Lola Shoneyin's grandfather had five wives and her grandmother, the first, never forgave him. But she was shocked to find that polygamy is still prevalent in Nigeria
As a 10-year-old girl, I liked reading obituaries, and would stare in fascination at the photographs of the recently deceased. But on this particular day I couldn’t help noticing the large image on page two. My mother and I were travelling home to Ibadan from Lagos, Nigeria, and she passed the newspaper to me when she tired of my relentless chatter. In the picture was a tall well-known socialite with three women dressed in identical lace and head-tie, each with flawlessly lightened skin; each was dripping with golden jewellery and each wore the same eager smile. The caption read: Chief Solomon [not his real name] and his wives at a birthday bash.
My eyes travelled from one woman to the other. I thought how fantastic it would be to be one of many wives. I imagined my friends and me being married to the same man, going shopping together, eating out together and wearing the same clothes, like sisters. I was so excited that I announced to my mother that I was going to be one of many wives when I grew up.
I noticed the disapproving lines gathering at her brow as she held up her glasses to her eyes. Sharply, she dropped them on to her lap. First, she asked if I was listening carefully, then she told me that the women in the picture might be smiling on the outside, but inside they were sad and bitter. I was crushed. I was never comfortable with the idea of it after that.
As I approached my teens, I often heard my parents offering advice to my brothers, who were old enough to bring their girlfriends home. Ethnicity was not an issue for them (unlike most Nigerian parents); their main concern was that my brothers didn’t date young women from polygamous homes. This seemed unjust to me. I couldn’t understand the logic in judging anyone on the basis of a family situation they had no control over. I took my mum to task on this one day. She said she didn’t have anything against the girls themselves, but that children from polygamous homes were often conditioned to be devious. She said they needed to be that way in order to survive. Well, she would know. Her own father had five wives.
My grandfather, Abraham Olayinka Okupe, was born in 1896 into one of the four ruling houses of Iperu, a town in Ogun state. He was educated by missionaries and graduated from the prestigious Wesley College, a teacher training college in Ibadan set up by the Methodist church. There, he learned to play the church organ beautifully and his handwriting was the most perfect cursive you ever saw. After graduating, he married Jolade, also a teacher, and together they embarked on joint careers as travelling teachers. Before long, they had two daughters (my mother being the second) and lived what could only be described as a modern marriage, given the times. My mother recalls that he was a hands-on father and that her parents shared domestic duties.
Everything changed when a letter arrived, informing them that the oba(traditional ruler) of Iperu had died. This news generated much anxiety. The four ruling houses have been operating a power rotation system for hundreds of years. Finally, it was the turn of the Agbonmagbe ruling house again, and my grandfather, the eldest son of the family, would have to give up his career and the comfort he had created for his family. The letter said categorically that the gods had chosen him, so he knew he didn’t have a choice. My grandfather ascended the throne as His Royal Highness Alaperu of Iperu (Agbonmagbe IV) in 1938, with his wife humbly looking on.
He was to marry four more wives, and with each additional wife, his relationship with my grandmother broke down a little further. Granny was always a very quiet woman, and there must have been times when she wondered if those early days when they lived for each other were just a figment of her imagination. After 11 years of marital bliss, and before her very eyes, the husband with whom she had shared dreams and duties became increasingly distant and self-indulgent.
Of course, my grandfather could have resisted the women who desired his prized royal seed. He could have rejected the women who were given to him for free, without dowry. But he didn’t. He was the ruler and such power came with many privileges. Perhaps out of guilt or maybe because he found her silent displeasure difficult to deal with, he ignored my grandmother. His third child would come from his second wife.
As more wives arrived, my grandmother withdrew deeper into herself; she became overly protective of her children, to the point where she would warn them not to associate with the other wives. She warned them never to eat food that had been cooked by them in case it was poisoned. It was common knowledge that newer wives went to great lengths to destabilise the powerful first wives. Children were often casualties in the tussle for the biggest share of the husband’s affections. Surprisingly, neither my mother nor her sister heeded their mother’s words. When their mother’s back was turned, they interacted freely with their younger half-siblings and often ate food that the junior wives gave them. They were, after all, their father’s first fruit, the ones who knew him first. My grandfather died in 1976, 21 years before my grandmother. She never forgave him. She lived in theoba’s court until the day she died, sad and unfulfilled.
Growing up hearing these stories had a marked effect on me. By the time I got to university at 16, I found that I felt great sympathy for the children who came from polygamous homes. The children from the first wives would often say how cheated they felt, how unkind life was because they didn’t have their father to themselves. Most of them were terrified because the behaviour of their mother had a direct impact on how they were treated at home; nearly all of them despised their fathers because of the misery their mothers had been put through. With these children, there was often a bloated sense of entitlement; they spoke disparagingly of their half-siblings and treated them with disdain. On the other hand, the children of subsequent wives were either defeatist in their outlook on life, or obsessively competitive. They were used to fighting for every smidgen of attention that came their way. Coming from a monogamous family, I viewed these character traits with interest and wonder.
I haven’t always made the right choices. My first marriage was to a man who was born to the second wife in a polygamous home. I should have listened to my mother; the marriage lasted 40 days and maybe our different backgrounds had something to do with our incompatibility. After the annulment I was a little more careful. I was introduced to my husband, Olaokun Soyinka, son of the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, by a mutual friend of both families. We had a short, intense courtship and were married 12 years ago.
Now, in my working life as a teacher and writer, and as a mother of four children, I watch with horror when women of my generation opt to be second or third wives. And I have been shocked by the ease with which men in their mid-30s marry additional wives. We recently returned to Nigeria after five years in the UK. We decided to go home in order to re-introduce our children to Nigerian culture and I wondered how best to explain to my children that some of their new friends would come from households where there were two mummies or more.
A few months after I arrived in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, I struck up a friendship with a very warm 26-year-old woman called Aisha. By northern Nigerian standards, she was ripe for marriage. Luckily she had Abdul, a man she couldn’t stop talking about. Abdul was in his 30s and very generous, showering her with expensive presents. I’d often see him parked outside the flat she shared with her mother. On one occasion, when she was gushing about Abdul’s virtues, she mentioned that he was an amazing father to his three-year-old daughter. Naively, I asked how long it had been since his wife passed away. She looked at me coyly, hoping that I wouldn’t think less of her. She told me he was married and that his wife was expecting their second child.
Some time later, she came to me crying that this same man wasn’t returning her calls. He’s probably with that wife of his, she said through her tears. I told her that what she was experiencing was a foretaste of things to come, and asked how it would feel if, after marrying her, Abdul then took a third wife. I was shocked that she was shocked. I couldn’t believe this hadn’t occurred to her. A few days later, she told me she had broken up with him. I was pleased for her. Husband-sharing is ugly and, one way or another, someone’s dreams are crushed when a new wife joins a household.
According to the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2008, a third of married women in Nigeria are in polygamous unions and 16% of married men (aged 15-49) have more than one wife. Polygamy is more prevalent in northern Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim. The survey also found that older men, those in rural areas and those with lower levels of education, were more likely to have two or more wives than other men.
But why do women agree to it? Why did Thobeka Madiba, who recently visited the UK with the South African president Jacob Zuma, agree to become his third wife? Was it because she fell hopelessly in love with a married man? Was it because she wanted five minutes of fame? Or was the allure of being married to the No 1 citizen of South Africa too delicious to resist? Where some women may go into these polygamous arrangements for love or status, there is no doubt that a majority of women walk into this minefield for financial security.
Last year, two of the daughters of the president of Nigeria married men who happened to be governors of northern Nigerian states. One became wife No 4 and the other joined the family of a man who already had two wives. What sort of parents would allow such a thing? Yes, there is a possibility that the president’s daughters married for love, but it is easier to conclude that these marriages were politically motivated, the women pawns in a game far beyond what they themselves understand.
The sad truth is, polygamy constitutes a national embarrassment in any country that fantasises about progress and development. Polygamy devalues women and the only person who revels in it is the husband who gets to enjoy variety. You, poor women, will become nothing more than a dish at the buffet.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin is published by Serpent’s Tail for £10.99. To order a copy for £10.99 including free UK mainland p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 68467