October 12, 2010

Thoughts on Polygamy.

A recent attention-grabbing headline in African news on CNN read, "Kenyan polygamist with 100 wives dies." According to the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, Ancentus Akuku, known for marrying 100 wives and reportedly had over 160 children, died at the ripe age of 90"something". This notorious Kenyan man was nicknamed "Danger" because of his alleged charm and ability to woo women. His family was so large, he built a church and a school for them in the western town of Kisumu, and Akuku himself admitted that the size of his extended family made it impossible to keep track of them. Akuku married his first wife in 1939 and his last wife in 1992, and had reportedly divorced as many as 30 wives during this time.

Although polygamy was the norm in Kenya during Akuku's time, the article cites that this practice has died out over the years. To whatever extent that claim is true in Kenya, this practice decidedly persists in Tanzania. We have seem many, many examples of polygamous marriages during our time here. Not only does polygamy continue to happen on an informal basis, it is actually sanctioned by Tanzanian law. Upon registration, a marriage license must be filed according to one of three classifications: polygamous, potentially polygamous, or monogamous. Incidentally any declared status can be "converted" to polygamous or monogamous by joint declaration at any time. As it exists, polygamous relationships are permitted only with the consent of the first wife, in fact maintenance of the other wives becomes the first wife's duty in cases where the husband is incapacitated or otherwise unable to earn a living. Given that Islamic law allows for men to take up to four wives, it is presumed that all Muslim marriages are polygamous or potentially polygamous unless proved otherwise, and Christian marriages are the reverse. A man is only allowed to take a second or third or even fourth wife provided that he can "afford" to support them, therefore polygamy is often a defacto status symbol, indicating great wealth.

This past weekend we were hanging out in South Beach with a newfound friend, Shannon, otherwise known as The Kristen Replacement, and were greeted with swarming numbers of Pakistani naval officers on shore leave. They approached Andrei in a steadfast manner and invited him for a friendly chat by the poolside. He got up to join them alone. Shannon and I were more than content to continue drinking our beers by the bar. No no, they beckoned, everybody should come. By the poolside Andrei explained, these are both my wives - Wife #1 and Wife #2. This statement received barely scant notice and jovial conversation continued. Once their rudimentary English skills had run their course, they asked to take a group picture with us and then politely excused themselves for further exploration. As they walked away one man looked back and with a wink and nod of the head he remarked, "You are a very lucky man to have two wives."

And so it seems, sometimes the path of least resistance, in terms of explaining away circumstances, is the most amenable and easily understood mode of communication, especially when working across such varied and value laden cultural norms.




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