For­get polygamy. It’s the so­cial sys­tem, stupid!


The East African - - OPINION -

In re­cent weeks, to the hor­ror of fem­i­nists, at least two Kenyan fe­male mem­bers of par­lia­ment have made rous­ing calls for polygamy. One of them, Mom­basa’s Woman Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Asha Hus­sein asked no less than Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta him­self, to marry a se­cond wife to “set an ex­am­ple to Kenyan men” on polygamy.

Many women — speak­ing out of so­cial me­dia — were out­raged. There have been sup­port­ive noises for polygamy, mostly from men. And the jokes, with some tweeps won­der­ing what First Lady Mar­garet Keny­atta thought of Asha Hus­sein’s en­treaties to her hus­band to bring com­pe­ti­tion into their home.

This is not a Kenyan phe­nom­e­non. If you fol­low African me­dia closely, ev­ery week or so th­ese days, there is a fe­male politi­cian or com­mu­nity leader calling for polygamy, which had fallen out of fash­ion in re­cent decades.

So what the hell is go­ing on? Some ex­pla­na­tions are more ob­vi­ous. From about 25 years ago, when the num­ber of women in top po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship and par­lia­ment in Africa started to rise, the first crop were war­riors who had fought for women’s rights in a hos­tile pa­tri­ar­chal Africa dom­i­nated by re­ac­tionary pow­er­ful men.

Of­ten, they were por­trayed as out­casts, “bad women” who didn’t want to stay home, cook and mop and wait on their hus­bands, and who at­tacked “tra­di­tions that had served Africa well for cen­turies.”

They were anti-polygamy, see­ing it as both op­pres­sive to women, but also ir­ra­tional and en­trench­ing poverty: It al­lowed weasels with patched trousers to keep ac­cu­mu­lat­ing wives and chil­dren they couldn’t af­ford to look af­ter.


Then some­thing good hap­pened — the num­ber of women in lead­er­ship rose sharply. Soon, how­ever, there were more po­si­tions for women in lead­er­ship than there were fem­i­nists to fill them. More po­lit­i­cally tra­di­tional women politi­cians be­gan to pros­per, and soon very so­cially con­ser­va­tive ones started to be elected in waves that saw a broad right­ward shift of vot­ers, with ris­ing ho­mo­pho­bia, the ex­plo­sion of evan­gel­i­cal churches, and what is be­ing cast as the cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ence of glob­al­i­sa­tion and tech­nol­ogy (in­ter­net, so­cial me­dia).

To be fair, couched in the lan­guage of polygamy, th­ese women lead­ers are speak­ing to some se­ri­ous is­sues. They cor­rectly see a cri­sis of bro­ken fam­i­lies. They see sex­ual per­mis­sive­ness, and the spread of trans­ac­tional sex, and how it’s re­vers­ing the gains made against HIV/ Aids. And mostly they see in­creased poverty.

They think that rich men can be part of the so­lu­tion by shar­ing out their wealth among many wives and chil­dren. And that a polyg­a­mous fam­ily, what­ever its short­com­ings, still pro­vides a bet­ter so­cial sup­port that makes for “bet­ter chil­dren” than the street or the mar­ket.

Still, those are re­ally bad ways to solve the cri­sis of fam­ily, poverty, and sex­ual ex­ploita­tion.

They are not sus­tain­able, and are dis­em­pow­er­ing, mak­ing it harder for women to gain the power to ne­go­ti­ate their fair share of pub­lic goods.

Th­ese are bet­ter solved by pub­lic pol­icy; so­cial se­cu­rity pay­ments to the needy; uni­ver­sal health­care; elim­i­na­tion of cor­rup­tion; and more ef­fi­cient de­liv­ery of ser­vices by the state.

They are, how­ever, still a wel­come cry to help. Ask­ing po­lyg­a­mists to help, though, is like calling the ar­son­ist, not the fire bri­gade, to put out the fire.

Men are, how­ever, still a wel­come cry to help. But ask­ing po­lyg­a­mists to help, is like calling the ar­son­ist, not the fire bri­gade, to put out the fire

Charles Onyango-obbo is pub­lisher of data vi­su­aliser Afr­ica­pae­dia and Rogue Chiefs. Twit­ter@cobbo3

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