gripping, jaw-to-the-floor hilarious 2010 novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
Set in Shoneyin’s home town of Ibadan, Nigeria, it shadows the academically gifted but domestically naive graduate Bolanle (a Yoruba name, pregnant here with irony, meaning “find wealth at home”) and her struggle to adapt to, and escape from, her life as the fourth and youngest wife of Baba Segi, a prosperous, corpulent building materials dealer.
After two years of marriage, Bolanle has failed to add to the offspring provided by the three other matriarchs, and a visit to a maternity clinic with her fretting husband is the catalyst of the pungent crisis to follow.
The book has now been adapted into a one-woman show by storyteller Maimouna Jallow, who performed the piece on June 15 to a full house at Nairobi’s Goethe Institute.
The event was the latest in the ongoing Artistic Encounters series organized by South African novelist and journalist Zukiswa Wanner, and with Shoneyin also in attendance, there was a unique opportunity to talk to all three women about the prickly, convoluted drama inherent in the internal politics of polygamous marriages.
The novel is based on the bare bones of a true story related to Shoneyin by a childhood friend.
“So, what I then had to do was decide what each wife’s story was going to be,” she says.
“What do I want this character to embody? Bolanle’s situation, for me, was very much about sexual violence. And depression, which sometimes people would rather not admit exists.”
Bolanle is a complex persona, occasionally abrasive in her condescension towards the illiteracy and feral guile of the other wives, but never less than exhilarating – we cannot but cheer her defiant intellect and resolute grit. Her decision to squander her education and surrender to a smothering polygamous union is rooted in the open psychic wound of her rape by a wealthy stranger, committed when she was still in high school, and the subsequent backstreet abortion recommended by a callow paramour.
“I knew Baba Segi wouldn’t be like younger men who demanded explanations for the faraway look in my eye,” she narrates. “I chose this family to regain my life, to heal in anonymity.”
Her pain is exacerbated by the frequent and sourly-articulated disappointment of her mother, who is unwilling to believe that a daughter equipped with such rare and precious intelligence would move in with “an overfed orangutan”.
Confronted with the burden of dashed maternal aspirations, Bolanle yearns for societal solace; instead, she discovers only an oppressive new universe of strife, before her resilience – and a delicious key twist in the plot – delivers a rousing psychological and emotional triumph.
“There is this pressure on a woman of the expectation of marriage,” says Wanner.
“The one thing that really struck me about Bolanle is that she would rather be in a polygamous relationship than not being married at all – because she doesn’t know whether she’ll still be able to conceive.”
It is striking that many of the characters in the novel, male and female, hunger for the reassurance of love, driven by the terror of abandonment.
“After having performed it several times, I then re-read the book a few weeks ago. And there was a layer to Bolanle that I realized I had completely excluded from the performance,” says Jallow.
“I saw her as a victim, but she’s still very much a strong woman who believes in the power of education, and who can still have a positive influence in this household.”
Jallow’s electric adaptation strips the narrative down to the individual histories of Bolanle and the three older wives: the tyrannical and materialistic lesbian Iya Segi, the kind and unworldly Iya Tope, and the cunning, weaponized glamour of Iya Femi, arguably the novel’s most fascinating personality, whom Jallow brings to life with particular swagger and relish.
“When I am transitioning from Iya Tope to Iya Femi, I do a little dance in front of the mirror,” she says. These histories are the empathetic heart and soul of the story, providing psychological context for the characters’ most mischievous, startling, horrifying choices.
“Baba Segi’s wives spoke to me the minute I read the book,” Jallow says. “All I could think about was that these women needed to be given a physical body and voice, to be accessible to new audiences. Lola’s writing is so vivid, her characters so alive, that it just seemed natural that they should be adapted into theater.”
While the novel’s depiction of polygamy, and, by implication, the swelling phenomenon of the ‘benefactor’, ‘blesser’ or ‘sponsor’, is almost uniformly unflattering (at one stage, Bolanle even refers to the other wives as ‘inmates’, in what is probably the novel’s most unambiguous reference to enslavement and subjugation), Shoneyin says her feelings about these practices have softened.
“I shy away from being prescriptive, where consenting adults decide to engage in transactional relationships,” she says. “However, this continent needs leaders who recognize how critical it is that girls have access to the quality education, skills and opportunities they need to attain the economic independence they have a right to.”
She says she is aware that her own life has been blessed.
“I feel there must be something about my upbringing, or my country, that have put me in a situation where I am never afraid to break into spaces women didn’t occupy before. When I want to do something creative, I do it. I force my way and I make it happen.” She smiles her blazing smile. “And that’s how I’m raising my daughters.” – Written by Alastair Hagger
– Jallow will perform The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, Edinburgh, from October 20 to 31