The first time I was exposed to Lola Shoneyin’s classic was in 2013. I was a teenager and had just read an article in The Guardian newspaper, which cloaked the story within a paged vision of tossed about clothing, boxes of threesomes and gloriously naked bodies. It described the story as peculiar, yet, labelled it a content imbued with a knack for corrupting cultural values and encouraging sexual improprieties. You will almost think it was a printed version of indigenous homemade porno. Nevertheless, something about that review made me want to own the book but it was certainly not because the book was described as containing graphic sexual scenes.
I took myself, one Saturday, to the presence of my favourite bookseller, Mr Bishop. This man was my father’s neighbour and as his name symbolises, he was an avid Christian. Unfortunately, he did not have the book but he presented a copy of Charles Dickens’ “A Tales Of Two Cities” for my consideration as he tried to encourage me to disregard the works of an “unknown author”. Truthfully, Charles Dickens is part of the known and concisely, renowned, but my tabularsa-ish mind wanted to ask Mr Bishop why an eighteen fifty-nine (1859) novel was still being shelved in 2013. However, my mouth insisted on “The secret lives of baba segi’s wives”. I was temporarily denied and was directed to come in a fortnight.
Two weeks passed and I resumed my meditative foray. I arrived as planned and in a moment after I have recounted my mission to the bookseller, recognition shone in his eyes. This was slowly replaced by irritation and was reflexive in his words, when he said in pidgin well dipped in the waters of the East.
He was Igbo
“You this boy”, Mr Bishop said, pointing his annualry at me, “so you want to read sex?” he bellowed, stressing the word ‘sex’ as ‘sakes’.
Consequently, this outrage will make me avoid the book because Mr Bishop subsequently called it “one of the instruments of the devil and a passageway to hell”.
Few years after, I will learn that this schematic reaction is a deep-seated African perception of sex, the adept knowledge of which has been effortlessly prejudiced into something shameful, disgusting, and utterly incapable of yielding any productive fruit, no matter what form it wields, within a novel, structured through a short story, themed in a poem or featured in motion pictures. Once it comes with sex, it cannot make sense.
Some of this African prejudice is consciously imaged in Lola Shoneyin’s, “The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives”.
The character of Baba Segi displays an illiterate man with a towering ego founded on riches and libidinal prowess. You can almost call him a ‘ceremonial role model’. You see, an illiterate man who reclines on a longstanding and long-lasting wealth, hence possessing the capacity to painlessly marry four wives including a beautiful graduate, satisfy them substantially in a carefully organised timetable, and manage them to the point where conflicts barely occur, can be said to have achieved an uncommon feat. This was expressed in the opening chapter, where after waking up with the cringing Ìyá Tope, his third wife, Bàbà Segi reminisced about the pounding he dished out to Bolanle, his fourth wife “…till she was cross-eyed” , the book records, and regretted how all that pounding has refused to fill her belly with children.
However, ego was his blind spot. While not neglecting the existence of his offshore contemporaries, the workaday African man has, for centuries, retained a self-imposed prejudice. Asides, money, being distractingly good-looking and other value measurement meters, another thing of pride for the African Negroid is the ability to please a woman. Specifically, in bed. This extends to his capability to procreate. Just as he refuses to be labelled a “one-minute man”, it is an abomination to refer to him as an impotent. Hence, when he is called to the stand for the cross-examination of his libido, without thinking through or without an expert’s backing he pleads “Not guilty” thereby absolving himself of any conspiracy of committing what the society perceives is the offence of childlessness. Then, he discreetly turns the focus to his partner. This African prejudice blinded Baba Segi from seeing that the children his wives called theirs, were not his.
Another prejudice that rears itself in this book is the presumption of arrogance in educated people, no matter how sparingly educated. The first wife, Ìyá Segi without want of proof or clarification, judged the incoming educated wife as arrogant and unable to be humbled. Asides the inherent hatred that heralds the coming of a new wife in a multi-spousal atmosphere, there was unending reference to the pride of the educated and the perceived air of domination, they shouldered in mockery of the illiterate. This unfounded belief caused Bolanle, the new wife to be framed with witchcraft and almost seen off to kingdom come, ladled with poison.
Moreover, the subject of sex is cleverly demystified in thin stripes and short syllables. The f-word is used sparsely and there is a graphic description of sex that leaves the reader in the bedroom, even when the scene has well progressed. With this usage, Lola Shoneyin subtly mocks the Nigerian societal mind-set of sex.
Recently, after stalling for over 8 years, I discarded an ounce of my home training to finally watch STARZ television series “Spartacus”. Prior to this time, my psychic has been continually (and continuously) berated by the pornographic undertone this TV series portrays. Prejudice, as is its norm, coloured it with the ink of meaningless sex, gore, macabre violence and more sex that is meaningless. However, while this might be arguably true, it potentially averts the mind of any would-be viewer away from the historical significance of the story to the construct of the Roman Empire. While prejudice calmly turns its inherently blind eye from the subject of knowledge, the same, in the vein of “Spartacus”, will educate the viewers on the effort, employed by a band of professionals, who saw history, took it, scripted it, decorated it with flesh and, to the best of their abilities, represented it for viewership.
Finally, just as everyone has a voice, so does every piece of art, every poem, every story, every written article, essay and Lola Shoneyin’s book. The book calls for the truth, that truth well-concealed by society, by the common man that is ruled by his common sense, that truth which could have freed the mind of Mr Bishop, my neighbour and favourite bookseller, that beyond our wall of social prejudice, there is a paradise of knowledge, unknowingly hidden. Although, we might not know it today, in the words of Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, “the books that the world calls “immoral” are those that shows the world its own shame”