My great grandmother, Ihuoma, was the first wife of her husband’s brother. I do not know much about her, except she is the seed of the occasional yellow skin in my family. When her first husband died, she was incorporated into Ka’Ka household and bore my grandfather Gerald, and his brother Demi. Egondu was Ka’Kas second wife. They bore seven sons, but only two daughters remain; Mama Augustina and Mama Felicia. Egondu was an astute tobacco trader. His third wife Oherediya birthed my Aunties Helen and Scholar.
I was probably seven when I began to notice Oherediya. She was as tall as me and i don’t remember her speaking much. My cousins, siblings and I chased chickens through her homestead and occasionally cracked open and ate the palm kernels laying on her stool. She once took me, my uncle and my father into the forest searching for firewood. I want to tell you about the forest, but all I remember was being led by her cold hands through the path. There were as many veins popping from her hand as there were roots beneath our feet. She studied the firewoods’ diameters and texture and also made some time for me to discover an eroded valley at the forest’s edge. Oherediya passed away like history. So did her sister wives, and her husband, and the world they belonged to.
Why does a man marry three wives? But why does he marry one? Polygamy is not a subject I take lightly. I am the fruit of a polygamous union. Any Igbo needs only two generations to find Polygamy in their lineage. What strikes me is how much our society has changed and with it, so have our family lives. Polygamy cannot be abstracted from the social organization and be examined by itself. It is a social system and is intimately bound up with the subject of property, of labour, and of the difference in status between men, women, and children. So why, polygamy? Why is it a desirable arrangement?
Some writers argue polygamy was acceptable because children and wives were seen as a form of currency. In agrarian societies, the more land you had, the more children you bore to farm the land, ergo more wives needed to bare children. Some opine that polygamy was desirable for strategic partnerships between families to acquire wealth and maintain prestige. Others suggest that polygamy was simply a part of an evolutionary process that eventually progressed to monogamy. Maybe they are all wrong in some ways, and right in some others. But this all begs the question: what is family for? Are there different types of marriages that serve the purpose of a family more effectively than others? If so, where does polygamy lie in this spectrum?
Marriage generally, but polygamy specifically, is a social security innovation. Think about it like the first social safety net. It was a self-regulated institution that catered for children and protected the otherwise vulnerable and isolated. Polygamous families have some great strengths. They help protect the vulnerable from the shocks of life. In the Igbo tradition, marriage is not a union of two people, but two families. When Ihuoma’s first husband died, she was still a member of Ka’Kas family. His family guaranteed her security and was obliged to care for her. This practice was common enough, it had a name- Ikuchi nwanwyi. Its literal meaning is to cover woman. It can also be understood as to protect a woman. Different Igbo communities have slightly different words to describe it, but the principle remains the same. Ikuchi nwanwyi guaranteed that any children she had will still be entitled to the property of their old father, but would instead inherit it through their new father – their uncle.
In a society with no social insurance cheques and no modern medicine, your family was not just your labour force. Your family was your healthcare system, your emergency response unit, and your primary caregiver. Polygamy promised safety. Everyone had a family, and every family protected their own. When Egondu lost her children, she had sister wives to mourn with and protect her, and the social safety net guaranteed by her family.
Polygamous families created a robust socializing force for children. At a time when children were not shipped to schools and ushered around by caring adults, family life was the primary source of socialization. Children had several adults at home, including their step-mothers and relatives of their family and step-families. Most importantly, children had each other. They had older siblings, familial hierarchies and responsibilities that would help them form their identities, understand their role in society, and aid their development.
The family was also the primary unit of cultural, social, and political organization. Each child was represented and socialized by their family in political institutions across their nation. The family guaranteed that every child born had a family and by cultural right was entitled to the protection of their clan from natural forces and violence. Every child was also guaranteed meaningful political and cultural representation through their family.
Children were not just to be protected, but they also offered protection. They in and of themselves were social security. They protect their family during old age and dependency. When Oherediya needed to pluck firewood, it was I, her great-grandchild, and her step-grandsons that accompanied her. When everyone from her generation was dead, we were there taking care of her. She had three generations of family protecting her in her old age.
In the Igbo polygamous family, it is the chain of life that is most important and not the biological link. Children of the same father have obligations towards each other and towards each other’s parents. Children born by subsequent wives are also children of the first wife, and a barren first wife will often encourage her husband to take more wives. This will consolidate her status as the head of wives, but also ensure her husband’s property stays in the family in case of premature death.
This might seem strange to those who understand marriage through a different philosophical frame. In other traditions, the emphasis in marriage is building an attachment partnership, instituted on love. As stated above, marriage simply reflects the broader social forces in society. There are practical benefits to polygamy. In a world with no foster care system, in a world with no social security or disability checks. In a world with incredibly high infant mortality and shortened life expectancy and no death benefit or life insurance plan, Polygamy was a social innovation created to provide social security.
Every society is self-constituting, and it is difficult to judge one society by the standards of another. But I will judge my society by its own standards and there are clear lines to be drawn on this polygamy question. Although I believe we should be more appreciative and understanding of Igbo polygamous households and systems and those of African peoples, I disavow the pernicious modern style of polygamy practiced largely in urban centers by affluent and middle-class men and Traditional authorities. They use wives as a tool to entrench their rule and display their power. These men often take on and marry young vulnerable girls, and parade them around like property. They abuse their bodies, limit their education, and curtail their freedom. These men must be stopped, and these girls and women protected. These men are pedophiles who abuse tradition to satisfy their perverted gluttony.
This question of polygamy is important for another reason. It gives community and aid workers another way to think about the role marriage, and childbearing plays in African societies that still keep traditional family lifestyles. These lifestyles must be respected and reasonably accommodated. We must continue to empower women who maintain traditional lifestyles to have more control over their reproductive health. We must also consider the broader question around the role polygamy plays in the social security of a family. If a family is to be told their way of life should be stopped. This way of life has provided material safety for centuries. And there is no clearly articulated alternative for community-centric social security, what real options does that family have?
Our family lives are changing. Families are smaller, they are starting later, and children are living oceans away from their homes. At home their kids would have been raised alongside their stepbrothers and sisters, and socialized with their cousins and family. Couples are divorcing at higher rates women are left to bear the brunt of child-rearing with little support from their mothers and nieces.
Our traditional family life, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, is fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile units. And if we will not accept that a woman marries her husband’s brother, then surely we need a new type of family! One that is braver, and more responsive to the needs and pressure of today. Or maybe it is enough to be content with expensive daycare fees, and children being raised without their culture. Polygamy was created as an innovative response to societal pressures. If we will not accept polygamy – the only system that guarantees that every child has a parent, every widow has a husband. Every sick great grandmother is surrounded by three generations of care. Surely we must innovative our family systems to meet the demands of new social pressures. Because monogamy just isn’t working for us like that anymore.