The different faces of Polygamy in Africa

African society structure

In the pre-colonial era, African communities were founded on the unity and stability of families. These families were extensive, branching from one clan to another as homesteads. Having many wives equaled to siring countless number of children who were important as farm workforce and cattle herders. Daughters were termed as a source of wealth (through bride price) while sons, the pride and continuity of the family name.

African men could have about 100 children or more and to achieve such a large number, polygamy was the way out. Polygamous families lived in one compound but each had their own huts according to seniority of the wives. A polygamous man could marry as many wives as his wealth allowed since bride price was a requirement during engagement ceremonies. The richer men had many wives and in turn many children.

In traditional view, polygamy was an indicator of a man’s wealth in terms of cattle, land and children.

Polygamous families had top positions in the clans such as elders or advisors to the chief or king, and where marriages were a source of power, daughters ensured a firm connection to the throne with plenty of bride price gifts to recharge their wealth and influence on the rulers.

Modern society polygamy

With introduction of Christianity and the colonial laws, polygamy has become unaffordable. The modern economy demands money in form of taxes, goods and services, plus the tiny mouths to feed back at home make polygamy harder for many men. Christian and the civil laws permit marriage to only one wife and failure of adherence to this you are charged with bigamy .

However, polygamy has taken a new face. One man can have many ‘wives’ located in each county without legally marrying them.

Dysfunctional relationships

It begins when a young man goes through failed relationships. He dumps most of them if they get pregnant (for he deems the conception as either a trap into marriage or a mistake) or due to some misunderstandings/betrayal. They move on to the next lady and the pattern is repeated until he decides to settle with ‘the one’ by a church wedding.

Basically, this young man has fathered several children with the ex-girlfriends but has one legal wife.

Legal marriages

For those in marriages, polygamy is fostered through adultery. The married man moves around with side chicks’ ,gets one or more pregnant and BOOM!! This becomes a case of polygamy.

Most modern polymorphs of polygamy are done unknowingly and they are strongly encouraged by laxity of sexual practices in both single and married people, adding intolerance in relationships.

Traditional marriages

Traditional marriages are still practiced today. On the other hand, traditional marriage upholds polygamy and if a lady is joined in holy matrimony via this way, the Kenyan law can not act against a polygamous husband. This form of institution allows the man to knowingly marry as many wives as possible unless the first wife insists on a church or civil marriage to make it legally bound.

Come-we-stay marriages

Come-we-stay marriages are not recognised by law or by African traditions. This is also a major element of polygamy. The man can play house with as many women as possible as long as the village gossip mongers do not catch sent of the juicy sin. A historic cat-fight among lovers sharing a boyfriend is what a bored village needs to come back to life.

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