/ 6 April 2022

Monogamy is a social construct

Graphic Polygamy Website 1200px
(John McCann)

Four months ago, in early December, my cousin’s husband, Bashi Malama*, took off and disappeared into thin air without notice.

Two months later, word came that he had been spotted alive and well at a house in a nearby township; this is to say, in plain language, that he was staying with another woman.

We broke the news to the wife, Bana Malama*, who responded with just one word: “bakabwela” (he will come back), and continued eating, unbothered.

We repeated the information, taking turns, just in case she hadn’t heard us correctly: “Bana Malama, your husband, Bashi Malama, to whom you are married, who we thought was in danger, is living with another woman, sharing the same bed at a place not so far from here.”

The second response was even shorter: “So?”

In collective anger and bewilderment, we stopped talking to her for a couple of days. When that didn’t yield the result we wanted, we conjured up stories which we loudly shared of husband A who ended up marrying a second wife, husband B who never returned home, husband C who brought home STIs. That wife D beat up the other woman, and wife E left her philandering man and landed herself a prince in shining armour. None of these stories permeated Bana Malama. 

Last week, Bashi Malama returned unannounced and as silently as he had left. Bana Malama neither welcomed or unwelcomed him; the two just slipped back into pre-disappearance norms.

Lived experience has turned Bana Malama into a social scientist. Over the years, she has observed social phenomena, examined patterns, analysed trends and looked at outcomes before arriving at her scientific conclusion: “Bakabwela” — he will come back.

Bana Malama believes in three things. The first one is that all men, without exception, are polygamous. The second is that all women, without exception, cannot stop the first thing. The third is that each woman must either take it or leave it — nothing in between. She has chosen to take it.

I have in the past written fervently about polygamy. The premise for my argument was and still firmly remains that polygamy is natural, and that monogamy is a social construct, a learned behaviour. Monogamy, the sexual commitment to only one partner at a time, “till death do us part” is not achievable for most men, except for a few (God bless them). The reasons abound, and I will not belabour them here.

My views have drawn sharp and often contrasting responses from men and women. The latter accuse me of promoting promiscuity, with some offering to pray for me because the “the devil is using you”. The former have largely been agreeable, others even sharing detailed experiences, mostly about wanting but struggling to stay monogamous.

I stand by my argument: all men are polygamous. Those who are not, are due to resolve and self-control, while the rest are a matter of time and opportunity.

A study by Conley et al. (2012) in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9, 1559-1565 observed that those who consider themselves monogamous are not always sexually faithful, are unlikely to use condoms during their outside sexual encounter, and are unlikely to inform their partners, in keeping with their self-image of being monogamous.

The study concluded that “unprotected monogamy” is riskier than “condom protected promiscuity”. Therefore, as a strategy for preventing sexually transmitted infections, condom use is a much safer option than monogamy, which has a high rate of failure.

Am I suggesting that there are no men out there in Zambia, the rest of Africa and the world who are not monogamous? No. I want to believe that they are there, and if they are, they know themselves.

One of my girlfriends has sworn never to date an “African man” again, because “they cheat on you and mess you up big time; I am now doing Europeans only,” she declared, buying into the myth all too common among some African women that Caucasian men, unlike black men, are predisposed to monogamy. No use trying to convince her that the European stock of men are not exactly cleansed of polygamous urges, contrary to Western popular culture, which portrays them as a faithful-loving-feminised-domesticated lot.

Repeatedly, I have been asked whether I would marry into or be in a polygamous relationship; a contemptuous question pretending to be philosophical, if you ask me. 

I must perhaps reflect on the advice of Bana Malama, too wise for her age, in particular, her second premise, that no woman, without exception, can stop a man, other than himself, from dreaming of, fantasising about, wanting to and having sex with more than one woman. But it is her third premise, her advice to women, which I find most arbitrary, profound, brutal, wise and conclusive: take it or leave it.

It is what it is, folks! When you know, you know.

In my painstaking conclusion, a monogamous man is an indulgence, a wish list, a construct, a lottery win, the privilege of a select few women and less of an inalienable right of every woman.

  • Names have been changed