New Internationalist

Four Wives, One God

Issue 268

Many wives, one god
A shock next door... Teenage kicks for the patriarch... How does it feel to be a co-wife?...
The sky gods win out...

Worshipping the Word: Moussa studies Islam in Adama's house and does odd jobs for his keep. I have been living next door to Zenabou and Adama for a week and have visited their home three times before I discover I have failed to grasp a rather fundamental change in their circumstances: Adama now has four wives instead of two. This emerges when I finally manage to sit a hitherto elusive Adama down for a chat just before his evening prayers. As we talk a young woman I’d previously assumed to be a guest wanders past us and straight into his new mud-brick house. This seems a bit familiar so I lean over to ask him who she is. I am flabbergasted by the answer.

Somehow even knowing you’re in a polygamous society, the fact of it is difficult to absorb – I am rarely anything but genuinely surprised when a man tells me how many wives he has. It’s a conception of marriage and the relationship between the sexes so completely different from our own that it is hard to credit. And the bigger the number, the harder it is to absorb.

Ten years ago I got used to the idea that Zenabou was one of two wives, and that Mariama was too. Zenabou argued then that polygamy was good for a woman because it provided her with a sister to share the burden of domestic work and childcare. This of course presupposes that the burden is going to fall more on women anyway. And indeed Adama’s bald acceptance that women work more than men was the centrepiece of our film: ‘I can see for myself that she is tired, that she works too hard. But tradition and habit stop me from helping her. It is a woman’s place to do that work. I don’t see why I should help her.’

Adama’s patriarchal power now seems even more obvious – it is almost as if having more wives allows him to divide and rule along the lines of the old colonial policy. Certainly I have the clear sense that the two older wives, Zenabou and Meryam, are less than entirely happy with the new arrangement.

Adama took his third wife Barkissou six years ago and has two children by her so she has clearly been well absorbed into the family structure. But the fourth wife, Bintu, only arrived last year – and she is still only 16 years old. By Adama’s own admission this is a fairly curious marriage. Bintu was offered by her father, one of Adama’s friends, to his and Zenabou’s oldest son, Hamaru, who is now living in Ouagadougou. But Hamaru turned her down and the way Adama puts it he felt duty bound to take on the poor girl himself. He seems to have got over any sense of fatherly responsibility this might imply: Bintu doesn’t even have a bedroom of her own yet but rather spends every night sleeping with Adama, which is highly irregular in this society.

There is some banter amongst the four co-wives about this. Zenabou says outright that the other three have not exactly been swamped with Adama’s attentions since Bintu arrived. This is a joke but not one devoid of feeling and it certainly makes Bintu squirm uncomfortably. I ask Bintu how she feels about being married to so old a man (Adama is 52) and she says it is good, that younger men are so silly. Zenabou embarrasses the poor young woman further by telling me that Bintu is in love and it doesn’t seem inconceivable – she seems pretty radiant and Adama is a good-looking old rogue.

But marriage in this society is primarily an economic decision. Even if Bintu is in love now, what will have attracted her (or rather her father) to the arrangement is Adama’s relative wealth. His 12 oxen are the physical proof that he will be able to offer her economic and food security.

This is also why I am routinely offered teenage daughters in marriage as I go round the village – one of the Chief’s five wives, for example, offers me her 15-year-old daughter. I may have a few grey hairs but I would provide wealth beyond their wildest dreams and as such in their view I am wasted on only one partner.

When Zenabou comes to visit me on her own outside my hut in the evening, as she does quite often, I ask her on a more intimate basis how she has felt about this major change in her life. She gives a somewhat less than ringing endorsement of Adama’s decision to take two more wives.

For richer, for poorer... Adama and the women in his life: Zenabou, Bintu, Meryam and Barkissou. I ask if he’d discussed things with her before he’d done it and she says no as if that were a pigs-might-fly eventuality. So men never discuss this with their wives? ‘No, never.’ I ask if she’d been happy or unhappy about the idea and she says: ‘What could I do if I was unhappy about it? Where could I go? You just have to make the best of it.’ When I ask how she gets on with her co-wives her response is similar. I remind her that when we’d asked her about this ten years ago she’d said that having a co-wife reduced the burden in a sisterly way. She assents to this again. But I don’t think I am just imagining it when I notice something unsaid in her eyes.

There are plenty of women in the village who assert the value of polygamy. Take Rabietu and Setu, the two wives of Harouna the Nurse. Setu finds my questioning a bit close to the bone. But Rabietu, who is generally more rambunctious, is delighted to rise to my challenge.

So how did she feel about becoming the second wife of a man rather than the one and only? ‘It was my destiny. When you’re in love that’s what matters.’ But when you’re embarking on such a marriage do you size up the first wife to see if you’re going to be able to get on with her? ‘It’s the man who chooses. It’s up to us to sort it out and get on with each other. We’re together all the time, after all – we have to be the best of friends. She can look after my children while I’m at work. It’s like we’re children of the same mother.’ But what about when your husband is ‘with’ the other wife – doesn’t that hurt? ‘We’re used to it.’ Ah, but how did it feel at the start? (Laughter) ‘In the beginning it’s tough, it’s true, but you get used to it.’

Rabietu is quite tickled by the idea of corresponding with a Western woman about the virtues of polygamy. Nevertheless she thinks the practice will decline over time on economic grounds alone as men recognize they don’t need more wives and children just to survive. ‘And though I’m happy with it, more and more women are objecting.’ Rabietu confirms what Zenabou implies – that a man generally won’t consult his first wife about taking a second. In extreme cases she may know nothing about it until the day of the marriage itself.

The real test of these women’s attitude to polygamy, it seems to me, is whether they want their children to enter polygamous marriages. Rabietu says she would advise hers against it, if only on economic grounds. Mariama says she’d wanted monogamy for herself but had been given no option. ‘There’s no way any of my children are going to enter a polygamous marriage.’

She is not likely to encounter the problem with her son Omaru, who is clear he will only marry one woman. That is the view of all the teenage boys and younger men with whom I broach the subject. They see polygamy as an old-fashioned practice which is beginning to die out along with the animist religious traditions of the village.

Why should the old animist beliefs have been eclipsed so completely by Islam and Christianity? You can’t put the transformation down to the innate evangelical power of the One God religions – after all, people here proved immune to decades of French colonial education and missionary work.

My own guess is that it’s part of the whole package of modernization. The villagers are clear that they need a spiritual dimension to their lives. But the old ways are just not holding: the new religions have an external validation which the old sacrificial rites no longer retain.

The village is gearing up for a big animist funeral when I leave – to mourn the death of one of its most distinguished elders, blind Gyerban, whom I remember well from ten years ago. But it is almost like his funeral is the last hurrah for the old religion. Gyerban’s son Raphael, also now blind, was a convert long ago to Catholicism – he built the church and was the rock around which the Christian community in the village grew. But his father remained resolutely animist throughout his life. Until, that is, his final illness, when he agreed to be baptized. Perhaps he was just sensibly hedging his bets in the style of King Charles II, who became a Catholic on his deathbed. But it doesn’t seem too fanciful to think of his conversion as the last nail in the coffin of Sabtenga’s animism.

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