What Is Wrong With Polygamy?

Sometime in October last year, at around 11pm, as I was about to retire to bed, my cell phone rang. As I picked up to answer the call, it was a female voice. The caller is a professional colleague of mine who is in her early thirties and African-American.

My heart skipped a bit as I was wondering whether there was a problem in the office which she wanted to warn me about or whether I took a wrong file home.

“Is everything ok?” I asked. “Oh yes, everything is fine. I apologize to you for calling you this late in the night, hope you wouldn’t mind, I have been trying to reach you all day” she said. I heaved a sigh of relief, but I could feel the excitement on the other side of the line. She went on to the aim of calling me and told me that as she went to braid her hair in an African Hair Salon, there was this movie that was showing titled: “ Atlanta ”. I have not watched the movie and did not know what it was all about. She gave me the details of the movie which involved a man that married another wife who happened to be his daughter’s best friend. She told me that when she was watching the movie, she remembered me. Still confused, I inquired, “So you called me this time of the night to tell me about the movie you watch at some African Hair Salon?”

“No I was just wondering if it is true. I have 2 questions for you. Is it true that in Africa, men marry as many wives as they want? Secondly, could you help me buy the Part II of the movie, I really want to watch the second part” She went on again telling me what she thought would happen in the second part of the movie. As she was engaged in the monologue, I was laughing my lungs out. When she finished, she asked again, “please tell me the truth; is it true?” I started laughing again. “Why are you laughing at me?” She inquired.

“So that’s why you want to take 30 minutes off my sleep time? So you thought I was playing when I told you that I already had 9 wives”.

“You are not serious. You are always funny. But I’m curious, is it possible for someone to marry many wives in Nigeria?

I spent about another 30 minutes lecturing her about the issue of marrying more than one wife and about its benefits and shortcomings. At the end I said to her: “Well, since you have taking away portion of my sleep time, in my culture, if a single lady calls and spoke to a man at this time of the night, it means something. I’ve been wondering all along, will you be my 10th wife? Number 10 in my culture gets the best of everything from the husband, so will you be my magic number 10?”

“Goodbye, I will see you in the office tomorrow” and she hung up.

This issue of polygamy and the attendant problems has been a topic that many writers refuse to take head-on. The topic is controversial and many people view polygamists with disdain. Some see them as heathens or traditionalists. To some, polygamists are pagans, or as they put it, idol worshippers.

In this article, I wish to take this issue to the market square and ventilate the pros and cons in the public, so that people that do not understand African way of life and the complexities of our traditions will come to understand and maybe appreciate why it is so. Also, it is meant for even some Africans themselves that condemn the practice and refer to men that marry more than one wife as crude or living in the past. But I am here to tell readers that men that marry more than one wife are not crude.

The term “polygamy” is Greek word meaning “the practice of multiple marriages”. It is a form of marriage in which a person has more than one spouse. It is the opposite of monogamy which is a practice of one man one wife. Polygamy is divided into two, polygyny and polyandry.

Polygyny means when a man marries more than one wife at a time. Polygyny is practiced in many Middle Eastern and some African countries like Sudan and some Western African countries especially Muslims and traditional religion. It is also practiced in the Caribbean in mostly patriarchical societies. Mormon religion used to practice it but later outlawed it except that their fundamentalists still practice it.

Polyandry means when a woman marries more than one husband at a time. In some cultures, it is not uncommon for women to marry more than one husband at a time. It is known as wife sharing. Some call it fraternal polyandry and it was traditionally practiced among nomadic Tibetans in Nepal and some parts of China . There, two or more brothers share the same wife, with the wife having equal sexual access to them. Polyandry is mainly practiced in societies with scarce environmental resources, as it is believed to limit human population growth and enhance child survival. They reasoned that a child with more than one father has a more chance of survival than a child with only one father. Here we mean social fathers and not necessarily biological fathers.

Some people will roll their eyes at this notion, but culture is relative to the people that practice it (cultural relativism). Therefore it is a misnomer to use the term polygamy as involving a man marrying more than one wife at a given time. It is actually polygyny.

Having said that let me say that the practice of one man marrying many wives to me is not by itself wrong. In the olden days, our grand fathers and great-grand fathers practiced it because of many reasons.

First of all the practice is highly favored because of the agrarian society of their time. Many wives equal many children and many children together with the many wives accounted for many hands in the farm. The more people you have in your family the more laborers in your farmland. The mainstay of their economy is farming. A man’s wealth is judged by the size of his farm and by how big his family is. People also look at how much land, fruit trees like palm trees and other economic trees. In my area when yam is the most common stable food, people look at the size of the barn, to see how many stacks of yams, the quantity of cocoyam etc. All these are indicatives of how wealthy a man is at their time. Let me say that a poor man would not be able to cater for many wives and does not have big farms. Moreover, some men that grew up as only sons, try to take many wives so as to enlarge the size of his family.

Secondly, a man’s family size determines his influence in the political society. With his many wives and children, his political influence could be felt. This is because, in the public square, if the man has grown sons that have already been initiated into the age-grade “ogbo”, if the man makes a suggestion and a hand vote is needed, his grown sons would be there to back him up.

Also some men that want to be “eze”-kings, try to take wives from villages in his town that he sees as his rival in the chieftaincy tussle. If he foresees that there is a prospective candidate for “eze” from certain village(s), a politically savvy candidate would try to take a wife from that village(s) to neutralize his rival(s). That way, if his rivals want to hurt him, they would not because he is now an “ogo” in-law. Some men even when they have already succeeded in becoming “ezes”, if they still feel threatened by a particular village, they try to take wives from those villages to neutralize any move by them to antagonize him since he is now a ‘relation’ to them by virtue of marriage.

In some instances, many wives were products of inter-tribal wars. In those days, some women captured during inter-tribal wars automatically become wives of the king. Some were given to him as spoils of war or in agreement to appease the victors during those wars.

Sometimes, if there was an accidental killing of a man, the culprits would pay the victim’s family with a young woman in compensation for their loss. The young woman would become a wife of the deceased person and probably the eldest person in the family would “inherit” the young woman and raise children for the deceased brother. Also if a man dies and the wife is still young, his brother also inherits the wife and raise kids for his deceased brother. In Jewish tradition, it is called levirate marriage. In these instances, these men add to the number of wives they have.

The down side is that in a polygamous marriage, there is this constant competition among the wives and even children of opposing camps. They compete for everything from the husbands’ time, attention, wealth, etc. Sometimes, this competition becomes deadly as there is always constant bickerings, fights, enmity and back-bitting. These are not unexpected in a place where you have lots of interests.

If a person marries another spouse while the first legal marriage is still subsisting, he commits a crime known as bigamy. Bigamy is defined as the act or condition of a person marrying another person while still being lawfully married to a third person. It is a crime in most western countries. For instance in the United States, married persons make a contract upon becoming married and by that contract, the person is obliged under the law not to marry again as long as the first marriage continues and the stipulations of the marriage license applies. According to Section 370 of the Criminal Code, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990:

“Any person who, having a husband or wife living, marries in any case in which such marriage is void by reason of its taking place during the life of such husband or wife, is guilty of felony and is liable for imprisonment for 7 years”

In Nigeria, if one performs marriage under the Marriage Act, any other subsequent marriage(s) under the Act is bigamy. Marriage under the Act means that there was a marriage protected by the law whereby the spouse has certain rights and privileges. However, what many do in order to circumvent the provision of the Criminal Code as regards bigamy, is to perform one marriage under the Marriage Act and the other subsequent ones under the traditional system. But even before a particular marriage is performed under the Marriage Act, the traditional marriage must be performed. That gives the suitor some standing to proceed with the church marriage. Before a priest performs a wedding for a couple, or even before the marriage ban is called in the church, the suitor must have performed the vital aspect of the traditional marriage which in most cases is the bride price or bride wealth (ime ego nwanyi or ime aku nwanyi) as some call it. Otherwise, there would be objections by the bride’s family.

I would say that though polygamy is frowned at by the law, I have not seen someone being prosecuted for bigamy in African setting. The only thing is that it is only the “legal” wife and his children that has a right to the man’s property should there be any lawsuit especially if the man dies intestate (without making a will). The law is not so strict against men that have many wives irrespective of the fact that subsequent wives are not recognized by the law.

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