Polygyny (Polygamy) Is Already A Practice

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

To Africans including Liberians, the institution of polygyny (polygamy) is nothing strange. Polygyny was the acceptable form of marriage in Africa prior to the arrival of the colonizers and Christianity. The same can be said about the Americo Liberian settlers. As a matter of fact, the Settlers got involved in this practice of having more than one wife. Therefore, I assume it is out of ignorance that President Taylor wants to legalize an institution which has been the practice of the African inhabitants for hundreds of years.

Moreover, we need to correct a common mistake in referring to polygyny as polygamy. Polygamy is the practice of having more than one wife or husband at one time. Whereas polygyny is the practice of one man having more than one wife at one time. Polygyny is the form of marriage practiced in Africa not polygamy.

Having made this correction, permit me to ask why most Westerners and their westernized African counterparts considered polygyny a bad institution of marriage? Why do they condemned it? I can only conclude that they do so out of ignorance, especially, women. I believe it is done from the point of view of it being exploitative to women. Furthermore, most of those who do so, do it without making any effort to find out how the practice came about. They refused to see how "cultural relativity" is applicable to polygyny. I consider their refusal to do so as "academic hypocrisy."

However, before we begin to probe into the origin of polygyny, we need to know the role culture plays in a given society. In order to do so, let's look at the explanation provided by Professor Ali A. Mazrui. According to Mazrui:

Culture provides lenses of perception, the way of looking at reality, a world view; culture provides standards of evaluation; what is good and what is evil; what is legitimate and what is illegitimate are rooted in criteria provided by culture. Culture conditions motivations; what motivates individuals to act or refrain from acting, what inspires individuals to perform well or to really exert themselves, is partly inspired by cultural factors. Culture is the medium of communication; the communicative aspects of culture range from language in the literal sense to physical gestures and modes of dress. Culture provides a basis of stratification, a pecking order in society. Status, rank and class are partly the outcome of a cultural order.

According to the explanation given above, we can then see the cardinal responsibilities placed upon culture in creating institutions to address certain needs in society. However, due to ignorance, most individuals have the tendency to pass judgment on polygyny without thoroughly understanding it.

From on our understanding of culture, it is safe to say that one of the key responsibilities of culture is the establishment of social institutions which will maintain the orderly existence of a society. Secondly, these institutions serve to promote "a system of values, and these values are a set of ideas, concepts, and practices to which strong sentiments are attached."

In view of the above, one can easily understand how polygyny became the ideal institution of marriage in Africa. However, the rationale given for the practice of polygyny in Africa is provided by two schools of thought - the Social and Economic. Proponents of the Social School explained that at the time polygyny was established as the legal form of marriage, the ratio of women to men in Africa was about 10 to 1. As the result, those who were responsible for establishing social institutions - the elders, including women, decided to come up with a marriage system that would address this problem. Their aim at the time was to provide a balance and equal distribution of social, material, security and economic benefits to both women and men.

Furthermore, these social architects or elders felt that if the problem regarding the needs of unmarried women were not addressed, what would eventually happen was the snatching away of other women's husbands, or the unmarried women would, for example, engage in prostitution since as human beings, their sexual, social, psychological and economic needs had to be taken care of.

On the other hand, the proponents of the Economic School reasoned that polygyny was established to address the prevailing economic issues of the period. They explained that during the Pre-colonial era in Africa, the economic activities were centered around subsistence agriculture. This type of farming requires lots of manpower. In order to establish the mode of production that was going to be beneficial to the entire society, the polygynous form was preferred. Since this form of marriage emphasized collective responsibilities, communal ownership of farms, wealth and the economic benefit of the extended family.

The major concept of both the Social and the Economic Schools was centered around the male marrying more than one wife depending on the amount of dowry (bridal price) he or his family could afford. In the traditional African society where this arrangement was prevalent, a man who had four wives, was obligated to provide farm for each of his wives. The children and the relatives of each wife were required to work and attend to the operation and maintenance of the farm. The husband on the other hand, was responsible in providing periodic assistance as well as supervision to each farm.

The resources derived from these farms were pooled together to provide material and economic benefits for the entire extended family. With this type of arrangement, all members of the extended family were better cared for.

I will be the first to admit that polygyny has its negative and positive aspects; so do monogamy. But the major problem one finds with polygyny in Liberia started with the Americo Liberian settlers. Prior to their arrival in what is known today as Liberia, polygyny was the acceptable form of marriage practiced by the indigenous inhabitants. The establishment of Liberia as a Christian state gave rise to the conflict between polygyny and monogamy. In other words, since Americo-Liberian settlers condemned the practice of polygyny, monogamy was emphasized like other Western cultural hegemony in the Liberian society. However, the natives (as African Liberians were referred to) were allowed to continue the practice of polygyny.

But the Americo-Liberians who condemned the practice of polygyny found themselves practicing a brand of polygyny called "Chrismonopoly." (Christians' monopoly of marriage). Chrismonopoly became the form of marriage practiced by the settlers. It is an arrangement in which a male settler is married to his monogamous or Christian wife and at the same time is engaged in polygynous relationship with "native African Liberian women."

The origin of the relationship between the African-Liberian women and the Americo-Liberian men can be traced back to the plantations in North America where the Americo Liberians were once slaves. On these plantations, the white slave masters were engaged in monogamous marriage and at the same time were allowed to have at will the slave women. The children produced out of this relationship were never considered part of the slave masters' family but rather their properties. Whenever they saw it fit, they would sell these women and their offspring for economic gain.

Similar practice was established in Liberia by the Americo Liberian settlers. The Liberian experience was such that the offspring that were produced out of the relationship between the Americo Liberian men and the African Liberian women were not considered legitimate children. Instead, they were referred to as "out side children." On the other hand, the mothers of these children in most cases were referred to as their "country women" whereas the children of the monogamous marriage were viewed as "legitimate" or "inside" children. Of course, there were some exceptions but in most cases, this was the accepted norm.

In some cases, the "country women" live on the farms of the Americo Liberians. Social and economic opportunities as well as certain privileges were reserved for the so-called legal wives and their children, while the country women and their children could barely make ends meet.

Serious social problem emanated from the practice of Chrismonopoly. Some of the problems (bastard and illegitimate children) that polygyny was established to solved. For example, in a Chrismonopoly relationship, a distinction was made as to who were "inside or outside children." This was never the case in a polygynous relationship. As a matter of fact, the entire village was responsible in raising the children.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that President Taylor's called for marriage between Mandingoes, Krahns, Gios and Lormas is only a cliché to legitimized his relationship with his reported slew of women and encourage their social exploitation as well. This is the type of usury and exploitative practice that most female critics assigned to the practice of polygyny. This only suggest that in a given society where either monogamy or polygyny is the preferred institution of marriage, individual like President Taylor will use the institution to satisfy his selfish motives or misinterpret the practice to his advantage.

Therefore, I would advise critics of polygyny (polygamy) to first attempt to understand the institution before condemning it. In this case, they should be willing to listen to the pro and con regarding the institution.

Related Article:
The Cock And The Gun: Liberia's Continuing Legacy Of Violence And Male Domination
A Case Against Legalizing Polygamy