Jerry, a 32-year-old man, tells me: "I am looking for a woman to marry. But the catch is this: she has to be a woman who cannot have babies." Although I laughed at his statement, I completely understand why he feels this way. Jerry, like me, is the child of a failed relationship. Jerry's father married three women throughout his short life. He died at the tender age of 45, leaving behind the three wives and nine children, but no will. Today, 15 years after his death, there is a huge battle going on--his wives are battling each other, his children are battling each other, and his children are battling his wives. You name it, somebody is battling somebody over something left behind by this man. In fact, in one instance, things got so out of hand that the police had to be called in.
Like Jerry, I too have had my battles as a result of a decision taken by my father years ago. Although he was married to my mother, that did not stop him from taking a second wife. My childhood memories are filled with my mother constantly crying because my father was never around. He built two homes, one for my mother and her children; and the other for his new wife and children. Naturally, my father's second wife enjoyed all the attention, love and affection of my father, leaving my mother deeply unhappy and hurt. But not just my mother, we the children too were negatively affected by the arrival of this new woman.
Although I grew up knowing my father and the majority of his friends had multiple wives and families, I did not really understand what polygamy was until much later in life. At the age of 10,1 was uprooted from this openly polygamous society to live in the UK. Growing up in England, what I knew was that a man took one wife and had one family only (think of the Cosby show). Anyone who did otherwise did so on the sly and in the knowledge that all hell would break loose if they were discovered. Polygamy in Africa is different. It happens. In fact, in some instances, a man's manhood is judged by the number of women he can keep.
As I have grown up, I have come to appreciate certain aspects of polygamy. And although I myself would never wish to be in such a relationship, I think it can work, does work, and has worked in the past, for some who chose this option. Now, a lot of women will castigate me for this, but let me explain. I believe that men are biologically tuned to desire more than one woman at a time. I know very few African men, especially those living on the continent, who keep only one partner. The majority of men I come across are in multiple relationships, sometimes open, but most times on the quiet.
To our African fathers, uncles, male cousins, brothers and sons, polygamy is the norm. The done thing. In fact since antiquity, African tradition has accepted and respected polygamy; it is legal. In Ghana for example, to ensure peace at home, customary law demands that the first wife is "appeased" first by her husband--in cash or kind--before the second wife comes home or is outdoored. If the first wife refuses the "appeasement", two options are open to her: Either she seeks a divorce or remains in the marriage an unhappy and bitter elder wife.
So by all accounts polygamy can, and does, work for some. And some women accept it. I have come across women who call their husbands' second or third wives their "sister wife/ wives". In fact, in the olden days when agriculture was the main occupation and more hands were needed on the farms, polygamy ensured that a man's household had enough hands to keep the agricultural cycle going. Some married 4, 6, and sometimes 12 wives! And it was not unusual to see the 4 or 6 wives living amicably--absolutely amicably--in the same compound, looking after their multiple children together! And the children considered, and called, all of them "mothers". By this way, one man produced 39 children with 6 wives in the Brong Ahafo Region of Ghana! …