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Author: K.E. Agovi
Title: Many wives, many powers in Africa?
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Many wives, many powers in Africa?
K.E. Agovi

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 3, 1992
Author Biography: K.E. Agovi is a member of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon, who is visiting Northwestern as a Fulbright Scholar and a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities.

Many wives, many powers in Africa?


When Remi Clignet published his book Many Wives, Many Powers [1], he was not alone in sharing the view that, in Africa, "co-wives may be perceived as direct and indirect sources of increased income and prestige." In addition, African customary law was viewed as perhaps accommodating and hence beneficial to women, especially to those who would otherwise be 'unmarketable' in marriage.

By the 1970s, such arguments had become crystallized and popular. Polygyny in Africa had been on the research agenda for over two decades and could boast of such distinguished minds as M. Fortes (1949), Radcliffe-Brown (1950), John Beattie (1964), Ruth Finnegan (1967), and Jack and Esther Goody (1973). Such was the strength of their canon on polygyny that African scholars who later wrote on the subject became almost their parrots or, in some cases, unnecessarily defensive. For example, John Mbiti stated in the introduction to his book, Akamba Stories [2] that "polygyny was, and is, an accepted and respectable institution, serving many useful purposes in society." G.K. Nukunya agreed that polygyny "earns prestige and respect" [3] although its economic basis may not be all that sacrosanct. And recently, Akosua Aidoo has reiterated the notion that "plurality of wives was a sign of affluence and power" [4] in African society.

However, the colonial missionary voice provided one consistent opposition to polygyny in Africa. It viewed the practice as unethical and destructive of family life. While it propagated this view with the full authority of the Bible (with justification sometimes difficult to provide from the Old Testament), missionaries were convinced that Africans had to be coerced into partaking in the vision of monogamy understood in Western culture. Unfortunately, both the missionary voice and the scholarly voice did not consider the views of African women on the matter as important. Although there was some awareness that women regarded polygyny as both a curse and a blessing, it was the distanced, albeit 'scientific,' perspective of the observer which predominated in both the pulpit and scholarly writings.

Contemporary research in the social sciences and humanities, is gradually centering the study of the culture of the protagonist's voice and recognizing that the views and experiences of those who take part in a given reality ought to receive close examination. This privileging seems appropriate, particularly given that women in Africa have often used literary productions to comment on marriage, family, gender relations and how the social arrangements of other institutions affect them. Story-telling, song, dance, poetry and ritual have often been used to express issues of major concern to women. In these contexts, women bare their hidden thoughts in an open determination to confront important social issues.

Moreover, as a general rule, literature or performance in African society is considered an institution of critical thought, in which ideas, reflections, values, and convictions provide core images of a society's sense of itself and its existential problems. [5] Simultaneously, literature is also seen as a statutory interpreter of life. Art forms in Africa actively engage their audiences in formulating, analyzing, and defining points of view on social reality. Since both the creators and consumers are simultaneously involved in thought and interpretation in the situation of performance, one must recognize the significance of an endemic voice that is unique and validates the performance. Such a voice (and its representativeness) is what one observes in African women's response to polygyny in their literary productions.

In the folktale tradition, for example, women have built a wide range of tales around themes which deal with domestic tension. Examples abound: boy loses mother, father remarries and new wife discriminates and torments boy; ghost of boy's mother intervenes and kills present wife and all her children from the marriage. Similarly, two co-wives share the same kitchen and the same hearth-stone. One has a child, the other none. The barren and apparently jealous wife changes the child of her co-wife into a fish and cooks it, which is then offered and eaten by the child's own mother on her return from a journey. [6] Then there is also the tale of two co-wives who begin a quarrel, first started by the elder wife. The quarrel ends in the death of the elder wife's own child. [7] And finally, there is the case of a poor man who eventually becomes the chief of a village as a result of the special talents, sacrifices and contributions of each of his four wives. Each of these sacrifices is seen as an expression of true love for the man. In the end, there is the dilemma of whose child should succeed the chief. [8] These broad themes constitute almost a special genre in the African folktale tradition beloved by women story-tellers. While children also indulge in the telling of these tales, it is the recognized domain of women narrators who appropriate it to dramatize women's plight in polygyny. In these tales, as briefly indicated above, violence assumes an existential autonomy. Conflict, tension, deliberate cruelty and death become symbols of polygyny. The question then arises as to why women enact polygyny (and its domesticity) in the imagery of dehumanizing violence.

In one of her songs, Mririda, a Berber courtesan of the High Atlas tells of the self-destructive emotions (of jealousy and cynicism) that are evoked by the entry of a "stranger" who takes "her place in the house" as the second wife. [9] The almost quakelike resonance of the entry belies the poet's simplicity of language:

Since she came the house hasn't been the same It's as though the walls and floors were sulking

In Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino, [10] the woman protagonist admits that she is a "little jealous" of the "woman with whom I share my husband" and that she has no need to lie about it. But how "little" is the jealousy?

It catches you unawares
Like the ghosts that bring fevers;
It surprises people
Like earth tremors

As in the folktale, the image of polygyny as a violent and destablizing institution is sustained here by the metaphor of "walls and floors sulking" and in "ghosts, fevers, and earth tremors". Similarly, the kind of violence which destabilizes personal and institutional foundations in polygyny can be seen in some of the songs of rural women in south-west Ghana. In the songs which deal with the theme of polygamy, the women regard it as a death-trap, [11] and this is conceived essentially in terms of the male organ. For example, a senior wife in one song laments as follows, "in this basket I carry, it contains only a fried penis." In another, the protagonist cries out:

The penis-bone I have swallowed
Alas! it has got stuck in my throat [12]

The context is one of a wife in a polygamous marriage who is faced with the loss of her good name. Her co-wife and in-laws (who dislike her) carry her name everywhere—to the farm, riverside, and market. She is completely bewildered by the unsolicited antagonism, and pleads that her good name be left alone: "my sister, my co-wife, please bring my name back to me."

From these few examples, the imagery used to crystalize the discourse on polygyny clearly suggests that African women in general have never really recognized polygyny as a legitimate social institution. Contrary to the widely-held view of it as a benevolent, economic, and prestige-oriented institution in Africa, African women, like the missionary voice, have consistently demonstrated hostility towards it as an anti-life, anti-human enterprise. Although gendered man is regarded as a central agency in polygyny, he is clearly perceived as not being part of the solution. In these performances, man is completely marginalized and denied the authority to redress the problems of polygamy in the social process. Rather, polygyny is seen as a special women's problem, which is their right alone to redress. Hence in these literary performances the women appropriate the authority to empower themselves in order to come to terms with the violence of polygyny.

If these women were to have access to Remi Clignet's book for their performances, they would probably retort: whose many wives, whose many powers?

1. Remi Clignet, Many Wives, Many Powers: Authority and Power in Polygynous Families, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970).

2. John S. Mbiti, Akamba Stories (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966).

3. G. K. Nukunya, Kinship and Marriage Among the Anlo-Ewe (London: The Athlone Press, 1969) p. 157.

4. Agnes Akosua Aidoo, "Women in the History and Culture of Ghana," Research Review, Vol. 1, 1 (Legon: Institute of African Studies, 1985) p. 20.

5. See K. E. Agovi, "A King is Not above Insult: the Politics of Good Governance in Nzema Avudwene Festival Songs," The Literary Griot. Vol. 3, 1. Spring 1991, pp. 1-2.

6. R. S. Rattray, Akan-Ashanti Folk-Tales (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969) pp. 187-90.

7. Ruth Finnegan, Limba Stories and Story-Telling (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967) pp. 165-166.

8. Finnegan, Limba Stories, pp. 152-155.

9. D. Halpern and Paula Paley, trans. Songs of Mririda (Greensboro: Unicorn Press, 1974) p. 41.

10. Okot p'Bitek, Song of Lawino (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1971), p. 24.

11. See K. E. Agovi, "Sharing Creativity: Group Performance of Nzema Ayabomo Maiden Songs," The Literary Griot, Vol. 1, 2 Spring 1989, pp. 30-31.

12. Text performed by the Ehoaka Ayabomo Women's Group, Western Region, Ghana, at 7:30 pm on 24th April 1991.

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