“His Only Wife,” Peace Adzo Medie’s debut novel, is a deeply engrossing chronicle of contemporary Ghanaian womanhood: its challenges, opportunities and, perhaps most strikingly for Western audiences, its absurdity. The book asks a fundamental question that women are asked, and must ask themselves all over the world, but in a decidedly West African context: How can you take care of your family and community obligations, and at the same time take care of yourself?
For Afi Tekple, the naive young protagonist thrust into a ridiculously untenable situation, the answer becomes clearer the more she finds her voice and courageously honors it.
Afi and her mother have been thrust into near-poverty after her father’s untimely death. Having no claim to either their house or anything inside of it, they find themselves at the mercy of a tyrannical uncle, moving into the house of his three wives and 11 children. That is, until their local benefactor, Aunty Faustina Ganyo (“Aunty” for short), puts them up in one of her houses, and even gives Afi’s mother a job at her flour distribution depot.
When Afi comes of age in their small town of Ho, Aunty delivers a proposal too attractive to refuse: Afi should marry her son Eli, who is entangled with a Liberian woman the family deeply dislikes. This, Aunty and her daughter Yaya and other son Richard explain throughout the novel, will effectively bring Eli back into the fold. No matter that he and the Liberian woman have been together for years, live together in one of his luxurious Accra properties, and have a daughter together.
From the beginning, Afi’s reaction to the marriage cannot be described as anything other than troubled. “It wasn’t easy being the key to other people’s happiness, their victory, and their vindication,” she says during the wedding — which Eli doesn’t even bother to show up for.
But Afi feels, and rightly so, that she has few other options. The pressure from all sides — her mother, Uncle Pious, other family members, her community — is a palpable presence throughout the book, so much so that it almost functions as another character.
After a tumultuous start, however, Afi begins to fall in love with Eli, and he with her, but to Medie’s credit, this is no fairy-tale love story. This is a story about the limits of love and family responsibility, and the seemingly unlimited reach of men who simply want what they want, no matter what it does to the women who love them.
It is also a damning indictment of African patriarchy, and the families that carry it out. But “His Only Wife” is not all gloom and doom; it is quite funny in places, and by the end, leaves Afi in a very hopeful place. “Marriage shouldn’t be a never-ending competition where you spend your life fighting to be seen and chosen. … All the money in the world is not worth the pain and tears and sleepless nights,” a new friend tells her. “So you did good and you will be fine. You are smart and you are not afraid of hard work; you will be fine.”
But she adds, “Just make sure that he puts your name on the deed. In fact, make sure your name is on every piece of paper, for the house, the car, everything.” The reader has the distinct sense that Afi — a seamstress who has opened a very successful fashion boutique by this point, has built her mom a house of her own in Ho, and is raising her son on her own terms — will do just that.
Shannon Gibney lives and writes in Minneapolis.
His Only Wife
By: Peace Adzo Medie.
Publisher: Algonquin Books, 288 pages, $25.95.