Sunday, 20 September 2015 14:44

Living in Serial Polygamy: Contesting African Sexuality and Polygamy in an Apple Farm

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Selected Serial Polygamous Marriages Selected Serial Polygamous Marriages

Culture as a concept of how people think, act and behave to share common values and identity to mark themselves out from others is a powerful way in which a society is organized to live meaningfully. When a population group lives separately apart due to geographical distances and ecological features, such a society will have a tendency to adapt and survive in the first place by doing what is required of it to exist as a human community.

How a society is culturally managed is crucial to the adaptive skills and capacities the members may have and that is why Charles Darwin and other evolutionary theorists, including Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs emphasized the need to have level of needs met to grow to other needs. As such, one can argue that when societies gather and talk about their lives, cosmology, sex, men, women, marriage, kinship and family, politics, economic necessities, religion, safety and security, education, they do so with the zeal and curiosity to signify and elevate themselves with their environmental situations and considerations.

All said, a society is not ignorant and is equally not detached from a focus on how its members enter into love relationships, marry, live and die. It includes kinship policies and community relationships. Each society with their leaders and culture heroes aspires to create economic and social situations to enable its members participate and contribute to its stability and continuity. Understood that sex and family relationships are critical to the well-being of everyone, rules are made to sanction behaviours that will not promote social order (see The Kpim of Social Order 2010 in A society that has effective marriage procedure is a society expected to transform to ordered way of living a good life. Marriage and how people marry is central to all else with regard to procreation, learning, safety and opportunity to be somebody in that society. Do people marry differently and have varied marriage types? Yes of course. Marriage comes in different forms and marrying is culturally sensitive as it goes with the marriage norms of a social community of persons to cohere.  

This essay is drawn from a participation in a critical joking conversation in a Belgian Apple Farm about African sexuality and polygamy. It dares to say do Africans love or live through sex and multiple marriages? Captioned above as "Living in Serial Polygamy: Contesting African Sexuality and Polygamy in an Apple Farm" makes sense in that it helps to narrate a story of the discourse an African had with Belgian boys and girls while plucking apple fruits for a vacation job that mitigated the setting to understand how young people think about sex and others different from their own local experiences of the world.  

The narrative shines light on the fact that there is no country without experiences of polygamy and polyandry and it all depends on what term is used and applied to the practices of having plural wives, husbands and loveships. Whereas some view marriage as a contract that is lived within the limits of the contractual arrangements, others explain and live it as a life-long lasting relationships. Even in African communities, once married a partner lives forever in the marriage constructed between families and kinship networks. If one's wife or husband dies, particularly in a family blessed with children, the living partner remains married to the dead other. Studies account for some reasons why remarrying is not easy or made practically impossible to manage. Fear of the unknown is part including the vagaries of struggles in the moral universe of the group.

Let me add here that the central marital and wedding vow in western based Christian marriage doctrine that "one is married and remains married until death do us part" is not totally consistent with liberation in Igbo marriage tradition, belief and customary practices. In the culture, marriage is entered into with the hope to stay married for life and for death. Exceptions occur in a culturally allowed lifestyle such as a man losing his wife to death and having fulfilled all mourning rites is expected to take another wife more easily than a woman to stabilize his household and raise the children. His role continues to impact his in-laws especially where children are involved due to maternal affinity. The main point here is that women are encouraged to remain married to the family and kinship of their husband in keeping with the kinship alliances. As such, ending marriage at death is not a popular cultural adoption strategy. Marriage is considered a sacred relationship which is culturally atoned to continue to exist even after death. The mantra, "until death do us part" is a nuance for continuity in the spirit world and not a virtue of stoppage.        

Having said that, marriage must be understood as a complex dynamics of weaving lifestyles, related and distant peoples, customs and places together in meaningful situations of existence. Think of it, in America to marry today and divorce soon after to marry another as many times as one can is evident. This pattern of transition from one marriage to another is equally a world wide experience. In Muslim societies, the idea to divorce and have it openly announced and proceed to remarry is well studied and understood.

Recalling the cultural dynamics of having worked a vacation job in a Belgian apple farm in Glabeek as a student in the 1990s with some Belgian boys and girls, the idea to inform the other with the knowledge one is raised with and carries with him or her is important to anthropological sense making of the issues that come up when members of two cultures clash through joking opportunities. I must state that we joked a lot about having relationships and the cross-cultural girlfriend-shopping and boyfriend-shopping around and systematic form of marriages that result from so doing.

We prompted on the conversation of interracial and inter-generational relationships. We enjoyed deep arguments around colonization and exotic love excitement and culture shocks. Let me say that we chitchatted a lot around youth experiences of love and night-life episodes in European and African cities, villages, farms, schools, market places, festivals and religious worships.

We came to a point during our lunch break gathering and social musings, when one of the Belgian boys inquisitively demanded to know this: "Why is it that African men like women too much and marry many wives at the same time? How come they are restless with their sexual organs than anyone else?" My first reasoning was to understand where is he going to with the questions? Secondly I assessed the issue of exotic story telling about other cultures from travellers in pubs and barbershops where cultural gossips have made inroads to the perception and stereotypes of the other. I concluded by taking the cultural punch to say "do not blame this guy asking genuine questions to be informed." I did fairly so to inform the guys through my personal experiences; reading and learning because colonial writings on African sexuality has been a hassle of outbursts, naive inscriptions and exaggerated intrusive and in-cursive sex and gender stereotypes.

Having thrown the questions out as it truly happened, it was like the sky shone a rainbow of flash-light and everyone broke out into a heavy long lasting laughter and piqued curiosity. Some followed it up with the shouting of ok, tell us, come on, why, how, speak out, don't be shy, stand up for your culture, and so on. I did with others from the same cultural enclave. 

Boldly I stood my grounds being an African and a research student too (though we were four Africans in the team of 10 summer apple workers). What happened next throughout the apple working sessions surprised us with how we became informants in the diaspora to represent our own cultural ideals and identities in the context of sexual gossips and plural relationships.  

By the way, I sounded out that polygamy is a choice in marriage lifestyle for the rich in my society. In Igbo where I was raised, a man having more wives is honoured as "Ogaranya" so it is evidence of showing organizing household ability, leadership, maturity, capacity, wealth and living large. It mitigates the drive to be somebody at a higher order level of the society. 

I clarified that polygamy is not for everyone in the society. It is a measure of social achievement and by merit only the wealthy can go into it. So to enjoy women in their numbers the culture encourages everyone to marry and those who can afford more wives should not let unmarried women stay idle and lonesome for ethical, protective and productive considerations. They must be occupied and meaningfully accommodated. Unmarried state of life is cast as a social misfortune. As a solution to managing excess women which is common place as well as organizing the floating around to be in order of the shared values and dignities of fortune and good life, the powerful and the wealthy can distinguish themselves by accommodating the women and giving them a place of honour, a kinship security and opportunity to live more responsibly and healthily. Compared with how unmarried persons in western societies constitute and meddle with all sorts of immoral persuasions of living, a married society is considered more stable than the unmarried flows.  

It is reasoned that, anthropomorphic-families need to turn their daughters over to the marriage sharing in-laws and vice versa. Women were seen as life givers who must circulate through marriage and kinship alliances to do so and build stable connections and viable communities.

As such, polygamy is a big responsibility which only the capable persons can engage in. It does not just come about because one is very sexy. It is rather a solid social status one must grow into and accomplish it. It must be achieved to belong. In other words, impregnating a girl prematurely does not accord one the status of a polygamist. Biology and culture are interwoven and there is no exigent way we can point to the power of human body to be different from how culture shapes the same body to respond to sex needs than in some patterned human sexual behaviours. All sexual behaviours end in marriage as it is organized by a human population group to exercise social order.     

It went further to be narrated that polygamy entails fulfilling marriage transactions to acquire several wives and only those who can afford the social payments and maintain the demands and expectations of marriage relationships will do so. Those who cannot due to personal choices, leadership will to control turbulent, competitive household intrigues and poverty conditions are encouraged to avoid challenging themselves with what might ruin their lives and cause social hurting and harming in the kinship circle. 

Basically, we must not loose the sight and understanding that women marry to families where presumably the signals are clear that they can feel happy, secure and hope to have opportunity to fulfill their rights and obligations.

A large household managed by a successful man in line with many off spring and competitive wives living and sharing one husband at the same time is, indeed, an accommodation in polygamous treatments. Masculinity, being a true powerful man, is equally tested and endured in being able to run a big household as I further stated.

However, the joy of polygamous relationship is exercised by both men and women. Sexuality is a powerful feeling and both men and women equally dream of, desire and connect to a good life through it. It is not a bad thing. It is cultural to the sex, gender and family building mechanism and stability of the society.

It is much agreed that in a society that practices polygamy, there is a tendency for enduring marriages to occur than those who don't. Co-wives are the strengths of one another in plural family units of polygamous households.

Yet each society like the Belgian society, as I moreover, argued it, is as polygamous as my own African communities. Each geographical population hemisphere enjoys their women in society as much as the women also do. It is flawed to say that Africans are more sexually attached to their brain-set or think and act through sex alone. May be it is spiritedly agreeable that many of the African men and women are stronger in bed and engage in sex as a sporting and exploring test of masculine entertainment to discharge erotic energies.

While in some societies, polygamy is a marriage in a continuous household of living, contributing and sharing total lifeboat together as one family under one man as the head, in others the genealogy of marriage registry occurs differently in favour of single households or monogamous appeals.

Here instead of marrying several wives and living together with one man, two partners or only one man and one woman is the socially acceptable practice. This is monogamy as it is called and represented in obvious culturally significant ways.

But monogamy in sexual life expectations is not as parallel as it is envisioned. It is not incompatible with jealousy and excitement to the idea of tasting other men and women.

We all know the love story intrigues that can be involved in the context of a combo of women and one capable man. The challenges in sexual bets and conflicts are higher than in polygamy. It is devoid of competition and excitement and sooner or later problems of cheating will become a burden to live peacefully and less arguing in the romantic affairs of monogamous relationships.

What happens is that in monogamy, the chances for quick and access to divorce is common making the system more unstable in comparison with polygamy which is apparently believed and lived out to subsist more stably.

What we do know is that in western cultures and across-cultures influenced by colonization and Christianity, monogamy was instituted as a sacred God's law for a Christian family formation within the biblical tenets - and therefore enforced to be the adopted way of marriage as a Christian attitude that must be at play. 

Societies that are not Christianized are exceptions and in those none other societies polygamy is a practical continuous household set ups. Yet we can find out that there exists a mixture of polygamous and monogamous relationships in every context of a viable and productive agricultural and industrial society. It all depends on what one is looking for to find to make some claims or assertions around human sexuality, cultural conflicts and social disorders.    

I did not withhold to tell my Belgian audience in the apple farm that "we the African communities" may differ from their love and marriage formats through the knowledge system in each cultural context of marriage and sex practices.

At the same time, anyone - male or female - who has a history or story line of having married severally and lived severally together or separately with the married partners is a polygamous person. Marriage diversity rather than monotony is part of the spice of life and in societies, this is tenable and crucial in order to help individuals in conflict resolve their differences and move on. 

I emphasized what Serial Polygamy or a version of Polygamy must be viewed as. For monogamy it is simply a legal and Christian way to make obvious distinctions and a towering show of Christian religious attitude to relationships.

By the way also, the use of the term "Ex" or "former" wife or husband does not erase the implications of tasting the sexual realities of male and female eroticism and dairies of marriage experiences, challenges and transformations.

All said, one central question must be reflected on and answered as to why do African men have higher sex drives and end up enjoying plural wives hence adopt polygamy as a way of sexual lifestyle? To my Belgian audience, I said, sex is a serious cultural and biological orientation thing and it works for a society in their own situations. To stereotype Africans as people being super rough with their sexual lifestyle is a no brainer because sex is relative and subjective to attractions and features of eroticism. What people do for recreation is also considerable. 

It is clear to say that societies with active men are likely to be societies with accompanying active women to match up and sustain their natural environment, as well as their cultural and demanding biological existential needs and realities.

Such societies must fit to survive in the view of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution of human species, adaptation and continuity of existence and growth. Sigmund Freud agrees that high energy males will in turn require high energy females to co-exist for their sexual and emotional well-being hence he advocated for free association between men and women to interact, discover and find ways to relate properly.

The image clip drawn from broken serial polygamy of lifestyle among American men and women here as much as it relates to other societies like the Belgian one is self-explanatory of the fact that relationships are in a complex context of human rights and survival, although religion is a mystery of the eternal spirit and society.

Let me conclude by critically saying that African sexuality and polygamy is like any other sexuality understood and represented for cultural and social reasons and logic of how people use their kinship approaches to relate and marry to live their lives well in their cosmological world. 

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Left Action

They love "traditional marriage" so much they just can't stop themselves.


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Patrick Iroegbu Ph.D

Patrick Iroegbu is a Social and Cultural (Medical) Anthropologist and lectures Anthropology in Canada. He is the author of Marrying Wealth, Marrying Poverty: Gender and Bridewealth Power in a Changing African Society: The Igbo of Nigeria (2007). He equally co-ordinates the Kpim Book Series Project of Father-Prof. Pantaleon Foundation based at Owerri, Nigeria. Research interests include gender and development, migration, race and ethnic relation issues, as well as Igbo Medicine, Social Mental Health and Cultural Studies.