I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do

Polygamy has a long his­tory and seems to be en­joy­ing a re­vival in Africa, writes Paul Val­lely

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

T HIS week Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma mar­ried his fifth wife in a tra­di­tional cer­e­mony at his re­mote homestead in KwaZulu-Natal. His first wife, whom he mar­ried in 1973, was there to see him wed a woman 30 years his ju­nior.

His sec­ond wife stayed home to pre­pare the re­cep­tion. He had two other wives but was di­vorced from one in 1998 and an­other com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2000. He has paid the tra­di­tional dowry for his sixth fi­ancée.

Crit­ics say polygamy does not fit the im­age of a mod­ern so­ci­ety. It sends the wrong mes­sage in a coun­try with the world’s high­est rate of HIV/Aids. And they won­der how he can af­ford 19 chil­dren on a state salary.

But Zuma’s re­spect for tra­di­tion is en­dear­ing to many South Africans. They say it is more hon­est than hid­ing his mis­tresses and il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren like Wester n politi­cians. And they say polygamy is a right en­shrined in South Africa’s con­sti­tu­tion.

Tech­ni­cally, when there is more than one woman mar­ried to a man, it is called polyg­yny. When a woman has more than one hus­band it is called polyandry.

It takes many forms across the globe. In some cul­tures one wife is shared by broth­ers. In oth­ers a fa­ther and son have a com­mon wife. In oth­ers a man has many wives – up to 11 in the Arsi re­gion of Ethiopia. In many, a widow is in­her­ited by her dead hus­band’s broth­ers, fa­ther, or even a son by an­other wife.

In 1998, the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin sur­veyed more than a thou­sand so­ci­eties. Of th­ese just 186 were monog­a­mous. Some 453 had oc­ca­sional polyg­yny and in 588 more it was quite com­mon. Just four fea­tured polyandry. Some an­thro­pol­o­gists be­lieve polygamy has been the norm through hu­man his­tory. In 2003, New Sci­en­tist mag­a­zine sug­gested that, un­til 10 000 years ago, most chil­dren had been sired by com­par­a­tively few men.

Vari­a­tions in DNA, it said, showed that the dis­tri­bu­tion of X chro­mo­somes sug­gested that a few men seem to have had greater in­put into the gene pool than the rest. By con­trast, most women seemed to get to pass on their genes. Hu­mans, like their pri­mate fore­fa­thers, it said, were at least “mildly polyg­y­nous”.

Polygamy is very com­mon in the an­i­mist and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties of West Africa. In Sene­gal, for ex­am­ple, nearly 47 per­cent of mar­riages are said to fea­ture mul­ti­ple women. It is rel­a­tively high still in many Arab na­tions; among the Be­douin pop­u­la­tion of Is­rael it stands at about 30 per­cent. Ac­cord­ing to The Salt Lake Tri­bune as many as 10 000 Mor­mon fun­da­men­tal­ists in 2005 lived in polyg­a­mous fam­i­lies.

N o one knows polygamy’s ori­gins. But there are clues. It is most com­mon in places where pre-colo­nial eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity cen­tred around sub­sis­tence farm­ing which re­quires lots of man­power, Africa be­ing a prime ex­am­ple. High lev­els of in­fant mor­tal­ity may be a fac­tor; when many chil­dren do not sur­vive past the age of five. To be eco­nom­i­cally vi­able a fam­ily needs more than one child-bearer.

Then there is war. When a lot of men die, hav­ing more than one wife boosts the pop­u­la­tion most swiftly. The more wives a man had, the more mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal al­liances he could forge. Wealth and sta­tus be­came wrapped up in the num­ber of wives a man had.

A larger fam­ily be­came a source of pride, while a smaller one was a sym­bol of fail­ure and shame. By con­trast, in a so­ci­ety with too few re­sources and too many peo­ple, polyandry is a way of lim­it­ing the pop­u­la­tion’s growth. A woman can have only so many chil­dren, no mat­ter how many husbands she is mar- ried to. Such con­sid­er­a­tions were of­ten con­sciously po­lit­i­cal.

Mar­ry­ing wid­ows was a so­cial strat­egy for en­sur­ing that or­phans were cared for. The Prophet Muham­mad, who had a monog­a­mous mar­riage for 25 years un­til his first wife died, mar­ried many of his other wives – nine in to­tal – be­cause they were war wid­ows.

The Qur’an or­dains that a Mus­lim can marry up to four wives, but only if he can care for them all equally well. Many tra­di­tional African so­ci­eties had a sim­i­lar custom of widow in­her­i­tance to keep the ex­tended fam­ily, and its prop­erty, to­gether.

Through the cen­turies, other po­lit­i­cal leaders have seen sim­i­lar ad­van­tage. In Ger­many, in 1650, the par­lia­ment at Nürem­berg de­creed that, be­cause so many men were killed dur­ing the Thirty Years’ War, ev­ery man was al­lowed to marry up to 10 women. In 2001 Pres­i­dent Bashir of Su­dan urged men to take more than one wife to in­crease the pop­u­la­tion, ar­gu­ing that it was the huge pop­u­la­tions of China and In­dia that had brought them rapid eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

Polygamy is le­gal in South Africa, Egypt, Eritrea, Morocco and Malaysia – and in Iran and Libya (with the writ­ten con­sent of the first wife). In other places – such as Is­rael, Chech­nya and Burma – it is il­le­gal but the law is not en­forced.

Chris­tian­ity con­demns polygamy as an of­fence against the dig­nity of mar­riage, in­sist­ing that con­ju­gal love be­tween a man and wife must be mu­tual and un­re­served, un­di­vided and exclusive.

But the Hindu god Kr­ishna had 16 108 wives. Many in the He­brew scrip­tures were po­lyg­a­mists, in­clud­ing Abra­ham, Ja­cob, David and Solomon. And in Con­fu­cian­ism, con­cu­bines were per­mit­ted – but only to fur­nish an heir, not for sex­ual va­ri­ety. The Qur’an also ex­plic­itly for­bids mut’ah (mar­riages of plea­sure).

Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies tried to stamp polygamy out in Africa. Some Marx­ists reckon it was be­cause the sys­tem of prop­erty own­er­ship it pro­moted con­flicted with the Euro­pean colo­nial­ists’ in­ter­ests. But it was much more to do with a Euro­pean cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ism. Quite right too, say mod­ern neo-lib­er­als, who ar­gue polygamy in all its forms is a recipe for so­cial struc­tures that un­der mine so­cial free­dom and democ­racy.

Fem­i­nists have not been ter­ri­bly keen ei­ther. A Saudi TV jour­nal­ist, Na­dine al-Bedair, re­cently caused a huge stir through­out the Arab world by de­mand­ing Is­lamic par­ity for Mus­lim women to have four husbands. The men were not amused.

Is polygamy un­der­go­ing a re­vival? A lit­tle, some an­thro­pol­o­gists sug­gest, as part of Africa’s kick­ing against colo­nial­ism.

“Euro­peani­sa­tion must not be col­lapsed into moder­nity,” the new breed of pan-African­ists are ar­gu­ing, post-mod­ernly. In Is­rael a for­mer chief rabbi Ova­dia Yosef has cam­paigned for polygamy and the prac­tice of pi­legesh (con­cu­bi­nage) to be le­galised. There is life in the old ways yet. – The In­de­pen­dent


ALL IN THE FAM­ILY: Tom Green, cen­tre, and his five wives pose at their homes in Trout Creek, Utah. The wives are, from left, Han­nah, Lee Ann, Shirley, Linda and Cari. Green, an avowed po­lyg­a­mist, lives with his five wives and their chil­dren in the Utah desert.

TRA­DI­TIONAL WED­DING: Ja­cob Zuma and Nompumelelo Ntuli per­form a tra­di­tional dance at their wed­ding cel­e­bra­tion at his Nkandla homestead.


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