Aasi – will you take this letter and give it to my first wife? She lives in the Bronx. That’s not far from you, no?
It’s 2011. My last night in Senegal. I furrow my brow. My homestay father has a first wife?! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I’ve been living here for almost 5 months and this is the first time I’m hearing about her?! I don’t speak much of my homestay family in 2011, but they are fascinating people and I visit them often. Well, at least once a month. I don’t want to use their names, so I will just call them Baay (dad), Yaay (mom), and Mag (short for mag bu jigeen, which means older sister). My Mag is actually the bon, or the live-in maid/cook, but she felt much more like an older sister. She’s from a village, at least 6ft tall, and has a daring sense of wit. Yaay is a pharmacist at the hospital and Baay is a retired economics teacher.
Religion is central to my parents’ life. Baay spends much of his day at the mosque, while Yaay spends much of her time at home praying. There aren’t very many pictures of marabouts around the house, but there are a few of Mecca. Despite having numerous homestay children from all over the world, the only voyage Yaay has ever made was to Mecca.
Mbalax and a social life back in the village dominate Mag‘s life. Mag now speaks a lot of french, though it was limited when I lived with the family in 2011. She of course speaks very rapid wolof and also excellent arabic. Yaay has been trying for many years to learn arabic, particularly to be able to read the Qur’an, and it is one of many sources of tension between the two.
Upon my arrival in 2013, I quickly met Malick, or Matthew, the American that was staying with my Senegalese family until recently. For the past 6 months, I feel as though we’ve become detectives trying to uncover the many mysteries of this family. Malick has done most of the detective work, of course. However, the more I discover about my family, the more mysterious they seem to become. Malick found out recently, for example, that Yaay wasn’t married until 38 years of age, which is pretty late in Senegal where the legal marrying age for women is 16 (18 for men). Before the resurgence of Islamic conservatism in early 90’s, apparently, she was very much into salsa dancing and wanted to write a novel. This is big news for me, having felt the palpable tension when I would return home from concerts at the same hour that she would wake for early morning prayers in 2011.
Perhaps the biggest mystery of all, however, is the fact that this couple has no children. This is a very rare thing in Senegal. I remember asking Yaay why she liked hosting students, hoping she would shed some light on this issue, but her response was simply a recollection of the many Peace Corps volunteers her parents had in the home when she was growing up. It was normal to her. When Baay told me that he had another wife – a wife that he needed my help contacting in New York – I began to believe that perhaps Baay was “shooting blanks” and in denial that his first wife had left him, quite possibly for this reason. Malick and I debated this often. I was often more Yaay sympathetic, while he was a bit more Baay sympathetic. But, in the end, we often concluded that we knew little to nothing. In recent conversation with Malick, Baay said ‘I’m 64 years old. Your 23. If my son were still alive, he would be 30-years-old.’ That both laid many theories to rest, while opening up the possibility for many others to fester.
You may be asking yourself why I never simply asked my Senegalese family what happened; why didn’t they have any children and what happened with the first wife? The child? If only things could be so easy. You see, polygamy is a very sensitive subject in Senegal, the reason being tension between traditional society and Islam in particular. Secondarily, there is a felt tension, particularly for younger people, between the culture of polygamy and mainstream thinking on polygamy in the rest of the world. This is why one must tip-toe around the subject. This is why, for the rest of this entry, I will largely be using false names or no name at all for the people I’ve heard from on the subject.
In wolof, there is an expression, kun yu dul ay ay lo ay dal nala: “If you don’t change households, misfortune will fall upon you.” Although the topic is mildly taboo, this traditional way of viewing polygamy is still alive and well – Senegal has the highest polygamy rate—the percentage of polygamous marriages among all married couples—in West Africa. However, it is difficult to talk about how marriage existed traditionally. In fact, it is hard to talk about traditional society at all definitively in Senegal. Firstly, there isn’t one traditional society, but many – as many as there are ethnic groups (and there are a lot). Senegal also passed through many African empires both before and after trade roots from the middle east made it to the region in the 11th century, laying a heavy arabic influence on culture. All this, of course, came before the Atlantic Slave Trade and the colonial era, which wiped away many traditional parts of Senegalese culture. Nonetheless, there is evidence that polygamy existed in Senegal long before the arrival of Islam and across many ethnic groups. “The primary activity of our ancestors was agriculture. In order to cultivate the land, you need a lot of hands. So the more numerous your family is, the easier it is to exploit the fields, to produce a lot… and to feed and support your family,” my wolof teacher in 2011 stated recently in an interview on the subject of polygamy. “In Africa, in Muslim countries, polygamy is a reality. I think it is more specifically African than Islam,” explains Penda Mbow, a professor of religious studies at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop, also in a recent article on the subject.
Still, some Senegalese men continue to say that Islam demands polygamy. According to one Imam (the head of a Mosque here in Dakar), however: “Polygamy is first of all an option. It is not an obligation. It is an option that god gave to men. Each individual is free to choose whether he wants to be polygamous or to stay monogamous. If [one says he wishes] to be polygamous, religion permits [him] to marry multiple wives. If [he says he wants] to be monogamous, religion says that that is a choice.” In fact, Islam, though sanctioning the practice, actually makes polygamy quite hard to achieve. Mbow says “polygamy, in my opinion, should be the exception in Islamic society and not something you find all the time.”
Islam, nonetheless, plays a tremendous role in the maintenance of the practice of polygamy here in Senegal. From what I understand, in Islam, there is only one absolute love: that for the creator, God, and the prophet in which one believes. For everything else, however, love is relative, or non-exclusive. Exclusive love becomes a desire of possession. God has rather given each person an immense love, an ocean of love, in which multiple people can swim. In this ocean, everyone can get the love that he or she wants.
In my Senegalese experience, however, this idea of an immense love may actually deprive many from receiving the love that they may want or need. For example, one of my married friends – let’s call her T – said that “Men will say ‘if I want a second wife, you must support me in that because you love me.’… Women are dieing of stress here in Senegal. People are always saying ‘oh yea, she died of cancer of this or that.’ It’s stress. It’s the stress of having to take care of everything for a man who does who knows what with his time. A man who is allowed by society to go out and do whatever he wants, to treat his wife like she doesn’t even have a heart.”
When I asked why polygamy is practiced in Islam, one friend told me that, at the beginning of Islam, women were being treated as possessions or slaves that could be thrown away or even killed. It is thus that the prophet took multiple wives for political alliances or to protect women who were struggling to stay safe. The prophet was never lustful. He did not take multiple wives for pleasure or material luxuries, as evidenced by his celibacy until twenty-five years of age and marriage with a woman fifteen years his senior, to whom he was completely devoted until her death. My wolof professor explained that if Muhammad had asked men to stop practicing polygamy altogether it would have been much harder to gain a following. Instead, he regulated the practice and it decreased the rate of extramarital sexual relations. It is often explained that this was advantageous to women as well; women, more numerous than men, would not have all been able to get married if strictly monogamous marriage was practiced. Forbidden to have sexual relations outside of marriage, unmarried women would not have been able to fulfill their natural needs. Barbara Freyer Stowasser, author of Women in the Qur’an, Tradtions and Interpretation, justifies the contemporary practice from a woman’s perspective saying that
[It] protects the older, sick, or barren wife from divorce while ensuring progeny for the man who may take a second young and healthy spouse. Secondly, polygamy is the most equitable solution to demographic problems in times of war, when soldiers are killed and there are not enough men to ensure marriage and motherhood opportunities for all females.
The limit of wives in Islam has been set to 4 – the number of wives that the prophet Mohammed possessed. Men are expected to follow Mohammed’s model and perform the four fundamental tasks of a husband in the Islamic faith; 1) find lodging for one’s wife; 2) provide one’s wife with food and other necessary items; 3) satisfy one’s wife sexually; and 4) assure one’s wife enough clothing. If a man takes on more than one wife, he is expected to have the means to support all of his wives and children, and to not favor one wife or treat his wives unequally. The women’s role, on the other hand, is to educate the children, take care of the children, take care of the husband and family, and to be in charge of the children’s education. “To me, women have so much more than men,” one of my older male friends told me. “They are the ones that make a home. They are the ones that make life happen. A man just works to make sure that she can do that. He gives her everything.”
One proposal I get quite often is “Am naa benn jabar, waaye begg naa naar. Yow laay begg.” (“I have one wife, but I want two. I want you [to be my second wife].”) I used to respond to this kind of proposal with internal shock and disgust, but now it is more like a part of daily life and I hardly have the energy to care. When a casual conversation unravels into a marriage proposal, particularly a polygamous one, I sometimes laugh or say “that’s nice, but no thanks.” Other times I simply nod. Then there are times when I tell them “okay! You will be my fourth husband.” “Your fourth?!?” they respond in shock, sometimes anger. “No, no that’s not normal.” From an American perspective, while women are expected to be treated equally in a polygamous marriage, polygamy does very little for women’s equality in the greater society—a society that already suffers from great gender disparity. Senegal ranks 102nd out of 134 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index (produced by the World Economic Forum since 2006), which measures the position of women relative to men in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival. Many women’s rights activists here as well say that the practice violates the principle of equality, promotes gender disparity, and compromises women’s progress in society. “Polygamy is a form of modern slavery, believe me it’s not easy as it sounds. Women involved in this form of marriage have no voice and no channels to complain,” says one Dakar woman who secretly counsels and advises wives in polygamist marriages. Fanta Niang, a social worker and gender activist in Thies, Senegal’s third-largest city, states that “[polygamy], which in the past was widespread in rural areas, has reached urban areas with alarming proportions. And abuse is on the increase, mostly in Dakar, where polygamists are becoming younger and younger.” One female 23-year-old university graduate, forced to marry a 48-year-old man here in Dakar, said in the same article that “polygamy is hell and a pack of lies… look at me, I am young and supposed to be doing things most girls my age are doing. I had dreams and aspirations to own a small company and travel the continent. I’m trapped and feel I’m going crazy because this illiterate rich man won’t let me fulfill my dreams.”
At the time of slavery, if a master were to impregnate one of his slaves, she would become his wife, even if he already had four. This is one of a few exceptions to Islamic law, though no longer applicable now that slavery has almost completely disappeared in Senegal. There are still ways, however, that Senegalese men can acquire wives that are not necessarily sanctioned by Islam. The first, and most obvious, is without the consent of their first wife. The Senegalese Family Code has made this legally possible. The 1973 Code states that the man is “the chief of the family,” and thereby the one in charge of the most important decisions with regards to marriage and family. When a couple presents themselves in front of a civil state officer for a marriage certificate, it is only the husband that may choose whether the marriage will be monogamous or polygamous. He can opt for two, three or four wives (the latter is known as integral polygamy) and his decision cannot be changed later in life. A man who opts for two wives may never seek more than two. If he does, he can be fined between 20 000 CFA to 300 000 CFA (a little over $40 to $600), imprisoned or asked for a divorce. This is why many men, even those intending to stay monogamous, often choose to leave the option open, just in case they have a change of heart later in life, particularly since polygamy, generally, is not grounds for divorce in Senegal. At the time that the marriage certificate is signed, the wife may refuse to sign if she does not approve of the decision made by her husband. The civil state officer, however, is still at liberty to override this refusal.
A 34-year-old civil engineer named Khady Ndiaye, said that she never discussed the matter with her husband ahead of their 1996 marriage. She assumed that the answer would be obvious for two educated professionals. However, when they registered their wedding at the town hall, and the husband was asked if he would opt for polygamy or monogamy, he answered polygamy. Khady fainted. “I felt betrayed and still do,” she says.
Entering a polygamous marriage without your first wife’s consent is just one of many ways men are permitted to practice polygamy in Senegal and each is colored by traditional conceptions of marriage. “[Marriage] is the union between two families, not simply two people,” my wolof teacher explained. “That is the definition of marriage [in Africa]… There is not a marriage between just a couple. Generally it is the whole family that is involved.” It is such that, in Senegalese families, uncles are often referred to as fathers and cousins as siblings, and if a woman’s husband dies, her marriage to that family is not annulled; she may immediately be married to her late husband’s brother, regardless of how many wives he may already have. “This is the way of life in Senegal,” says one man named Adama Kouyate, who inherited the wife and six children of his late brother. “This has nothing to do with Islam, but it’s our culture. And no woman has the right to oppose this because she will be harshly cursed for the rest of her life.”
I lived with a family in Mouit, a village an hour north of St. Louis, in 2011, where the third wife was acquired thusly. After her husband died, she and her daughter were immediately taken in by her late husband’s younger brother, who already had two wives. I had been warned in advance that the family I would be living with was polygamous, but it’s possible I may not have known if I hadn’t been told. When I arrived, it was very difficult for me to identify which of the women were married to the head of the house, which were children, and which were aunts or other female relatives. After a few days, however, the family structure became quite clear. Every day, the head of the household would be on a mat or cushion in the center of the entrance way/salon while other members of the family would toil about the house. The peanut shells that would collect around him resembled the skin a snake might shed. His first wife would sit upright on her own cushion off to the far right. The aged, dark-skinned woman, making tea or shelling peanuts, was rarely ever visible. Her gaze was hard and she hardly ever spoke to me, or anyone in the house for that matter. To the husband’s direct left, often directly beside him, lay his voluptuous, light-skinned second wife. While her youth was beginning to give, her triumphant smile was still vivacious as she poured herself over the head of the household and ordered others around.
Then there was the third, who hardly ever sat. She was always collecting water from the well; hunched over a big boiling pot of broth, fish and vegetables; combing and braiding the children’s hair; or mopping the floors by shuffling a soapy towel across the entire house with her feet. Her only true concern was her daughter. Only 4 years old at the time, the little girl needed a lot of defending to get an equal share of the food and not get pushed around by her older step siblings.
Now that I’m writing this, I’m realizing how parallel this family structure is with that of Cinderella’s: replace the stepmother with the husband, the father of Cinderella with the husband’s late brother, and the stepsisters with the other wives, and voila – African Cinderella is born. But there is no prince, no hope of escape for African Cinderella, or the third wife, in this story. The binds of family are simply too strong. However, this is also real life, and things are not so grim. The third wife was afforded a remarkable amount of liberty, exempt from occupying herself entirely with the whims of the head of the house because of all the work she did both in and out of the house; when she wasn’t doing some household chore, she was making her own money as a manager of a nearby national park.
Each wife in the household, to me, represents a kind of wife stereotype here in Senegal. The first wife, quiet and out of the way, represents a perfect Senegalese wife. “A good woman is to stay in the shadows,” is passive advice I’ve received from male friends time and time again. “Senegalese men just want a woman who won’t say a word. They’ll brag about it saying, ‘oh yea, my wife is great – she never talks,’” T remarked more forwardly. “You have to clean the house, raise the children, cook the food, all the while satisfying the expectations of your husband, his family and your own. And if something bothers you, you are expected to smile and not say a thing! If you don’t, your husband will just pick up and find another wife, leaving you behind.”
The second wife might represent what men really look for in a woman; beautiful, voluptuous, lively – someone to tame and show off, I once heard it described. The evidence of the husband’s preference in this home was found in the sleeping arrangements; the first wife had her own bedroom while the second always slept in the same room as their husband. As a side note, one interesting stereotype of the second wife is that she is actually a homosexual woman taken in by a rich man as charity. This type of second wife, as I’ve heard it described, is often allowed to have her own private life, provided she bares children for her husband.
The third wife in Mouit is typical of all Senegalese wives in that her number one concern is her children. The most important quality that Senegalese women seem seek in a man is the ability to provide for a family. This is the excuse that women often give for being unfaithful before marriage. It’s just practical, many of them will say, if you are looking for a man that can best provide for you. Once married, a woman, particularly one with children, is much less likely to divorce her husband, polygamous or not, out of fear of the negative impact it will have on the resources and mentality of her children.
However, a polygamous marriage can have many different negative effects on children as well. Resources for the children of one wife, for example, will be immediately cut in half once the man takes a second wife. Moreover, jealousy that enters the wives may push some women as far as to turn to mysticism to harm their co-wife or her children. For instance, one Senegalese woman I read about recently said that her children began to behave very strangely after her husband took a second wife. One day, she got a phone call from the principal saying that her children had not been to school for three weeks. When she confronted her children about it, they told her that each day they would walk to school but, before entering, some force would pull them to not enter, so they would turn around and return home. The woman visited a fortune teller who told her that it was a curse that had been cast but, now that she knew about it, the curse would be broken once she purified, or washed, her children. She did as the fortune teller said and the children’s behavior returned to normal. The woman still believes that the second wife had performed this curse out of jealousy.
Despite all this, however, the popular conception of polygamy, at least that in which there is one man with several wives and he is the only one benefitting while the women suffer, can actually be turned on its head in practice. Rather than the man having all the liberty and the women having no choice in the matter, some women actually opt for polygamy because of the freedom it yields them. “I chose polygamy to have time, because when you are in a monogamous marriage, I feel you do not have enough time for yourself,” one Senegalese woman explained.
I wanted a husband who could come two days, and I’m free for two days. I am free. To have my time to myself, to see my parents, to do leisure activities, and therefore, to be a woman with a free mind. Besides being religious, I wanted to be free, to not be my husband’s love all the time. No. Marriage, for me, there’s work and there’s the marriage, and there’s the family…I am a free woman in my mind. I like liberty. And I think if I was in a monogamous marriage and my husband tightened the rules a little at the house, I would not be able to do it. I would not be able to because mentally I am not ready to be a wife to be managed, who receives orders. Absolutely not. I am an intellectual woman, who is free-minded, so I do not think I could manage very well in that situation.
In my experience, Senegalese society puts a lot of pressure on women to get married, and so, for those that want more freedom, particularly those that want to pursue higher education, for example, polygamy might be the best option.
Baring that in mind, polygamy can be a very difficult experience for men. Benn jabar, benn soxla – naari jabar, naari soxla, (one wife, one problem/responsibility – two wives, two responsibilities) is what they say in wolof. Indeed, polygamous marriage is a lot of responsibility and it is not easy to provide for two families. Women are beginning to work more and more, not only because they wish to, but out of necessity to provide for a family. This means that two providers are becoming more and more necessary in a family, making one provider for a bigger family more and more difficult and stressful to sustain. Moreover, one polygamous Senegalese woman, the first of two wives, described that she believes no polygamous man is happy:
For the first one, you say you will leave and come back. She lets you do that, mainly because she no longer wants to see you. And there you lose the grand love. And with the second, you do not have all of the same capacities you once had, so you cannot satisfy her…And what does she do? She abandons you. Because she is disappointed. All that she thought you had you do not….The first no longer loves you, and the second no longer loves you. You find yourself between a rock and a hard place…And you are left unhappy…So there are a lot of consequences for the man and the women.
Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely that Senegal will ever make polygamy illegal. It remains an important freedom to many. Moreover, forbidding polygamy is largely seen as an acceptance of Western culture, and, pitted against the legalization of anti-Islamic homosexual marriage, that simply won’t due for many Senegalese. “If they are going to legalize anti-Islamic homosexuality in France, then they should leave polygamous marriage alone in Senegal,” a polygamous Dakar resident named Bouba Diop stated. He was reacting to the idea of a round table discussion held at the University on the “evolution, forms and perspectives” of polygamy in Senegal. “[It’s] a dirty event and we are not going to sit down and allow that to happen,” he said. “Polygamy is in the mind,” another polygamous Dakar man stated, “those who have not experienced it don’t know anything about it and therefore criticize it.”
Some think that the end of polygamy would result in a reign of adultery, which, given the normalcy of infidelity that I’ve seen, may not be an unreasonable conclusion. “I love my country. I really do. There is just one thing I deplore, Althea, and that is the infidelity of my country’s men,” T said to me. One 22-year-old student at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar named Lamine Camara, explained that he would rather be a polygamist and “officialise all my relationships instead of taking a string of girlfriends and risking diseases such as AIDS.” While the first part of his reasoning may be true for him because he is simply not one someone that can achieve monogamy, the second part is one example of how many of the ideas surrounding polygamy, often in its defense, are sadly evidence of an uneducated population. Polygamy, in fact, has been cited as a possible cause of Africa’s high incidence of HIV, in addition to low savings rate, high levels of child mortality, and female depression. Moreover, the idea that there are so many more women than there are men, and thereby polygamy must exist, couldn’t be further from the truth. According to ANSD’s statistics of the year 2013, women actually make up approximately 50.6% of the population in Senegal. Some calculations show that this should leave 1 in 5 men unable to marry due to a shortage of women. This ratio is congruent to that in China presently, which has been caused by sex-selective-abortion. And yet the misconception that there is a larger population of women is undoubtably the most common reason Senegalese people continue to justify the practice of polygamy.
Perhaps if people become more educated about the actual makeup of the population or if the number of women drops, then the practice of polygamy will continue to drop at a faster pace. However, it will probably take another generation or longer for Senegalese society to reject polygamy, though many people privately oppose it. Senegalese women’s rights activist Codou Bop explained that Senegalese women are just not ready to fight the tradition because of their struggles in other areas like access to education and employment. “Struggling against polygamy is not yet a priority when you consider all the problems they have to tackle – the economic, the social, the political level,” she says. However the problems she cites seem to stem back to family structure, at least to me. West Africa is one of the few places in the world where the birth rate is still growing, placing quite a strain on already limited resources. This rate is of course only made worse by polygamy.
I was recently quoted in an article on the subject of polygamy by my friend Zoe, who came to stay with me for a few weeks in Dakar, saying “The situation for women here [in Senegal] is really messed up.” Not my most eloquent moment, but certainly a simple explanation for why polygmay has become more and more interesting to me. Outside of my day to day interactions with polygamy, often mysterious or even blind, I recently became more interested in the practice for the difference it may represent in the construction of gender in Senegal. Specifically, the way men treat me – sometimes like a child, other times like a possession, sometimes just like an uneducated person – began to make me wonder where this behaviour was coming from. Though research into the subject has certainly shed some light onto my inquiries, the issue seems to be layered and steeped in a history, language and culture that still remains out of my grasp skill-wise. Despite my new discoveries on the position of women here and how that may be impressing upon me, I still have so many questions left unanswered. What am I consistently overlooked in important decisions, for example, with my band or even my friends? What was really going through my landlord’s mind when he made his adversity towards single, foreign women so clear to me without any explanation? Why do women seem both proud and threatened when they catch me on stage or television with male artist?
Maybe more answers next time.