We need to correct the common mistake in referring to Polygyny as Polygamy. 

Polygamy is the practice of having more than one wife or husband at one time whereas polygyny is the practice of one man having more than one wife at one time. 

Polygyny is the form of marriage practiced in Africa not polygamy. 

Polygamy has existed in all over the African continent by the fact that it represents an aspect of our culture. This type of marriage has been more present in the  history of Africa like no other continent in the world. It was generally only practised by prominent people and wealthy individuals in the society.

 Chiefs practised polygamy which helped to seal alliances, establish their empires and resolve questions of succession. 

In instances where polygyny was practised one of the women would be named as the main wife and enjoyed a special and higher status compared to the other wives.

One of the reason this has happened is because the African societies have managed to see that children were a form of wealth and this way a family with more children was considered to be more powerful. Under these circumstances the polygamy in Africa was considered to be part of the way you could build an empire.

Only after the colonial era in Africa that it has appeared  polygamy has started to be perceived as a taboo, as this was one of the things brought along with the colonists that took over some regions of Africa. 

At first the polygamy was very popular in the west part of Africa, but as Christianity started to diffuse in this region, the prevalence of polygamy had started to continuously reduce due to the restriction to  one wife only.

However, before we begin to probe into the origin of polygyny, we need to know the role culture plays in a given society. In order to do so, let’s look at the explanation provided by Professor Ali A. Mazrui. According to Mazrui:

Culture provides lenses of perception, the way of looking at reality, a world view; culture provides standards of evaluation; what is good and what is evil; what is legitimate and what is illegitimate are rooted in criteria provided by culture. 

Culture conditions motivations; what motivates individuals to act or refrain from acting, what inspires individuals to perform well or to really exert themselves, is partly inspired by cultural factors. Culture is the medium of communication; the communicative aspects of culture range from language in the literal sense to physical gestures and modes of dress. Culture provides a basis of stratification, a pecking order in society. Status, rank and class are partly the outcome of a cultural order.

According to the explanation given above, we can then see the cardinal responsibilities placed upon culture in creating institutions to address certain needs in society.

From on our understanding of culture, it is safe to say that one of the key responsibilities of culture is the establishment of social institutions which will maintain the orderly existence of a society.

 Secondly, these institutions serve to promote “a system of values, and these values are a set of ideas, concepts, and practices to which strong sentiments are attached.”

In view of the above, one can easily understand how polygyny became the ideal institution of marriage in Africa. However, the rationale given for the practice of polygyny in Africa is provided by two schools of thought – the Social and Economic. 

Proponents of the Social School explained that at the time polygyny was established as the legal form of marriage, the ratio of women to men in Africa was about 10 to 1. As the result, those who were responsible for establishing social institutions – the elders, including women, decided to come up with a marriage system that would address this problem. Their aim at the time was to provide a balance and equal distribution of social, material, security and economic benefits to both women and men.

Furthermore, these social architects or elders felt that if the problem regarding the needs of unmarried women were not addressed, what would eventually happen was the snatching away of other women’s husbands, or the unmarried women would, for example, engage in prostitution since as human beings, their sexual, social, psychological and economic needs had to be taken care of.

On the other hand, the proponents of the Economic School reasoned that polygyny was established to address the prevailing economic issues of the period. They explained that during the Pre-colonial era in Africa, the economic activities were centered around subsistence agriculture. This type of farming requires lots of manpower. In order to establish the mode of production that was going to be beneficial to the entire society, the polygynous form was preferred. Since this form of marriage emphasized collective responsibilities, communal ownership of farms, wealth and the economic benefit of the extended family.

 I will be the first to admit that polygyny has its negative and positive aspects just like monogamy. 

However, the negative aspects outweigh the positives especially on the part of women. Polygamy generally seek to address the insatiable sexual needs of men over women. In this case men are the only ones allowed to acquire as many sexual partners as they want to fulfill their sexual fantasies.  Also, polygyny makes women appear like properties that could be purchased by dint of a man’s wealth or status. It clearly reinforces the gender disparity in the world system

In conclusion, though many wouldn’t agree to marrying more than one due to their affiliations to christianity and other foreign religions but are somewhat engaged in the practice by secretly engaging more than one sexual partners.

An African King with four wives

Credit: Serwaa Ampaafo (Africa Awakes)

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