Academic journal article African Studies Review

Polygyny and Christian Marriage in Africa: The Case of Benin

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Polygyny and Christian Marriage in Africa: The Case of Benin

Article excerpt


Since the arrival of European missionaries in Africa, there has been charged debate over people's marriage choices. This article outlines the major elements in the academic, theological, and popular discourses on marriage in Africa, focusing on two topics: the conceptual divide between monogamous Christian marriage and African polygyny, and the claim that women automatically prefer monogamy. By comparing the assumptions in the literature with ethnographic data from the Republic of Benin, this article demonstrates that marital choices cannot necessarily be predicted by a person's gender and rarely are characterized by a definitive conceptual divide. Instead, personal motives related to economics, prestige, and competition for power are the main factors in marriage choices.


Wambui Wa Karanja has stated that "Africa is, par excellence, the home of polygyny" (1994:199). Although Karanja and others note that in many African societies polygyny is often practiced by only a minority of men (Beidelman 1982:39), the perception of Africans as fundamentally polygynous is echoed in the writings of Western scholars and missionaries as well as African writers. At a roundtable during the 2003 African Studies Association meeting in Boston, a number of scholars from Africa also noted that African men defend polygyny as part of their culture, while women are presumed to be more inclined toward monogamy. During fieldwork in southern Benin between 1998 and 2000, I heard some male informants claim that monogamy was acceptable for Europeans and Americans, but that as Africans they could not abide by a foreign marriage system. Considering that sub-Saharan Africa boasts the fastest growing Christian population in the world, one wonders how Western Christianity's monogamous ideal has been received by African people. Specifically, are scholars correct in saying that Africans reject monogamy for cultural and ideological reasons? Furthermore, are they correct that polygyny is a male goal, in comparison to women's desire for monogamy? If these claims are true, what would this mean for the future of Christianity on the continent?

The topic of Christian marriage is complex, and it has been debated throughout the history of African missions. Three main tensions arose in the confrontation between missionaries and African marriage practices. First, missionaries struggled with establishing the notions of romantic love and individualism in the face of what they perceived as the unromantic, duty-oriented style of African marriage (see Mann 1994; Phillips 1953). Second, many missionaries misunderstood African customs of marriage payments, viewing these transactions as the purchase of a bride (see Hastings 1967; Wilson 1950). Third, most missionaries felt they were in a constant battle to uphold monogamy and eradicate polygyny. Although these three issues are related, the strongest and most enduring point of tension has been the question of polygyny (Barrett 1968c; Hastings 1973, 1994), which speaks not only to the history of Christian missions, but also to perceptions of Africa and the identities of African people. Today it remains one of the most heated issues in African congregations. Although a number of scholars have discussed missionary conflicts over polygyny in the historical context, Christianity's relationship to polygyny is virtually untouched in contemporary ethnographic accounts.

In this article I review some of the anthropological, historical, popular, and theological discourses about Christian marriage in Africa with respect to two main claims presented in the literature. First, I discuss the perceived ideological contest between monogamy and polygyny. Second, I examine the notion that men and women have different marital goals. Finally, I use ethnographic data from the Republic of Benin, primarily collected among Fon people, to show that while these claims may accurately reflect the views of some Béninois, most people's actions and ideas cannot be predicted neatly. …

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