“I don’t know how to be a hypocrite,” says the refreshingly outspoken poet and novelist Lola Shoneyin. This, one of many bold statements made by the Nigerian author, perhaps is the reason she has no qualms speaking openly on whatever issues are close to her heart; be they the socio-political challenges facing her native land or the state of feminism in the West. Shoneyin’s latest book ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ and its audacious questioning of the validity of polygamy in contemporary Nigerian society, is indicative of the forthright manner with which she tackles uneasy topics.

Lola doesn’t underestimate the value of creativity as a platform which, understandably, has a bearing on which art form she chooses to express herself.

“I’ve seen myself as a poet for many years so it’s going to be difficult now to start describing myself as a novelist’ she reflects. ‘It’s like being asked which one of your children you like more. I find both forms really thrilling. Poetry is great for me because it’s short, it’s sharp, you can be witty; if you want you can be controversial. You can be anything you like in just a few lines… Whereas writing a novel or prose is totally different. There are times where one actually gets a little bit tired and you want to move on but I put that down to my restless spirit. Poetry works for me in that sense because I can just jump from idea to idea.”

This restlessness of spirit might be the reason why, unimpressed with sequels in general, Lola has no plans to do a follow-up to ‘The Secret Lives…’ stating that she has said all she needs to say about polygamy in the book. To be fair, Shoneyin is very vocal about her displeasure regarding this particular marital arrangement, in the novel as well as in interviews. She describes the different reaction she gets from the sexes.

“It’s funny; when you talk to women [they] understand my point of view immediately. My mother came from a polygamous home as well. Everyone knows a woman who’s been a wife in a polygamous household especially in Africa and they know how bitter they are. They’ve all seen this transformation – you have a beautiful, lovely young woman, they become a wife in a polygamous household and they change completely. Not because they want to but because [in] that small family set-up they have to become monsters to survive or else you will be beaten down or you could be killed as well, sometimes it’s that bad.

“So you’ve got to stick up for yourself, you’ve got to find ways to be a bigger bitch than the next one. And you’ve got to make your own kids really defensive. Sometimes these things are completely outside the ordinary personality of the person whose doing them which is very sad. And because you have all these children and just this one father and they’ve got to get this man’s attention they’ll do anything, they grow up being very competitive. So women understand immediately. 

“The men… They’re the ones who will always say, ‘But it’s African culture….’ as if African culture is just completely stupid. They often refer to the animal kingdom like gorillas that have lots of females hankering for them.”

At this thought Lola becomes even more animated. ”Such people… I often wonder where they are coming from. Do they really want to come out and say, ‘Monogamy is unnatural, let’s all be polygamous,’ is that what they want us to do? And then if it’s natural for men to have multiple partners are they saying that women should not? Or is it that women too should be allowed to have multiple partners? What kind of chaos are they intending to introduce to the world?

“I also get a lot of men saying polygamy is useful in society… especially those who say it’s good for communities so no woman is left without a husband. Why is it then that the second, third and fourth wife get younger, they have bigger breasts? They don’t take older women as their second and third wives. I mean everybody wants to have a bit of variety. So I don’t blame them but I do think they are giving into their more selfish instincts rather than thinking perhaps about the women as well, looking at it from the women’s perspective.”

Does Lola ever come across women who defend polygamy?

“No, never. The only ones who might are Muslim women who say Islam allows [it] but of course the Qur’an says if you are going to take more than one wife you have to be perfectly equitable. So where they take that to mean, ‘Yes that’s okay for a man to have more than one wife’ the side that they are not looking at is just how difficult it is… Actually, it’s impossible to have four women and to treat them all exactly the same. For one, if you have four women there are only seven days in the week.”

Lola’s clear cut views on polygamy do not get in the way of ‘The Secret Lives…’ being multi-faceted and the author’s attempts to present a fair and balanced viewpoint on the subject are by and large successful.

“I do believe in balance. It’s easier for me when I’m doing interviews or when I’m speaking to people to express my views freely but when you’re putting a story together you really have to take all the different perspectives, all the different life stories into consideration. Of course we can sit here and say polygamy is terrible but there are lots of women who decided to go into polygamous households for economic reasons, for psychological reasons.

“There are all sorts of reasons why people go into a polygamous household and we must look at those. That’s one of the things I was trying to do in the novel, to help people understand why.”

The male characters are almost relegated to the background in the book and their voice kept to a minimum although their brief insight is helpful in its own way. Lola admits this is a deliberate move on her part, to give the female characters more prominence.

“In the average polygamous household the man is the main character. He’s the one that you see all the time, he’s the one who gives them seed; he’s the one who provides for them. In order to maintain their places within the household these women all have to be very subservient. That’s not to say they don’t have stuff to say. So I really wanted to give them a platform so they could speak.”

Despite her misgivings and the sympathetic response from many women, Shoneyin isn’t convinced that attitudes towards polygamy in Nigeria are becoming more progressive.

“The problem I have with the approach to polygamy is that they are not trying to develop in the right direction.’ Lola highlights her concern with the story of a friend whose father banned his mother from working in order to avoid any disparity when he took on a less educated second wife.

Lola laments, ‘This must be going on in a lot of polygamous households. We’re missing out on a lot as a country [Nigeria]. What the West has done is that they’ve empowered women. When women have self-esteem, they begin to develop themselves. What does this do? It contributes hugely to that country’s economy. Basically in Nigeria, if we continue to encourage polygamy [then] women are not developing, not making as much progress’.

She concedes that there are exceptions; “There are some who work, and this is not a hard and fast rule. I might be generalising a bit but polygamy does have that [negative] potential. The other thing it does of course is that it perpetuates that myth that women are just property owned by the men.”

Nonetheless Lola doesn’t feel that the West have got things right in every way. She believes some more positive cultural exchange would do the world good.

“There are lots of elements of African culture that the West can learn from. One of them is how we take care of a lot of the most vulnerable people in our communities. The community spirit, the way we look after our elderly, how we bring them into our homes how they live with us. How it’s so natural, we don’t even really think about it. Whereas of course in the West when people are of a certain age, they go into homes and people are very quick to disconnect. In the West they’re really quite selfish even in the way they look after their children.

“At the same time there’s a lot that Africa could learn from the West. There’s a certain romanticism that we have with the way we talk about African culture. I think it’s especially the generation that had the contact with colonialism; “we were fine before them and we’re going to be fine now that they are gone”. We have our culture, we have our way of doing things but that’s not going to take us into the 21st century. We need to be looking outwards. Even if it’s from Japanese culture, we see something that is good and we take it, we imbibe it, we start practising it. We take the good things; the positives that will help us make progress.

“I don’t think we should be so static. I think all cultures at this point should interact.”

For more information on Lola Shoneyin, visit her blog @ lolashoneyin.blogspot.com