Recent headlines have put a focus on the practice of polygamy in Africa. How much do we know about the practice of polyandry, the practice of women marrying more than one man?
Before Christian colonialists set foot on the shores of Africa, polygamy, the custom of wedding more than one life partner, was predominant and socially acknowledged by a larger part of the clans in the landmass.
Much has been said about polygyny; however, little is known about polyandry, the least mainstream custom which is the point at which one lady weds more than one man. This was polished in the Lake Region of Central Africa and among some Maasai individuals in Kenya.
The only African countries where it is accepted for a woman to have two husbands are Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania. The tradition is practised in various loose forms across different cultures on the continent.
Earlier this year, a woman made history in the Shembe church after allegedly marrying twin brothers. This comes after a video and pictures circulated on social media showing the three wearing wedding rings and kneeling on a grass mat while placing their hands on a bible.
Among the Lele people of the Congo, because young girls tended to be betrothed to older men, the younger men (who would still be in waiting for their own betrothed brides to reach their teens) could make a request to the village elders that they be given a "common wife", i.e. a wife to be shared by all the men in a given age group. This woman is called a "wife of the village".
A daughter or granddaughter of an older "wife of the village" would be assigned to fulfil this role. If one was not assigned (or not available), then the young men could go to a neighbouring village and capture a woman from there to be their wife.
The young men do/did have a responsibility to their wife. They are required to work for their "village wife's" parents and they must also provide a payment to her parents for her. In addition, they have to provide her with her own dwelling place.
"Marital relations" in a polyandrous marriage occurred in order of age and eventually the village wife can choose five or six of the men to live in her house with her. Within her home, she would function as a traditional wife to each of these men but she is still considered a village wife which means that any of the other men could have marital relations with her and not be infringing on anyone else's rights.
When a female Maasai marries a man, she not only marries him but his extended family and friends as well. Because of high infant death rates, some elder husbands will allow other male family members to sleep with her (but only if the wife agrees). If she is impregnated, the baby is considered to be the child of both her husband and the other man (or men).
In recent years, various reports have come out of Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa of women living with two husbands under one roof. Is the practice going to grow more as women rights campaign intensify? In 2016, a popular soap in South Africa addressed the issue, one of the female characters argued that she had a right to take a second husband.
In 2013, two Kenyan men agreed to marry the same woman, taking turns to stay with her and helping her raise her children. Joyce Wambui had been torn between two lovers for more than four years and was unable to choose between them. So she joined in a contract stipulating that Sylvester Mwendwa and Elijah Kimani would “share” her.
That said, a 2012 study concluded, "although polyandry is rare it is not as rare as commonly believed, is found worldwide, and is most common in egalitarian societies."
Header Image Credits: Youth Village Kenya
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