What can a new bride do when her rightful place as a wife is occupied by another woman? In her debut novel, His Only Wife, Ghanaian author Peace Adzo Medie crafts a page-turning tale of intrigues and deception in a modern-day marriage.
Afi Tekple is the only daughter of a widowed woman in the small town of Ho in Eastern Ghana. We meet her on her wedding day where she is to be married "in absentia" by a man that she barely knows. Her husband, Elikem Ganyo, is the wealthy son of their benefactor, Aunty Faustina Ganyo. When Afi’s father died 10 years ago, she and her mother were left homeless and their valuables ransacked by supposed debt collectors. It was Aunty offered them a house and employed Afi’s mother.
But Aunty’s benevolence comes at price, that of unquestionable loyalty to her demands. The arranged marriage is Aunty’s idea, a plot to force her eldest son to give up his girlfriend, a woman that she dislikes intensely. With no university education, no skills or fortune to speak of, Afi accepts the arrangement to secure a future for herself and her mother.
Yet Elikem does not attend the wedding as he is kept away by important business. Instead, his younger brother gives Afi the ring and a Bible, and just like that she becomes the linchpin in the happiness of two families, wedded to a man who still lives with his lover.
Muna is a Liberian woman that Eli met while working there and with whom he has a daughter. But none of his family, especially his mother, ever accepted her. Afi learns that Muna is dark and ugly, with a body hard and tall like that of a man, and is disrespectful to Eli’s family. Muna is the problem Afi has been chosen to solve for the Ganyo family.
Yet ensconced in Accra at Eli’s flat with her mother, weeks go by before Afi meets her husband who always seems to be away on business. She is beginning to despair when suddenly Eli comes to visit. Much to her surprise Afi falls rapidly in love. Eli, too, seems enamoured with his beautiful new bride and before long, is showing her off to his friends. At last, it seems like a fair-tale marriage is unfolding.
Not until she befriends her neighbour Evelyn, the secret girlfriend of her brother-in-law Richard, does Afi learn that her husband has never broken it off with the other woman. She is unwilling to accept the idea of sharing a man, to be one of those women "who are able to live with another person in their marriage." Furious and dejected, she embarks on a battle to secure her marriage and rightful place as Eli’s wife. She issues Eli with an ultimatum and returns to her mother’s house in a move that incurs the wrath of the Ganyo matriarch.
Liberian-born author Medie has written non-fiction works based on gender-based violence, which won her the 2012-2013 African Affairs Author Prize. In His Only Wife, Medie takes a candid look at the intricacies of love and marriage faced by African women. Securing a husband is still the ultimate stamp of status, with social inequality and poverty adding to the mix.
Afi matures from small-town naivety to city savviness, yet she remains true to her ideals of love and marital fidelity despite huge pressure from powerful in-laws. In contrast you have Evelyn, the highly independent and self-made woman who will not kowtow to aunty Ganyo and takes a practical view of romance.
Since Afi is the primary narrator, we do not get to hear why a successful man like Eli would accept an arranged marriage instead of standing up to his mother. And in the unexpected twist to the tale, it is clear there was more to the mistress than meets the eye.
His Only Wife was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2020 and a Reese Witherspoon book club pick.