Thu, Mar 25, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Polygamy? No thanks

Lola Shoneyin’s grandmother never forgave her husband for taking four extra wives. Yet polygamy is still common in Lola’s home country, Nigeria, much to her shame

By Lola Shoneyin  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

I liked reading obituaries as a 10-year-old girl, 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 2. My mother and I were traveling 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 jewelery 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 traveled 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 traveling 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, or 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.

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