Polygamy in Africa has little to do with sex

At its core polygamy is natural because men biologically need to spread their seed and it is hard for them to commit to one woman. Right?


But this argument is one commonly given to explain the tradition.

For instance, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, wrote in his autobiography that: “However unconventional and unsatisfactory this way of life may appear to those who are confirmed monogamists, and without in any way trying to defend my own sex, it is a frequently accepted fact that man is naturally polygamous.

And following a law that would protect women in polygamous marriages in Tanzania in the 1970s, male deputies protested saying: “if a man has to get his wife’s consent to a second marriage, the African tradition where man has always been superior to a woman will be endangered.” (source)

In more modern times, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa has defended the tradition in similar terms, saying that it’s better than cheating (which, he has nevertheless also managed to do).

Status not sex

Yet even if natural urges are the reason men might choose polygamy today – which I doubt, considering it would take an admirably virile man to keep an amount of women sexually satisfied – historically the sexual aspect was hardly the most relevant. Furthermore, women also have natural urges.

The truth is that polygamy was to do with status and wealth. The more wives a man had the more his wealth grew. Why? Because it was women and their children who worked the land. That is also why, contrary to popular belief, monogamy was equally common in precolonial Africa if not by choice. As historian Samuel Johnson writes in his seminal book, only the wealthy can avail themselves of the luxury of polygamy.

Even for women, polygamy in ancient times was not always disadvantageous. Through polygamous marriages women in precolonial Africa often had greater personal autonomy. As new wives joined a compound, older ones could focus on their trading. And successful women traders, such as the Iyalodes in Yorubaland, had a lot of power. While autonomous female traders are traditionally linked to West Africa, studies have found a long history of women’s trading also in places such as among the Kikuyu in Kenya as well as groups in Uganda and Zambia.
Also, women could take lovers that would pay husbands for the “loan”, if the husband allowed it – which some would if the wife was not the first or last.
In Guinea, albeit during colonial rule, in order to escape nagging husbands and join the independence struggles, women went so far as to acquire wives for their husbands as explained in “Emancipate your husbands“.

Of course, whatever autonomy polygamy afforded back then, it was subsumed by colonialism and the rise of puritanical missionary teaching.

What about love?

I’m sure that what we today describe as romantic love could be found in polygamous homes. Humans are biologically predisposed to feel romantic love. But since couples in love would run away from their parents to be together to avoid polygamous marriages it seems likely that it was not the norm. There are accounts of missionaries “rescuing” a woman being kidnapped only to learn that it was staged. It was in fact the woman’s boyfriend “kidnapping” her so that they could escape the inevitability of her ending up in a polygamous marriage.

Polygamy has far from disappeared. From President Zuma to village heads in Zimbabwe to my own granddad (who married four women), polygamy is part of the fabric of African life.

I don’t think polygamy should be illegal. As long as our societies are marked by both poverty and patriarchy, it will continue. Women still depend on men financially and social norms entitle men to dominant roles. (Of course, I wish both poverty and patriarchy would end.) And I certainly think that as long as polygamy is legal, women should also be able to marry more than one man. Also, some people might be genuinely happy practising polygamy.
But please spare me the macho spiel that polygamy in African society is about men’s natural sexual urges.
It’s not about sex, it’s about status.

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  • MJ

    Well researched and well written. I could talk about and debate on this subject. It is something that has become twisted in “execution” and true “meaning” of what it was intended to be and once up on a time actually was. It wasn’t just wealth creation and status for the man but at times a necessity as you pointed out to protect women from social stigma, poverty and predators – be they financial, sexual or simply violent. Reasons behind the “institution of polygamy” are as diverse as the cultures around the world or even just on the continent are. Thank you for always providing another or simply more educated perspective. You are always a refreshing and stimulating read.

    • http://Www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan

      Thank you, I feel encouraged reading your comment. So much to say on this topic indeed, and to clear up. More to come.

    • http://Www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan

      Hi Marilyn, thanks for your comment. Polygamy is deeply tied to male dominance but in order to dismantle it we need to understand its roots. It’s a service transaction where sure, sex is included but it’s hardly the motivation in most historical African contexts. Would love to read your piece if it’s online?

      • https://twitter.com/mjfontaineuk mjfontaineuk

        Hi Minna, it was for an intro to Anthropology essay I have to locate it as it was written about six years ago, and it also covered Bridewealth. If I locate it I will let you know.

  • http://www.busanga.com Busanga

    Whatever polygamy was about and is about, it remains the inalienable rights of adults to determine how to live. If it is okay for two men to be married, according to you feminists, then how is it unokay for a man and two woman to live? One natural, the other one gross! So as western diplomats are going about spreading western propaganda of gay tolerance, they should take a cue and spread polygamy tolerance too!

    • MsAfropolitan

      @Busanga – I wrote in the last chapter that I think polygamy should be legal precisely because it should be the right of consenting adults to decide what type of marriage they want to enter. Perhaps it is you who should ask yourself the same question you posed to me – why you think it’s OK that a man and two women marry but not two women?

    • Ruth K.

      Your view that two men or two women is gross is very judgemental. You are asking that we tolerate polygamy as the right of consenting adults to determine how to live. You should offer the same to others, whether you think it is gross, or wrong, as you have asked others to approve of people’s desire to live polygamously.

  • DM

    Beautiful write-up once again! 
    Right from ancient times polygamy has been in existence. Several religious books talk about it. It’s widely believed that the female is superior in intellect and ability to survive among the species. But how the man came to  take over this superiority to the extent of gathering several women together and calling them his ‘wives’ beats my imagination. Where did the women folk get it wrong? I will differ however regarding polygamy in Africa being social status related. I’ve met several security guards who earn peanuts married to 3-4wives. The million dollar question is why these women agree to get into such polygamous settings in the first place. Could it be that unknowingly women are fanning the embers of polygamy by agreeing to be part of such unions?

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the comment DM.
      “Where did the women folk get it wrong?” I ask myself this question all the time! Many routes have led to where we are I suppose, but in this day and age, much of women’s oppression is to do with dependency. Men earn more than women, even the security guard you mention can be seen to have a lot to someone who has nothing. But you’re right in implying that the necessary change is psychological, once women realise that they don’t have to give up their right to exist autonomously.

  • http://asanempokasghanaway.wordpress.com Asanempoka.Zebra

    I have placed a link and put my response on my blog – Sisterhood Across Continents. Thanks for another interesting post. It got me thinking. :)

  • Pingback: Polygamy in the family | Sisterhood across continents()

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for commenting and linking to my blog. It was good to read your story and how you’ve come to feel about polygamous marriages based on your experiences.
      Although I don’t think polygamy should be illegal but I do think it’s an anti-woman institution at least as it stands today.

  • http://www.adventuresfrom.com Nana Darkoa

    Yup, I’m for polyandry too…as long as both adults are fully consenting and all of that :)

  • Mikhaila Kipkourir

    There are some benefits of polygamy for women. It does not only benefit men. There are sister-wives to help with housework and childrearing. A large family can teach children to live part of a community and how to get along with others and do their part to help the family. Hopefully the wives will be sisters as well — women whose shoulder to cry on, and laugh with. Also some women may not feel like “giving it up” when the man wants “it”; sharing a man could give a woman a needed rest. It does take alot of communication and unselfishness and self-love and understanding to make it work for all. I think if all consent to it, and no-one is forced or coerced to be polygamous or polyamorous others should not judge. I also think we need to get away from the idea that polygamy is always patriarchal and always oppressive of women. I am curious to know about societies (if there are any) which practice wives having multiple husbands. I think men probably would have a harder time sharing their wives than women would sharing their husbands. Brother-Husbands? It sounds so odd, probably because it is so rare.

  • E.

    “And I certainly think that as long as polygamy is legal, women should also be able to marry more than one man”.

    PREACH!!! I remember debating this topic in one of my classes in law school. There’s was very traditional Mormon sect in British Columbia (Canada) whose leader and other men were polygamous. So in the name of freedom of religion, they contested the Canadian laws which prohibit polygamy. On the other side, you had feminist groups who argued that the laws shouldn’t be repelled because they protected women’s rights (a lot of young women were forced into polygamous marriages in that sect/religious group). Then, my international human rights law professor start saying that polygamy should be legal in Canada because of the freedom of religion is protected in the Constitution. I said fair enough, as long as we allow women to marry as many men they want. My professor looked at me and said: “There is nothing like polyandry.” I told her that I begged to differ but there were societies like around New Guinea. And she had the nerve to tell me something to the effect that it couldn’t be true, that women aren’t known to indulge this kind of relationships, basically that it was abnormal. Freud, quand tu nous tiens! I just told her that equality between men and women was also a human right which needed to be upheld. On what basis, men should be allowed to LEGALLY have multiple wives? If men and women are deemed equal before the law, everyone should be afforded the same rights. Having a right doesn’t mean that one will necessarily exercise it, but at least either give the right to everyone or give it to no one. I think my supposedly human rights activist of a professor never realized how far she was subconsciously convinced that only men are/should be allowed to do certain thing because that’s the way things were supposed to be!

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  • Iyalosa Songonjoko Adeyemo

    First, the practice of polygamy is when Both the husband and wife, in a marriage, can have multiple partners. Polygyny is when men alone have the right to multiple wives and polyandry is when women can have multiple husbands. That being said I have always wondered how does a man protect and provide for multiple wives and children? Could it be that the practice of polygamy contributed, greatly, to the success of the capture and enslavement of the African people? I have travelled to Africa and have seen the poorest of men with multiple wives…Could it be that polygamy, along with being a so-called status symbol, is also an ancient and accepted form of enslavement? For the man who has little resources several wives and multiple children are a guaranteed economic advantage, although not for the women and children…

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com/ MsAfropolitan

      Hi Iyalosa, thanks for sharing your reflections. I’d love to hear more about your thinking on how polygamy (polygyny?) may have contributed to the enslavement of Africans.

      I think you may be on to something namely, in the sense that notions of patriarchy and fatherhood are tightly linked, and both are tied to nationhood and community. The responsibilities of a family man then, might be linked to the perceived responsibilities of men in patriarchal rule toward the society they rule.

  • Me

    then women should be able to have more than one man