Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The secret lives of Baba Segi's Wives- Lola Shoneyin

The secret lives of Baba Segi’s wives- By Lola Shoneyin
This book is about a man, Baba Segi, who has 4 wives. He lives in a huge house in which all 4 of his wives co habit with all their children. The book begins with Baba Segi going to seek the wise counsel of a man they all call Teacher who resides in a seedy part of town . The issue is the barrenness of his 4th university educated wife.
The story is told in the voices of each of the wives, who speaks of how she came to be Baba Segi’s wife. Each woman has a somewhat sad tale about their past and Baba Sego emerges as the one who saved them from their plight. This book is very well written and the characters are well developed and real. One cannot help but feel for Iya Segi, who is a closet lesbian whose unfulfilled sexuality is channeled into making money. Iya Tope is a colorless, timid individual who, next to Iya Femi is a wilting violet. Iya Femi ‘s story as an ill-treated maid is the saddest of all. One can understand her vengeful nature and her ruthlessness in dealing with her enemies, all done of course in the name of Jesus! Enter Bolanle the university graduate, who married an illiterate man. Baba Segi’s lust for Bolanle’s educated mind turns his peaceful household upside down. Talk about education bringing light into dark places! A colossal secret is exposed, one that has the potential to destroy the well organized household.
Then Baba Segi rises to the occasion and he once again emerges the savior of these women and the children. Left to their own devices, these women scheme, plot and form unholy alliances to confront a common enemy. Despite their secret hatred for each other, they come together when the need arises, to deal with what they perceive as a threat to their very existence as a family. Bolanle is that threat, with her education and her sophistication…and then her barrenness. Their dislike for Bolanle results in a tragic accident which threatens to unravel the whole set up.
The story climaxes with Baba Segi faced with the toughest decision of his life. He is a man who has been made to question everything about his life and to confront the worst news that any man can ever receive from a doctor….One is almost thankful that Baba Segi seems not to have the ability to think deeply about issues or to reflect on the actual meaning of the events that unmask his life to be one big lie. I think it is this simplicity of mind that is his ultimate salvation.
I won’t give too much away. You will have to read this one. If I sound obscure it is intentional. Read the book! You will not regret it. Lola’s writing is startlingly blunt and her descriptions unusual. This, and a captivating story make for a compelling, fast paced read.
It is interesting that polygamy described in the book is very different from the polygamous setup I am familiar with. In Zimbabwe the wives each live separately each having their own home or group of huts. This cohabitation in one house is a recipe for total chaos. The rivalries among the wives can get really intense.

Friday, September 3, 2010

BULAWAYO, the city that raised me , and its emerging artists


I just finished reading two books, the first one I read is by Chris Mlalazi and it is called “Dancing With Life, Tales from the Township. The second one is by Irene Sabatini and it’s entitled “The boy next door.” I did not intentionally read these books that are rooted in the city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe where I grew up. It just happened that way so that by the time I was done with the second one, I was homesick, but glad to be away, happy but also very sad.

Chris Mlalazi describes a Bulawayo of which I only recognized tiny remnants. Having left Zimbabwe, Bulawayo in 1990, and only returning for very short periods since then, the Bulawayo he describes was unfamiliar, frightening and in cases quite repulsive. I do not recall ever having such feelings about Bulawayo even on my last visit there in 2002. Clearly, there has been a decay and a degradation which Mlalazi captures in his vivid descriptions. This is not only experienced in the portrayal of the external environment, but it is apparent in the nature of the interactions among people, a sense that “Ubunthu”, “I am well if you are well” does not exist anymore. One gets the sense that one is in the wild and it is survival of the fittest. In the story “dancing with life” a scene which captures both environmental and human debauchery reads thus: “Virginia hates Mxolisi. She also wishes him ill. Two weeks back, he had been intimate with her in the public toilet behind Figa Sports bar, and, afterwards, in the feaces smelling darkness, had given her a roll of money .” Then poor Virginia finds out later that she has been given counterfeit notes and so basically she has not been paid for services rendered. Fine so the trade she is in is not exactly an orthodox and legitimate business, however one would have thought that even in the world of the illicit, there is a sense of “Ubunthu”. The total cold lack of remorse by Mxolisi and the stench of feces bring home to me that the hardships people have experienced and are still experiencing can kill compassion for the other. Throughout his stories Mlalazi depicts a mean spiritedness and a lack of conscience in most of his character so that by the time I was done with the book, I felt a little queasy. I was compelled to read it because if this is the ugly truth about Bulawayo then I would rather know, despite the agony this knowing induces.

Irene Sabatini’s offering is a painfully beautiful work that describes the lives of particular characters in the historical context of a downward spiraling Zimbabwe. The eye opener for me with this book, was her exposure of the life of a group of people that I, as an African girl never had access to. The colored people of Bulawayo. It was interesting how she briefly touches on the fact that even within this group there are subgroups, those colored from Thorngrove and those from the more affluent suburbs. It is interesting how the mother of Lindiwe, a Black Ndebele woman wanted so badly that people know that her daughter was not a pure black, but a colored. This highlights the apartheid system that existed in Zimbabwe during the Smith era, where Whites were the top tier race, followed by the Colored /Indian and then the Africans at the bottom of the racial, and therefore, social and economic ladder.

Bulawayo is evocatively described in its glory as well as in its era of demise. One cannot help but feel robbed of the beauty of the Centenary Park, the famous Bulawayo Christmas lights, and the general warmth and welcoming nature of the city with its curio shops, wide roads and the abundance of goodwill in its people. The love story of Lindiwe and Ian seems to flourish, despite the negative effects of their environment, their complex history and how it has shaped them and their own personal struggles with family dysfunction and demons.

The question that this book had me battling with is: Did the dismantling of a racist, oppressionist and unjust societal structure necessitate the destruction of everything else? Did the ushering in of black majority rule have to mean the ushering in of bribery and corruption and a general top- down lawlessness ? Did giving land back to the people have to result in reduced food production so that the very people supposed to benefit from it end up starving?

Sabatini tackles complex issues with a sensitivity and a clarity that is rare. Her characters are real human beings with faults that sometimes drive you to distraction. Yet it is these weaknesses that endear them to the reader in sympathy and compassion.

For anyone from Zimbabwe, it is an essential read. For those interested in complexity and no simple solutions as well as good, well written literature, these two books make the cut.