Lola Shoneyin: Loving Baba Segi’s Wives

 Reprint: First published in Next Newspapers, December 2010

The writer Lola Shoneyin lives life joyously on her own terms, tastefully wearing her smarts and sensuality in a world bound in rigid emotional ropes of hypocrisy. Her poetry is scrumptious, turning cold rocks into sniveling lovers. She wields words like fierce weapons against the past tense posing for tradition. This thinker of Nigerian extraction is ahead of her time in promulgating innovative ideas and in the way she deploys her myriad energies to the arduous task of jump-starting courageous conversations in a complex society like Nigeria

Cassava Republic has just released Shoneyin’s novel, ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’. I adore this book. From start to finish, it is a triumph of life over adversity, a joyful ode to the sensual mystery and resilience of the human spirit. I love this book. Shoneyin brings together her unique poetic senses and her love of the human story and wraps up a great tale with muscular prose.  Politely defiant, Shoneyin bends every cultural artefact and taboo in her brainy sensual path. This is a soap opera between the covers. I love the author’s bold use of language and imagery. She teases, she taunts, she soothes with her words. This is a rebel gleefully tugging at silly clay boundaries. Every other page hides sentences that desire to stir your consciousness – and your loins. Nothing is taboo for Shoneyin; she is eclectic in a brilliant near-reckless manner. Her words are defiant, and drunk with the sweet musky smell of primal sex. Sexual tension keeps the pages erect and thirsty for lusty sex. And the curses and trash talking rain down freely, Nigerian style.You might as well be riding around in a bolekaja enjoying Nigerian life at its most impish.

In ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’, Bolanle, a university graduate joins Baba Segi’s household as the fourth wife. Using this canvas, the author inspects Nigeria’s motley issues, as if from a dirty window. It is pretty, ugly, and riotous and secrets do not stay hidden for too long. Nigeria is a market and everything is sold in the open. In the process, we are entertained. Shoneyin taps furiously and insistently on social issues, prying their doors open for the reader to confront. Issues like marital abuse, rape, sexuality, infidelity the relentless march and meanness of the new Christianity, the ravages of a soulless consumer society and the resulting mimicry of the other as in women bleaching their skins to look attractive. There is an abundance of misogyny, and patriarchy reigns supreme. Sons are a premium over daughters and well sought after and celebrated by the society. Baba Segi is a loving father, if a bit of a buffoon and a crude lover. He is an unattractive man who has a disgusting habit of losing his bodily fluids when he is stressed. But he is a good provider and the women humour him, to a point. Women and children cope by manipulating men – with mixed and unintended results.

Shoneyin addresses the mystery and complexity of relationships and sexuality from a woman’s perspective. Not many would agree with her sympathetic, almost defiant take on the issue but she does give a powerful voice to those whose crime is to be different from the tyrannical majority. In that respect, compassion gushes from her pen. In the crush of issues like arranged marriages and the expectation that women and children are chattels beholden to men, there is a lesson here: Women dream also of the same pleasures and desires that men take sometimes violently.

The book gains confidence and traction with the turning of each page, however, it was hard following the chapters as the points of view changed. It stretches credulity to imagine Bolanle the fourth wife as a university graduate married to a semi-illiterate polygamist. She does not present herself as learned. The wives’ characters could have been fleshed out a bit more robustly. In a few instances, the dialogue was awkward. My worst line: “Well, you know before you wrap leaves around liquidised beans one must ensure that the ingredients are complete.” (p221) It is the worst translation of a proverb I have ever read.  The book is partly a conversation about paternalism and misogyny but it comes across as hostile to men. Baba Segi is depicted as a hapless buffoon who loses his bodily functions under stress. Men are typically depicted as bumbling idiots with balls for brains and the book gleefully lobs insults: “Men are nothing. They are fools. The penis between their legs is all they are useful for. And even then, if not that women needed their seed for children, it would be better to sit on a finger of green plantain.” Regardless, the book will keep a reader thinking for a long time. Not many would agree with the too-tidy ending, life is too complex for that. But who cares? I love this book.


San Ysidro Windsong

for you, my friend, you who paid the ultimate price… for a dream deferred…

It is today in America. And it is tomorrow in Nigeria. The heart aches for Nigeria, for home. Africa comes calling and I must go touch the eaves of the ancient caves that guard my umbilical cord. I am fleeing the darkness of a dying winter, chasing the promise of spring. I am escaping darkness, racing, fluttering heart, to the sun where my ancestors sit waiting for me.  I am racing to the sun where my mother stands pretending to tend the cooking pot, eyes roving the skies for the white man’s bird that will drop me, restless son, onto her aching laps. The wandering disease attacks me violently and I must go. I must go bathe in the stream of the forbidden fish. I must drink deep from the palm wine of the palm tree that never dies, air-conditioned coven of witches and wizards. I must walk through the little path where my grand father is buried and go feed my mother’s people in the smoky pantheon where dignity fights a ferocious battle with poverty. My stomach, hostel of the white man’s food will collapse in peppery shock, my cells will protest the invasion of harsh peppers, but I will sit down in my mother’s smoke-drenched kitchen and eat everything that flows from the pot that sits on the tripod of firewood that cooks wonders. Izuma of the stout bush that cannot be felled, I come to you; your little boy in the blue suit, shivering in the summer sun is home, to you. Izuma of the endless savannah, hold me. Your little boy is back.

My friend, a thousand stories invade my aching head, a thousand stories collapse in my aching head, and in my aching head, a thousand stories morph into a giant lie.  And they call it fiction. There are no mysteries, only lies. Warriors and poets jump out of digital vinyl in pretty lock step, at ease with the white man’s digital 0s and 1s. Baba the prophet dressed in his underwear and marijuana smoke hangs laconically from the door of the overloaded molue bus, and wails his vision in a voice crisp and guttural, in the voice of the masquerade that just escaped the anthills of the playground of my childhood. And with Baba’s horn, you can taste Lagos heavy with the smell of sex, shit, blood and petrol. The poet leans on his solo horn wailing sad sorrow, soaking my cells with songs of promise and sadness. And you can taste Lagos heavy with the smell of sex, shit, blood and petrol. I close my eyes and the women of Africa arise from digital vinyl, they rise as one from the rivers of Africa and their dance tells the story that I know by heart. I close my eyes and my heart races to the playground where I performed dark sensuous experiments with Angelina:

If your eyes squint hard
 until the blood points the way to the anthill
  that houses the cheer leaders of the spirit world
   you will see them…
    dancing, dancing, dancing.
Hear the horns
 teasing the envious skies.
Hear the drums chasing the dancers’ feet.
Feel the dancers’ feet chasing the drums until
 the eyes get all confused.
And every night
 we will go to sleep with the dream that you handed us…
And suddenly things don’t hurt nearly as much.

Many moons have passed through the big river of this life and I have not spoken to you my friend. You are sad and I cannot help you. But you say it is well. Here, if you come close to me, sit by me, by this fireplace, home of the white man’s fake wood that burns at the flick of a switch, I shall tell you of my travels. And maybe, then, you’ll feel better. I have been to the white man’s planet. The white man lives in another planet. And he knows it. But he is not telling us. My mother, Izuma, conqueror of the stout bush told me that the white man knows where God is but he is not telling us black folks. The white man wants to protect God from us black folks because we may kill him in the rage of our condition. We are different from the white man and he knows it. But the white man humors us, assures us that we are the same; we are from the same planet. That, my friend, is a big lie. They are different people, from a different planet, white folks. They come from a planet where everything is different, even their rice is colored funny. We are not one with the white man; we are not of the same planet. But the not knowing keeps us apart from they that know. The white man is an alien nibbling delicately on what is called art in our planet.

And my friend, I shall die and come back, Phoenix, king of the ashes of exile and there shall be no nations, as we know it. There shall be no boundaries. Relationships will be strung tightly through lines that transport 0s and 1s to the conscience of liquid crystal displays. Relationships will pop at your monitor-mirror of a thousand uses, seeking warmth, seeking solace. There shall be no nations and no boundaries. And no moats, no waters will hold the flight of fear from the lands of shame and terror that bore us and tore us violently from our mothers’ umbilical cords. And you have not seen the flight of the fleet-footed from the cold and heat of evil lands. The worst is yet to come, my friend, the worst is yet to come.

And so, I am trapped in the white man’s capsule that flies a billion times faster than the angry catapult of my childhood. We are going west, chasing dawn, like a fool chases his shadow, I wonder if we’ll ever catch dawn. I just had breakfast in the east, now skinny little white women in uniform are offering me breakfast again. I gain a breakfast, gain three hours and I lose everything else. Deep in the bowels of the white man’s bird, I regale my fellow travelers with stories of exile in America’s Mississippi delta. I tell them of my days in the delta, trying to be a black student in a white school. I tell them of the white professor who literally patted me on the head and called me a handicapped child who needed special ramps into the highway of academic success. Because I am black. I tell them of the professor who would not talk to me in class even though class participation accounted for most of the grades. Because I am black. I tell them of the fear of soiling my pants as pot-bellied white men in white sheets and hoods gamboled merrily on the lawns of white fraternity houses at 2:00 a.m. while my ancient car threatened to sputter to a stop right before their salivating selves. I was afraid. Because I am black. Deep into the night, the scotch whiskey hissed through the rocks and raced through my arteries to calm my nerve cells and I held my fellow travelers hostage with tales of horror inflicted on me by their forefathers. The shame on their faces was enough reparations for me. There must be a God.

Dinner at the Gaslamp quarter in San Diego. Our dinner hosts have more money than they know what to do with. The prices on each of the appetizers will buy two month’s supply of egusi soup for my entire family. Our hosts push the menu in my face and they say order whatever you want. They show me the wines, with prices that drop my jaw to the floor and they say order what you want. It is a food lover’s heaven if you are from the West and love eating artwork. Me, I am dreaming of a big bowl of hot steaming pounded yam and ogbono soup choking in the wealth of stock fish, smoked fish, cowfoot, tripe, oxtail, and snail bigger than the ears of an elephant. But I am in San Diego, having dinner with wealthy attorneys who want to sell me what I don’t know and I must look sophisticated. I choose “pan-seared escargot and roasted fingerling potato” as my appetizer and “steak au poivre, pan seared 8 oz steak, cognac and white peppercorn sauce, pommes frites” as my entrée. For dessert, I ask for a glass of cognac. My friend, the African-American is moaning his displeasure; he doesn’t like the food and he wants to go to Burger King with me and wrap his gentle fingers around the biggest and juiciest burger that he can find. With French fries. And he wants to wash it down with fresh moonshine (American ogogoro), straight from the plains of St. Petersburg Florida. “Where are my fries?” he wails softly as the expensive artwork that passes for food is placed delicately before us. In the presence of expensive food that tastes like plastic credit cards, my thoughts race and I am thinking of my fate in my old age. Will my American children dump me in an old people’s home to die a slow death from eating alien meals? Will my “assisted living counselors” serve me pounded yam, with egusi and all the trimmings? Or will my meals come in the measured manner that lab rats are fed in biochemistry labs?

We are two Americans and we are going to do brunch and margaritas across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. We shall stop at the restaurant just across the border. They say we may cross the border without visas, without passports. We are Americans they say. All we need is our American driver’s license. I don’t believe it. I carry my American passport just in case my Nigerian accent mocks my claims of alien citizenship. My friend, the blonde one teases me about carrying my passport. She doesn’t have to worry, she is a pretty blonde American, she will travel the world naked and American marines will die defending her right to be naked. I am a different issue altogether. I am American on paper. And I am black.

The trolley takes us rolling past San Diego and gently coughs us up at the border in San Ysidro. I leave America behind just by the bridge where the one-man mariachi band trolls for dollars. My pretty blonde friend holds my hands as the taxi drivers hurl themselves at us hustling for fares. I hold her hand. She is afraid. I am afraid. We are both afraid for different reasons. We eat lunch in Tijuana, a meal that looks like the raw ingredients for rice and beans and stew. A mariachi band comes to our table and we request a song. The bandleader looks at us and asks if we want a song for lovers. We say no, our spouses would not like that. We want a happy song. And they sing for us a sad song.

We take the taxi back to the border. My friend has her driver’s license. I have my driver’s license and my American passport, just in case. When we get to customs, the American asks my friend, “Are you an American?” and she says, “Yes” and waves her driver’s license at him. He waves her into America. But she won’t go, she holds my hands still. She is afraid for me. I wave my driver’s license at the American and he ignores my license. My friend the pretty blonde is still holding my hand hostage when the American asks me, ‘Are you an American?” I hold on to my blonde friend’s hand and I say, “Yep!” and the American says, “Where were you born?” I say, “Lagos, Nigeria.” The American dons a wicked smirk and asks, “When did you get your U.S. citizenship?” and I say, “It has been a long time, I don’t remember, sometimes in the early nineties…” And he goes for what he thinks is the jugular and asks wickedly, “How many stripes are there in the American flag?” My rage wells up from within the bowels of my river of shame, I reach for my American passport in my back pocket and I fling it down on the idiot’s desk and I wail: “What a stupid question! I am not answering that! Here, I am an American, I am a dumb American, here is my passport, are you happy now? America is safer BECAUSE OF YOU! Are you happy now?” My friend the pretty blonde squeezes my hands tightly as if squeezing away my rage. They will arrest me if I don’t control myself. She mutters something about taking an anger management course. The stupid American grins even wider and waves me into America, with a smirk and says “Welcome home!” Welcome home! I am an American. I am a Nigerian. I am a human being. Let me in.

I am happy to leave Tijuana. In Tijuana I saw my past, my present and my future and my heart wept. My conscience died many times as little children, offspring of beggars tugged at my shirtsleeves and heart pleading for quarters. I reached out to hold one, just big enough to be my little boy and he scampered off, running from the alien intimacy and warmth of another human being. I think I shall go home and hug my boy.

So my friend, this is the season of the wandering disease. It has infected me and I must travel all over seeking solace in cold and hot places, looking for answers that elude me at home. Trapped in the grip of this disease that sends my restless soul shivering, I have been to places the beauty of which will haunt me forever. I have been to places, the sadness of which will haunt me forever. Be strong, my good friend. I must leave you again. I am going on this journey to where we came from. They have lampposts that have no lamps. They have telephones that have no voices, and roads with potholes that swallow cars the size of elephants. And everywhere marauders roam the land masquerading as policemen, soldiers, politicians, robbers, dinosaur-size mosquitoes and locusts, robbing and pillaging the sweat of our people. But it is still a beautiful place, the land of my birth. I shall eat simple meals, drink ogogoro from recycled soda bottles and if I am lucky I shall dance on the streets with Rex Lawson and Celestine Ukwu. Wait for me; I shall be back from this journey when my glands break free of the fever of the wandering disease. And I shall come back for you, lion cub. Farewell, lion cub, I shall miss you… And I wrote this song for you. I shall miss you, lion cub.

it is sun down at the ilo;
follow the dust storm
and you can’t miss the ilo…
the poetess with the flute
chases the masquerade
with her flute…
the flute taps a solo wail
points the masquerade’s feet
to the right address
on this tired, tired, earth.
Listen, listen to the air
the air is an orchestra
horns insistent
piercing the crisp silence
of an evening gone to bed.
hear the air wail…
the air… phoenix
is a talking drum
can you hear the air?
listen to this…
the drummer’s insistent beat,
truth lands on concrete
bounces off nonchalant ears
but the truth has landed…
close your eyes 1967
can you see him
breathing the fumes
of the anesthetic?
hold this Fanta bottle
of ogogoro
to lips in shock
hold this last stick of Galleon
does the smoke shield your rage?
lean on this last wall
of dreams gone awry
belt out this last solo
song of the masquerade
music of our forefathers…
the trumpet must travel
burrowing through bridges
draped in the morning dew
of dawn… paying toll to no one…
the children
they sat at your doorsteps
ears hoping for the footsteps
that will never walk this way again
the children
they sat at your doorsteps
ears hoping for the return
of the trumpet
that sells ogogoro
in Fanta bottles.