Polygamy: It ain't what it used to be

A few years ago I was commissioned by a women’s magazine to write a column on the place of polygamy in today’s society. I was working, subconsciously, with the premise that polygamy is bad, that it has no place in the 21st Century.

In many ways, it was a politically correct piece, naïve even; it finished with what feels now like a hollow flourish. I concluded thus: “The ringing cry across the continent in the gloomy years of colonialism and apartheid was: “One Man! One Vote!”. The vote has long been secured, perhaps it’s time we changed the chant to: “One Man! One Woman!”.

Perhaps I really believed that then; I am not sure about it anymore. Having written about polygamy, I now pay more attention to the subject. In the magazine piece I interviewed a few women. One told me that she would endorse it if she “could be allowed to marry more than one man. As it is, I feel short-changed by the institution.” Another said: “polygamy is a cop out, it’s a purely male-serving situation with no gain for the woman. It’s a situation that breeds male bravado, lack of commitment and the use of woman as objects of trade and male pleasure. Women who are ok with it are just convincing themselves,” she argued.

A few of the women I spoke to didn’t think polygamy was a particularly bad idea. One said she wouldn’t mind being wife number two, even number three. It wasn’t an economic decision for her: the stylish woman is well to do; she lives in a townhouse and drives around in a Mini Cooper.

In the last week, when news came out that President Jacob Zuma was set to marry his girlfriend, some of South Africa’s twitterati defended polygamy; some attacked it. @KingNovaMiu, who describes herself as a feminist, said: “I would get bored of my husband. Many women around the house will keep that from happening. And I’d have my own life. I’m that kind of feminist. I’m down for free will. If the Pres. was practising ukuthwala [the abduction of young girls to be brides] then it would be an issue”. And I must say from casual conversations I have had in the recent past, there is a gathering counter current to the prevailing simplistic “polygamy is oppressive” debate.

I think my original view of the institution is mostly anthropological.

In its pristine setting, polygamy was always hard to negotiate, requiring fairness and an acute sense of balance—that is, balancing the competing needs of the wives.

Among the Shona of Zimbabwe, the contestation and ill-will in polygamous households were illustrated by the names rival wives stuck onto their children (the word “rival” is used deliberately).
Wife number three could name a girl child Muchaneta to inform wife number two that “you will tire of being a nuisance to me”. When, in turn, wife number two gave birth she would throw back a riposte like Sekai—Shona for “laugh all you want”.

Often it became quite nasty and names like Mashura (bad omen) or Ndaizivei (had I known) were used to keep the climate of ill-will alive. This is not suggestive of a wonderful set up. There was fighting, lots of it, which is quite normal when people (read women) are fighting for a scarce resource (read men). There was poisoning too, and in such instances wife number one told her children not to eat from wife number three.

But this is when a man has a compound and with all his wives in, so to speak, one coop. Polygamy today is a world away from its old template. From the evidence I have, we have moved away from the 19th century polygamous setup. One “small house” is in Germiston, another is in Soweto, and the main house is in Hyde Park. And so it goes.

The idea that men marry more than one woman because African culture permits it is nonsense. I don’t think married African men go around saying: “I need another wife because of African culture.” They are in polygamy because they want to be with more than one woman. Let’s not drag culture into this, it’s just personal preference. I guess taking refuge behind culture is like the naughty child in the proverb who covers his eyes and thinks his parents can’t see him.

Percy Zvomuya

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