Academic journal article Africa

Forbidden Fruit in the Compound: A Case Study of Migration, Spousal Separation and Group-Wife Adultery in Northwest Ghana

Academic journal article Africa

Forbidden Fruit in the Compound: A Case Study of Migration, Spousal Separation and Group-Wife Adultery in Northwest Ghana

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This paper explores the anthropological implications of the notion of adultery by showing how it can improve our understanding of a local debate about descent, migration and local responses to it, among communities belonging to the Dagara of northwestern Ghana. Using a case study of group-wife adultery, that is, a sexual affair between a man and the wife of a fellow member of the same patrilineal descent group in the context of male migration, the paper highlights the tension between a husband's sexual rights over his wife and those of his descent group over the wife's procreation. It further examines the rituals surrounding the resolution of the case and the arguments generated by it as a prism through which to view social change and Dagara social organization. An evaluation of the community views about spousal separation, the punishment associated with group-wife adultery and the multiple responses of its members to the offence is presented with ethnographic examples.

RESUME

Cet article s'interesse aux implications anthropologiques de la notion d'adultere en montrant qu'elle peut nous aider a mieux comprendre un debat local sur la descendance, la migration et les reponses locales y afferents, au sein de communautes dagara du nord-ouest du Ghana. A partir d'une etude de cas d'adultere d'epouse de groupe (autrement dit, une liaison sexuelle entre un homme et l'epouse d'un membre du meme groupe de descendance patrilineaire) dans le contexte d'une migration masculine, l'article met en lumiere la tension entre les droits sexuels d'un epoux sur sa femme et ceux de son groupe de descendance sur la procreation de cette epouse. Il examine egalement les rituels qui entourent la resolution de l'affaire et les arguments qu'elle genere en tant que prisme d'observation de l'evolution sociale et de l'organisation sociale des Dagara. L'article presente au moyen d'exemples ethnographiques une evaluation des opinions de la communaute sur la separation des epoux, de la punition associee a l'adultere d'epouse de groupe et des multiples reponses de ses membres au delit.

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Scholars who discuss the effects of migration in many parts of Africa often focus on its impact on the division of labour, especially on how divorce and male absenteeism may lead to an increase in the repertoire of tasks and the burden on rural women (for a review, see O'Laughlin 1998). In this article, I will argue that in northwestern Ghana there are other consequences of male migration that have so far been little noticed in the literature and, to judge from local discourse, affect present lives perhaps even more importantly. They involve sexual offences in which married women get caught up, including incest and adultery.

The incest taboo received much attention in the classical anthropological literature (see, for example, Malinowski 1929; Murdock 1949; Fortes 1936, 1950; Seligman 1950; Radcliffe-Brown 1950; Evans-Pritchard 1949, 1951), whereas the related concept of adultery has been treated more summarily, often subsumed under incest; and not therefore considered as worthy of separate anthropological treatment (Goody 1956). The result has been the tendency to confuse the two concepts, thereby hindering cross-cultural understanding of both. In fact, one cannot agree more with Goody's (1971) suggestion that adultery, rather than incest, deserves extended attention from anthropologists, because of its frequent occurrence and the wider ramifications it has to social problems than does the incest taboo.

In this article, I also explore the anthropological implications of the notion of adultery and show how it can improve our understanding of a local debate on descent, migration and the responses to it. The setting of the present analysis is communities belonging to the Dagara of northwestern Ghana in West Africa. (1) I present an adultery case, drawing for the description on Goody's concept of 'group-wife adultery'; that is, a sexual affair involving a man with the wife of a fellow member of the same patrilineal or matrilineal descent group. …

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