New Internationalist

4 wives, 19 children

Issue 389

This is Adama Moné, now 54, and below are his four wives Meryam (43), Zenabou (49), Bintu (27) and Kadiguiatou (32) , together with just some of his 19 living children (though there are some grandchildren in the picture too). Zenabou (second from the left) was the star of our film 20 years ago and Adama himself made a memorable appearance, arguing with a disarming, roguish laugh: ‘It is a woman’s place to do that work. I don’t see why I should help her.’

At that stage Zenabou had just the one co-wife and I was shocked to the core on my return 10 years ago to find that Adama had taken two further wives – although I knew this was possible in principle it seemed such an extraordinary thing to do. Bintu was then just 16, and her co-wives joked that she was in the first flush of love and monopolizing Adama. She didn’t even have a hut of her own at that point, so Adama was certainly not ‘sharing out his favours’ equally in the way advocated opposite by Ousmane.

Officially they toed the party line that it’s good to have co-wives who reduce the workload but when Zenabou visited me outside my hut one evening I was able to probe a bit deeper. She rolled her eyes when I asked if he’d consulted her about taking other wives – what an absurd idea! When I asked if she had been unhappy about it, she said: ‘What could I do if I was unhappy about it? Where could I go? You just have to make the best of it.’

This time around, the cracks in the polygamous family structure that I detected before are by no means evident. The women present a happy, collective face and say they get on very well together. All four of them have their own metal-roofed house within the concession. I spend a few hours picking cotton with them one day and am struck by the good-humoured, comradely atmosphere. The cotton – sold as a cash crop, and unusual in this part of Burkina – is yet another sign that the family is doing well in material terms and there is no escaping the fact that marriage in this society is more of an economic than a romantic decision. Bintu may have told me 10 years ago that she preferred older men (‘younger men are so silly’) but the main attraction of Adama (to her father especially) will have been his ability to provide for her. And on that front, at least, Adama still seems to be delivering.

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