Marriage is a complicated merging of two lives; a delicate process that comes with its fair share of happiness and headaches. It can leave both parties either completely wrung out or immensely fulfilled. This version I speak of is monogamy; with a union ratio of 1:1; a simple format. But what happens when there’s more? Fasten your seatbelts my curious cats; I’m about to take you to a world of carefully ordered chaos.
Depending on who you are, where you were raised, and the culture of your society, you might view the concept of polygamy in different ways. As a Yoruba-Nigerian woman, polygamy is an age-old concept for me. The explanation I was given for its existence was the need for children. Children are the joy of life, and it is believed that the more children one has, the better one’s life will be. Rather than just an addition to your life, children are seen as your legacy on earth. In Yoruba belief, one cannot enter the land of ancestors if they die childless. Therefore a man would take more wives so that they could bear more children for him.
Although my father opted for monogamy, my grandparents and great-grandparents practised intense polygamy. My great-grandpa on my mother’s side had TEN wives! But I digress. I grew up in a society that normalized the system of polygamy and, as reality often bleeds into fiction, popular TV shows, and books attempted to imitate what they saw in real life.
This is how the TV show ‘Fuji House of Commotion’ and the book ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ were born. These two narratives, nearly a decade apart, provide two very different views on polygamy.
‘Fuji House of Commotion’ follows the shenanigans of the promiscuous Chief T. Fuji and the many wives, girlfriends and children that live under and outside his roof. He is the breadwinner, living proof of the saying that a man can take as many wives as he pleases, as long as he can care for the needs of his family. He shares his love the way he shares his money; with street smarts and a futile attempt at controlling his loud family. Amaka Igwe’s take on polygamy is the sort of exaggerated reality often found in satire. It was comedy gold and was prime viewing for anyone that had a television at the time.
‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ as a title is a perfect description for the contents of the book itself. Lola Shoneyin’s novel was a hyper-realistic take on the realities of the women in a polygamous home. Told through first-person accounts, it focused on the histories of these women and the paths that led them to Baba Segi’s house, as well as the lengths they would go to maintain their status. It touched on the societal expectation of women to marry and the pressure on them to bear children within a short window of time, compounded by the complications of a polygamous home.
So, why did these two narratives, different as they are, ring the bells of truth to so many Nigerians? The simple answer is that both successfully captured prevalent public opinions of marriage, family and polygamy in their respective times.
When Fuji House of Commotion aired in 2001, I was about the same age as the younger children in the show that year. I remember watching it and laughing at the troublesome antics of Peaceful Peace, the second wife, and being confused at why there were so many people in one house. Re-watching it as an adult, I can recognize the themes and beliefs as those held by an older, more traditional generation.
In Yoruba tradition, it was acceptable for a man to bring in a second, third, even fourth wife, as long as they all respected the women that came before them. As seen in the TV show, cooking, cleaning and even time spent with the husband was shared equally between the wives for fairness.
The first wife was placed above the others in seniority, and it fell on her shoulders to organize the home into what her husband wanted it to be. The husband was king in his home and what was required of him was to provide money and discipline. Wife beating was frowned on, but allowed within reason, as seen when Chief Fuji beat Peace and treated her softly afterwards. Everyone understood their place, and respect for those who outranked you was placed above all else.
As my age group grew older and more exposed to the larger world, we began to discuss these traditions, sorting out the ones that worked for us and the ones that did not. We became the generation of consequences, ones that would bear the results of decades of choices by our ancestors. The system was put under a microscope, and we made decisions on what we preferred for ourselves and our children.
We agreed that wife-beating was a terrible thing and should not be practised under any circumstance. Many adopted Christianity, and monogamy grew in prevalence. Women started working in high paying jobs and became entrepreneurs, and with that shift, the ‘husband as King’ mentality slowly became diluted.
It is this cultural shift that makes the 2010 book, ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ such an exciting read. Baba Segi is portrayed as a clueless man that does not realize that the royal treatment he receives in his home is not born out of genuine respect, but out of necessity. [I’m about to spoil the book so be warned].
Baba Segi is impotent and does not know it. It is not important for him to know because it is his wives’ responsibility to bear children, not his. Knowing that society will not forgive their childlessness, the wives secretly get pregnant with different men. The first wife fulfils her role as the organizer of the other wives, teaching them the secret to having children in Baba Segi’s house. It is only with the arrival of the fourth wife, the graduate Bolanle, that the secret is finally exposed. The wives’ dislike of her education, a quiet threat to their status quo, leads them to withhold the secret from her and ultimately leads to its discovery.
Reading this book, I was struck with how broken the system of marriage and polygamy seemed to be in this case. Bolanle herself only agreed to become a fourth wife because she believed she was damaged, through an incident that was not her fault. The other three married Baba Segi through a combination of a lack of choice and a necessity to survive. The way the story is told places intense scrutiny on problematic societal norms surrounding women, men, the institution of marriage, and polygamy. It shows a mismatch between the modern woman and an institution that has failed to update its values.
The differences between the two narratives highlight two sides of the Polygamy coin. Both touch on what women stand to lose if the fragile integrity of their home is compromised, but Fuji’s wives fight for the love and money of Fuji, rather than Fuji himself as the prize. Whereas in Baba Segi’s house, the rivalry is centred around what happens if Baba Segi no longer loves you. A very subtle difference but the ramifications are enormous. This is why in ‘Fuji House of Commotion’, the tone is light and the antics are treated with an air of humour, whereas in ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’, the rivalry is dark, resulting in physical and mental abuse, even death.
I could write pages comparing the two, but in the end, the point is that societal views on marriage and polygamy in my country are evolving. Perhaps with this shift, women will gain more agency over their own lives, and polygamy as a system will evolve with the times.
The fact remains that we are in control of our culture, and it does not control us. Who knows what the future of traditional marriage holds? If you choose to go the route of polygamy, what would your modern traditional family look like? Such a story would be interesting to see.