The poles of patriarchy

2012-09-29 12:59

Lola Shoneyin could not resist writing The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives – a deftly told, ironic little novel – when a friend of hers told her the story of a Nigerian man with three wives who all had a remarkable secret.

It’s worth reading the novel to discover the secret, which points at the heart of some of the many contradictions of polygamy.

It’s a subject she knows well. Her characters are quirky and multifaceted, and her depictions of everyday life in a polygamous household are filled with compelling intrigue.

Shoneyin’s grandfather was a Nigerian traditional ruler with five wives, her grandmother the first of them. One daughter became Lola’s mother.

Shoneyin reflects on her younger self, saying: “(When I was 10, I thought) polygamy was great. I thought if I could get a man to marry me, and my two best friends, we could all go shopping together, and on holidays.

So I told my mum and she hit the roof.

She said: ‘What the hell are you thinking, you must never do that. Those women look happy, but it’s all pretence, it’s all a farce.’

“She would tell me some of the horror stories from her family and how paranoid her mother was. She told her: ‘Don’t eat any food that’s come out of the other wives’ kitchens. They might poison you.’

“If you want to bring the powerful first wife down, the best way is to target the kids. Where there’s loads of money, that kind of thing is less likely to happen, because you can build a house for each wife. They’ve all got enough money, and barely have to see each other.”

As much as a third of Nigeria’s women end up in polygamous marriages.

Shoneyin says: “We had a senator two years ago who married a 12 or 13-year-old Egyptian girl. It was a big event, at the central mosque – a lot of other senators showed up. But he had divorced his first wife, because a Muslim is only allowed to have four, and a lot of women’s groups were up in arms. But other women marched and carried placards that said: ‘Leave him alone, we like what he’s doing.’

“But he was marrying a child. This was in Zamfara State, where only 5% of the women can read and write.”

It’s inevitable the conversation should turn to our own President Jacob Zuma and his 20 children.

Shoneyin laughs and jokes: “He must have a big willy,” but then she asks about the gossip around one wife’s affair.

“It’s so arrogant to think you are so virile and well-endowed that you can actually satisfy a lot of women. It’s impossible, unless you’re taking a hell of a lot of Viagra.

“In Africa, your masculinity is still measured by how effectively you ‘conquer’ women. Our former, aging president was asked once how he was feeling and he said: ‘Great, if you want to know, go and ask any of my wives.’

Wellness, for him, was still measured by how many women he could sleep with or how well he could sleep with them.”

She agrees the male desire to have many women is primal, be it through polygamy, collecting mistresses or the “serial polygamy” of men who have a string of women over time.

But she doesn’t think the “fundamentally polygamous nature of men” is enough of a catch-all excuse: “It’s just a certain selfishness and a lack of consideration for wives. It’s a common argument and I get it all the time. My simple answer is there’s a reason we’re more intelligent than animals. A lot of people say ‘look at the lion, look at the gorilla’. Well, I’m not a lion, nor a gorilla?.?.?.

“One of the biggest steps, as human beings, is when we stop doing a particular thing simply because of the damage it does to another individual. That’s why we have the whole antiwar movement.

“A hundred years ago in Nigeria if you had twins, they’d kill one, because they thought there was something evil in it. That doesn’t happen any more. Paedophiles are being arrested in Europe now – the same place where women were getting married, on average, at 14.

“You would think we would have got to the point that just for the pain polygamy or adultery causes women, men would have taken a step back and said: ‘Actually, we don’t want to do this.’

“Here in South Africa you’re having such a tough time with HIV/Aids, and I always worry about the young men and the example we set for them.

“It’s important to be a role model. If you look at polygamy within the context of HIV, there are so many examples of whole families being wiped out, leaving loads of children.”

Shoneyin longs for the day when patriarchy in Africa suffers some of the same defeats it has in places like Scandinavian Europe, where women and men enjoy the same state protections.

She says there is always a danger in allowing the extreme qualities of masculinity free rein. And polygamy, for her, is among those extremes.

She calls it “the evidence of a horribly patriarchal society, where women are simply seen as commodities”.

In Shoneyin’s book, one of those “commodities”, at least, finally does get the last laugh.

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