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Safety In Numbers


new internationalist
issue 158 - April 1986

Safety in numbers
Two thirds of marriages in Nigeria are polygamous. A recipe for
licentious men and jealous women, you might think. Far from it,
says Buchi Emecheta. When women overcome their rivalry,
polygamy can create a bond between wives that gives
them the courage to say 'No' to their husbands.

IT was cool and damp and I was still debating whether to get up from my bed or not. I knew it was around six in the morning because I could hear the sounds of the children on their way to fetch water and a cock crowing here and there... Then the penetrating voice of Nwayingbo, the eldest wife of Obi Ikem, cut through my thoughts.

'Go away, you stinking beast! Why won't you let me sleep? I have a full day ahead of me and you come harassing me so early in the morning. You're shameless! You don't even care that the children sleep next door. Why don't you go to your new wife?'

'All you have is a loud mouth. You are never around to cook for me, and when I come to your bed, you send me away. What did I pay your bride price for?' The voice of Obi Ikem was low and full of righteous anger.

'Go to your new wife.'

'She's pregnant.'

'So what? Get another woman then. I need my energy for my farm, my trade. And today is market day,' Nwayingbo persisted.

I was sorry to lose the end of the quarrel but my mother-in-law came in and told me not to take any notice of them: 'They are always like that, these men. They are shameless. They think we women are just here to be their partners at night. Ikem should marry another girl.'

My mother-in-law should know. Because she lived in Lagos when she was first married, there was no room to house a second wife. So all her husband's sexual demands had to be met by her, and she had 13 children.

Sex is important to us, but we have been brought up not to make it the centre of our being. Few of our women are interested in sex for its own sake. They feel they are giving their husbands something - out of duty, love, or in order to have children. A young woman might dream of romantic love, but as soon as she starts having children, her loyalty is to them, not to their father. She will do everything in her power to make life better for them. And it's other women - not her husband - who are her closest allies: her friends in the market where she has a stall, the women in the village who are in her agblalani (same-age) group, her mother or mother-in-law whom she can turn to for advice.

On that day Nwayingbo had to be up early selling garri - made from the cassava she had grown herself - on her market stall. Later in the evening she and the rest of her agblalani group were going to dance at the second burial of one of their grandmothers who had died a year previously. For that dance, she and the other women would put on an oluogwa (traditional dress) that had taken three years to save up for. She would tie a navy blue scarf around her head, carry a blue Japanese fan, and wear black slippers on her feet. All of her clothes were bought with money she had earned herself by trading at the market. It was her money, too, that paid for her son to go to college.

After the funeral I could hear Nwayingbo and the other women going home singing their heads off. They drank everything - whisky, beer, gin, brandy - and no man dared tell them not to.

Sex for us is part of life: it is not the life. We listen to the way Western feminists talk about enjoying sex, and we have to laugh. African feminism is about freeing women's emotions from these Western romantic illusions. We need to be much more pragmatic: Cooking for the husband? Get another woman, a younger wife, to do it - especially if she's 16 or 18 with her head full of romantic love. By the time she's as old as you are she'll be wiser too.

The rewards of sisterhood come when a woman reaches the age of, say, 40. If she has cultivated her relationships with other women - her co-wives, her agblalani group - she will reap many rewards. In the West, women hurry and get married again after bereavement or divorce. Our women are slower. And many who have children don't bother: because a new life opens for them - a new life among other women and friends. Women are a very quarrelsome and jealous group, but we can always make up - especially after a few chicken legs and brandies together. This is because we realise that what we gain by forgiving one another is greater than what we gain by being alone in order to avoid jealousy.

I know of one woman who was so jealous when her husband brought a new wife home that she stayed awake the whole night, listening to the sounds of their lovemaking. But only a few days later she decided it would be better, both for her and for her co-wife, if they became friends, rather than quarrel over their husband. Soon they were so close and so busy together that their husband's sexual demands were pushed into the background completely.

Buchi Emecheta is a Nigerian novelist, poet and playwright. Her most recent book, The Rape of Shavi, was published in 1983 by her own publishing company in London.

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New Internationalist issue 158 magazine cover This article is from the April 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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