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Philosophy in Africa

Polygyny in Africa:
A Male's Post-Original Sin or Rejection of the Primeval Monogyny and Affirmation of Sexual Inequality

Zekeh S. Gbotokuma
Morgan State University

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ABSTRACT: Whereas numerous African creation myths are supportive of cultural practices such as circumcision, there are very few, if any, creation myths that justify polygyny. There are many proverbs about polygamy. However, proverbs do not have the same weight as myths in explaining why certain things should be the way they are. African creation myths suggest that monogyny was the original practice not only among creator-gods, but also among the original humans. The pursuit of immortality through procreation is noble. Nevertheless, its achievement through polygyny discriminate against women. So, polygyny is a sexist cultural practice that has no genuine religious basis. It is a "post-original" sin as well as a culturally and morally controversial issue. It undermines the original gender equality. Consequently, it should be dismantled through education, commitment to and enforcement of human rights laws.

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At all times, humans have recurred to religion, magical and mythical beliefs to explain why certain things are and should be the way they are. So for example, the Dogon and Bambara cosmology explains the practice of circumcision by saying, among other things, that it is a mechanism devised to rid boys and girls of their "native androgyny" or "dual soul,"(1) thereby stabilizing and allowing them to procreate. In other words, "Male circumcision and female excision are necessary to establish the sex of the adult without question" (Taoko, 1975, p. 14). Another religious reason given is the need to pay a blood-debt to Mother-Earth (Griaule, 1965). The Isoko and Urhobo of the Delta State, Nigeria, circumcise women during the advanced stages of their pregnancy because of the legendary belief that, if left uncircumcised, "the clitoris will cause symbolic or spiritual injury to the baby."(2)

Whereas many African myths and legends are supportive of circumcision and many other cultural practices, there are very few, if any, creation myths that justify the widespread custom of polygyny. Of course, there are many proverbs about polygamy and co-wives. But proverbs do not have the same weight as myths. Indeed, the former are humans’ sayings, whereas the latter are sacred literatures, so to speak. Numerous African creation myths develop the idea that monogyny was the original practice among creator-gods and among the first human couples. After reading numerous creation myths, I have identified five of them which substantiate this claim. These myths are representative of five geographic areas of sub-Saharan Africa, that is, the northern, southern, eastern, western, and central Africa.

With the exception for The Plant of life, a Nyamwezi story, Tanzania, in which Shida Matunda created all things as well as two women whom he took as wives, virtually all married divinities were monogamists. Furthermore, in my research I came across only one instance in which a God gave the original man, Moon, more than a wife, Morningstar and Eveningstar; but Moon was given the second wife only after God had called the first one to go and live in the sky. Consequently, I contend that African religions are not the authentic foundation of polygyny, or the practice of having more than one wife or female mate at one time. What is more, the pursuit of personal immortality through procreation could possibly be a religious reason for polygyny. Immortality is a noble goal for every human being. The achievement of that goal through polygyny, however, discriminates against women. It is the highest expression of sexual Darwinism, male’s Hobbesian egoism, androcentrism and will to power. A sexist pursuit of immortality cannot be a plausible religious practice. Consequently, polygyny is not only a male’s post-original sin, but also a social and moral evil. It must be dismantled through education and sociopolitical commitment to human rights.

I. The Original Monogyny and Equality of Sexes

The term ‘monogyny’ means the practice or custom of being married to one person at a time. By ‘original monogyny’ I mean the divine and the original man’s custom of being married to one goddess or one wife at a time. I prefer the term ‘monogyny’ to ‘monogamy’ for five reasons. First, the male divinity tends to be the dominant character in almost all creation myths. He is the one who marries the female divinity. Secondly, in these myths, the male is usually created first, and sometimes he has to create and to name the female whom he then marries. Thirdly, in Lingala, a language spoken in the Congos, ‘kobala’ means "to marry"; "mobali" means not only "male", "man", "husband", but also and incidentally "he who marries". On the other hand, "mwasi" means "female", "woman", "wife", but it does not mean "she who marries". Fourthly, every monogyny is a monogamy but not every monogamy is a monogyny. Fifthly and finally, "monogyny" contrasts with "polygyny" better than "monogamy." Despite the apparently passive role that the Goddess or the woman plays in the original couple, it is usually a happy couple. The anteriority of maleness has nothing to do with masculine superiority. Usually, the idea of inferiority is expressed only in relation to the original sin, in which the woman is depicted as the ‘weak sex,’ and as the cause of death or of the loss of the original immortality. However, this is irrelevant for the present work perspective. My primary intention is to stress the original equality based upon the original monogyny, and to show that the actual practice of polygyny is a cultural one. It is sinful, because it is the male"s challenge to the original monogyny.

A. The Original Divine Monogyny: One God, One Goddess: Numerous African creation myths suggest that creation-gods were monogynists. Here are three of these myths:

1. From Death and the Creator, a Kono story, Guinea, west Africa, we learn that: At the beginning there was nothing. In the darkness of the world lived a, Death, with his wife and only daughter. In order to be able to live somewhere, Sa created an immense sea of mud, by means of magic. One day Alatangana, the God, appeared, and visited Sa in his dirty abode. Shocked by this state of affairs, Alatangana reproached Sa fiercely, saying that he had created an inhabitable place, without plants, without living beings, without light.

To remedy these faults, Alatangana set out first of all to solidify the dirt. He thus created the earth, but the earth still seemed to him too sterile and too sad, and so he created vegetation and animals of all kinds. Sa, who was satisfied with these improvements of his dwelling place, entertained great friendship for Alatangana and offered him much hospitality. After sometime Alatangana, who was a bachelor, asked his host for the hand of his only daughter. But the father found many excuses and in the end flatly refused to satisfy his demand. However, Alatangana came to a secret agreement with the young girl. He married her and in order to escape the wrath of Sa they fled to a remote corner of the earth. There they lived happily and bore many children: seven boys and seven girls—four white boys and girls and three black boys and girls (Beier, 1988, pp. 3-4).

2. In The Pitcher and the Basket, an Issansu story, Tanzania, east Africa, the sun (husband) and the moon (wife) are referred to as the original (divine) couple. Reference is also made to the original human couple, Kiula (husband) and Isamba (wife).

3. In The Disobedience of Man, an Efik Story, Nigeria, north-western Africa, Abassi, the supreme God, is said to have had a wife called Atai (Ibidem, pp. 60-61). The divine monogyny was also practiced by the first male.

B. Monogyny Among the Original Human Couples: One Man, One Woman. The following myths indicate that the first man (male) was a monogynist.

1. From How Moon Fathered the World, a Wakaranga story, Zimbabwe, southern Africa, we learn that:

"God made a man whom he called Moon. Moon first lived at the bottom of the sea. Moon wanted to go and live on the earth, but God warned him: Life on the earth is hard and you will regret it. But Moon went to the earth. In those days the earth was void and inhabited. There were no trees, no plants, no animals. Moon was unhappy and wept. God said: I warned you, but you did not listen. Nevertheless I will help you. You shall have a wife, who will live with you for two years. God sent Morningstar to live with Moon. [...]during the night Moon[...]had intercourse with Morningstar. The following morning he saw that Morningstar"s body had swelled up. And she gave birth to trees, grasses and all kinds of plants until the entire world was green. [...]. Moon and Morningstar lived a life of plenty. They ate seeds and roots. But when the two years were up, God called Morningstar away and sent her to live in the sky. Moon wept for eight days. Then God gave him a second wife and he said: She will live with you for two years. But at the end of that time you must die. Eveningstar went and lived with Moon for two years. Moon slept with Eveningstar and on the following day her belly swelled up. She gave birth to goats, sheep and cows. On the second day she gave birth to antelopes and birds. But on the third day she gave birth to boys and girls[...]." (Ibid., pp. 15-17).

2. In The Revolt Against God, a Fang story, Gabon, central Africa, it is said: "At the beginning of things, when there was nothing, God was and he was called Nzame. Nzame made everything, including the first man, Fam— which means power. Fam became arrogant and stopped worshiping Nzame. His punishment was death. Then Nzame created the second man and father of all. He called himSekume. Nzame did not want to leave him alone, so he said, "Make yourself a woman from a tree."

Sekume made himself a woman and she walked and he called her Mbongwe.[...] (Ibid., pp. 18-22).

Strictly based upon the aforementioned myths, it makes sense to speculate that "one God, one goddess and one man, one woman was the creator-god(s)" and the original humans’modus vivendi.

C. Implications of the Original Monogyny

In many African creation myths, as in Genesis, the first book of the bible, gods create humans in their image and likeness.(3) This means that the monogynous gods expect all humans to be like them in terms of their conjugal practices. In other words, the divine monogyny is supposed to become the humans" way of life, unless exceptional circumstances—for example, shortage of men or women—require polygamy. Of course, a perfect equality among sexes implies that polygamy refers to both polygyny and polyandry, none of which is an ideal marital arrangement. Unfortunately, when one talks about polygamy in Africa today, reference is almost automatically made to its polygynous form. One is so used to this state of affairs that one naturally believes that polygamy and polygyny are synonymous. One might even believe that polygyny is a kind of divine gift to men only. Whereas many Westerners conceive of myths as something diametrically opposed to reality, many traditional Africans hardly discriminate between myth and reality. For them, myth is reality. But if this were always the case, then why is it that monogyny is not seen as the right thing to do, since numerous creation myths talk about creator-gods and original humans, most of whom practiced monogamy? One has the impression that for the patriarchal African society, not every myth is reality. However, some myths are or become reality as long as they serve the best interests of men. Given the legendary religiosity and/or spirituality of the African people, there should be some sort of religious or at least pseudo-religious bases for polygyny. These bases are likely to be, among others, some African conception of immortality.

D. Procreation, Immortality and Polygyny

Unlike western thought, in which the concept of "immortality" basically refers to the soul, African thought seems to conceive of immortality in terms of reincarnation/rebirth or the continued existence of the dead among the living. The living persons have the "innate wish to exist for ever." Nevertheless, since death is unavoidable, they prolong their existence as living persons in their descendants. That is why in his book, La Philosophie-Bantoue Rwandaise de l"Etre, Alexis Kagame writes that for the muntu or the human being, to perpetuate oneself through reproduction becomes the goal of his or her being in the world (1956, p. 148). Only when the ancestors have no further living descendants are they completely dead. In this sense, polygyny is seen as having a spiritual value inasmuch as it is "pleasing to the ancestors" (Kilbride, 1994, p. 110). It follows that to a great extent, immortality is achieved via procreation.

Moreover, in Africa, elders depend on their numerous children to provide security in their old age. Consequently, in these male-dominated societies, men believe to guarantee such security and deathlessness through polygyny. This custom has been justified by means of proverbs and sayings.

II. The Cultural Argument: African Proverbs and Sayings on Women and Polygyny

In Africa, oral traditions are filled with proverbs and sayings on polygyny and co-wives. But polygyny is a controversial cultural issue among Africans. Not all African men are polygynists and not all proverbs and sayings are supportive of polygyny. Pursuant to African wisdom, I would like to show the controversial character of polygyny in a proverbial exchange between two African sages, Songolo and Pakala, who proverbially voice their views on this conjugal custom. The former supports the practice and the latter is against it.

Songolo: To have one wife is to be one-eyed. (Luba proverb, Democratic Republic of Congo—DRC)

Pakala: A man with one wife is chief among the unmarried. (Ganda proverb, Uganda)

Songolo: A man whose only wife falls ill, gets thin. (Ganda) If you marry two, you"ll die all the younger. (Luba)

Pakala: Two wives, two pots of poison. (Gikuyu proverb, Kenya) It is hunger that killed the man with many wives. (Ashanti proverb, Ghana, West Africa)

Songolo: Only one wife, only one jar in one"s basket. (Yaka, DRC)

Pakala: There is nothing but poverty in polygamy. (Akan, Ghana) A thousand wives, a thousand palavers. (Ashanti)

Songolo: Beat the bad wife with a new wife. (Nobiin, Sudan)

Pakala: The first one makes the home. (Tonga, Zambia)

Despite the awareness of problems inherent to polygyny, many men are not ready to give it up. They would use proverbs and tradition to justify their practice. The problem is that the argument from the common belief is often fallacious. Additionally, the appeal to proverbs is an ad verecundiam argument, or a false appeal to authority. This is the case because of disagreements among proverbs on polygyny. Finally, proverbs are human sayings and as such some of them are wrong. They are dogmatic formulas, often authored by men (males), to foster their hegemonic masculinity. Consequently, although some traditionalists refer to proverbs to defend polygyny, proverbs fail to provide us with a sound religious basis for it. If neither creation myths, nor proverbs provide a religious foundation for polygyny for the above mentioned reasons, then polygyny is a post-original sin, and/or at least a social and moral evil.

III. Polygyny as an Evil

A. Polygyny as "Male"s Post-Original Sin"

The original sin is usually explained as the human desire to be God, revolt against God, disobedience, etc, all of which are said to have been initiated by the original woman. For this reason, women are also referred to as the ‘temptresses,’ ‘weak’ or ‘second sex.’ But if it is true that God wanted one Adam and one Eve, not one Adam or Sekume and three Eves or Mbongwes, thereby affirming the equality of sexes, then polygyny is a cultural practice that violates the will of God(s). Anything that violates the will of God(s) is sinful. Therefore polygyny is sinful. It is the most sexist "post-original sin", because through it, man (= the male) rejects the original equality of sexes, which was expressed via the original monogyny. Through it, men transform the so-called battle of sexes into misogyny.

B. Polygyny as a Social Evil

Polygyny is also a social evil. It is the means by which men subjugate women, thereby exerting sexual/social Darwinism. It treats women as inferior beings, sexual objects and commercial commodities. In polygynist societies—with exception for Muslim societies, where the number of wives is limited to four—wealthy men can have as many women as they want, as long as they can afford the dowry. Some of those societies perform clitoridectomy or infibulation in order to hopefully control women"s sexuality or infidelity.

C. Polygyny as a ‘Necessary’ Moral Evil

Polygyny is a form of violence and injustice perpetrated against women. It is at odds with the Kantian categorical imperative relative to the respect for the person (Kant, 1959).(4) Through polygyny, men treat women as means to their own ends such as progeny, "immortality", wealth, social status, and of course, sexual gratification. Some polygynists believe, however, that polygyny is a necessary evil, mainly for three ‘moral’ reasons. First, it is said to cut down on male infidelity and to allow greater sexual equality in terms of extramarital affairs than is the case with monogamy. Secondly, it is believed to be a better alternative to prostitution due to the imbalance in the sex ratio (Mbiti 1989, 139). Of course, the first so-called moral argument is androcentric or masculinist. Additionally, it claims to solve a moral problem—the male infidelity—by creating other moral problems, that is, the use of women as means to an end; and co-wives adultery.

D. Polygyny as Dictatorship and as Sexism

African societies, like many other societies, are still profoundly patriarchal and sexist. African sexism is as bad as dictatorships that have undermined many countries socioeconomic development. To fight for equality means (1) to eradicate polygyny; (2) to help the polygynists understand that their practice is sexist and to realize that the real man"s sex chromosomes are XY rather than XXY chromosomes; and (3) to strive for equal educational opportunities for all.

IV. Conclusion: Toward the Dismantlement of Polygyny

As a cultural matter, polygyny can be eradicated not only through antipolygamy campaign and through education, but also and above all, through legal means, for example, international Conventions, Declarations, Charters, and Constitutions.

A. International Conventions and Declarations

African countries in which polygyny is practiced have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. If this Convention is binding, then the international community"s law enforcement officials, if any, have the right and the duty to take all the necessary measures that could be conducive to the dismantlement of polygyny. Indeed, this conjugal practice is a form of discrimination against women. Undoubtedly, polygyny violates the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, adopted by the United Nations" General Assembly during its 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria. As members of the United Nations, African countries must abide by its Charter. Unarguably, polygyny violates, among others, articles 1 & 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Art. 1 declares that, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights..." Regarding conjugal rights, Art. 16 proclaims that, "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution...."

B. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights

In order to safeguard African society against Westerners’ extremist liberal values, the Organization of the African Unity has ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. This document contains articles that could be instrumental in the antipolygyny campaign and education. For example, article 4 declares that, "[e]very human being shall be entitled to respect for his life and the integrity of his person." (Basic Documents, 1987, p. 511)(5) Obviously, polygyny shows no respect for women. Article 16 proclaims that "[e]very individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health" (Ibidem, p. 513). But jealousy, spousal abuse as well as the abuse of some wives by their co-wives are serious threats to many women’s physical and mental health. Article 29 establishes the duty to "preserve and strengthen positive African cultural values in ... relations with other members of the society" (Ibid., p. 517). Evidently, polygyny is not a positive value. It is sexist and it is based on men’s idea of women’s alleged inferiority. Luckily, some African leaders have shown concern for women’s condition. One of them is Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

C. Mandela’s Constitutional Proposals

Whereas the aforementioned African Charter’s articles could be subject to different interpretations, the proposals made by Nelson Mandela(6) are clear. If they are adopted and enforced, they will be a constructive legal document in terms of women’s conditions. In a speech to the African National Congress Constitutional Committee Workshop on Gender, Mandela proposed that:

1. The constitution for a new South Africa should unequivocally state that South Africa should not only be unitary, nonracial, and democratic, but should also be a nonsexist state

2. All laws which place women in a disadvantageous position should be abolished and be declared unconstitutional.

3. Constitutionally entrenched criteria and mechanisms should be established to break through the layers of prejudice and historical inequalities experienced by women.

4. The laws and the constitution of a democratic South Africa should enable women to articulate their demands, their priorities, and expectations.

5. The constitution should ensure a strong female presence in all decision-making processes of the new South Africa.

These proposals are plausible, because without women"s representation and participation in the socioeconomic and political arenas, the struggle for women"s rights and for the African development will never lead to a definitive victory. In a nutshell, I have argued that polygyny is a sexist cultural custom that has no genuine African religious foundation. African creation myths indicate that monogyny was the normal practice among virtually all African creator-gods and among the first human beings. Polygyny is a post-original sin committed by men (males). It is a culturally and morally controversial issue. It undermines the original gender equality as well as the ideal of equality expressed in the United Nations’ Charter. Consequently, it should be dismantled through education, commitment to, and a rigorous enforcement of, domestic, regional, and international laws.

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1. Androgyny is the fact of having the characteristics of both male and female. According to the Bambaras and the Dogons, for example, the prepuce represents the female characteristic in boys and the clitoris the male characteristic in girls.

2. Editors, Harvard Law Review as quoted by Arthur, 1996, p.111

3. For example, in The Revolt Against God referred to above, Nzame, Mebere, and Nkwa – the Fang Trinity – "created a being almost like themselves." See Beier, op. cit., p. 19. In African religions, polytheism is not necessarily at odds with the existence of one supreme God. Minor divinities are nothing but theocratic ministers and manifestations of the supreme Being. Today, having many children does not provide security any longer, because of the cost of such things as clothing, food, and education.

4. Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative regarding the respect for the person is: "So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only."

5. African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Organization of African Unity), June 27, 1981, 21 I. L. M. 58, has been reprinted in Basic Documents Supplement to International Law 509, ed. Louis Henkin et al., 1987.

6. Mandela’s speech was entitled, "Today and Tomorrow Towards the Women’s Rights Charter," November 1990. Quoted by S. Clarke, 1993, p. 37.


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