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Critical reflections on polygamy in the African Christian context



Polygamy is a phenomenon often associated with African people. In almost all African societies, polygamy is an acceptable and valid form of marriage in fact, monogamy has been associated with people of lower social status. Proponents of polygamy have claimed that the more wives a man has, the more children he is likely to have, and the more children, the greater the chances that the family will enjoy immortality. This is indicative of the high regard in which the tradition is held by some African people (men in particular). The theological thinking of various Christian denominations is divided on the subject of polygamy. The intention of this article is to investigate the way in which African people have conceptualised polygamy, and how the Christian church has dealt with it. In particular, I will explore and present and argument on whether polygamy can still be regarded as acceptable in contemporary Christian communities.
Missionalia 41:2 (Aug 2013) 164–181 164
Critical reflections on polygamy in the
African Christian context
Elijah M. Baloyi
Polygamy is a phenomenon often associated with African people. In almost all African
societies, polygamy is an acceptable and valid form of marriage in fact, monogamy
has been associated with people of lower social status. Proponents of polygamy have
claimed that the more wives a man has, the more children he is likely to have, and the
more children, the greater the chances that the family will enjoy immortality. This is
indicative of the high regard in which the tradition is held by some African people (men
in particular). The theological thinking of various Christian denominations is divided on
the subject of polygamy. The intention of this article is to investigate the way in which
African people have conceptualised polygamy, and how the Christian church has dealt
with it. In particular, I will explore and present and argument on whether polygamy can
still be regarded as acceptable in contemporary Christian communities.
Kyomo and Selvan (2004:35) confirm the contemporary relevance of
polygamy as a topic of discussion, stating: “Polygamy has been a widely
discussed topic in African theology since the 1960s and it is a burning issue
even today.” While various religious communities and Christian churches
have been debating the permissibility of granting church membership to
male polygamists, other groups have argued about whether or not polygamy
is a cultural mandate in South Africa. For some it is an embodiment of Old
Testament practices, and therefore has no place in modern society, while
others regard it as a pagan practice. I do not, in this article, intend to
participate in such arguments; instead, I wish to reveal the oppressive nature
of the practice in its treatment of women. The election of President Zuma, in
South Africa, has raised the profile of polygamy (Wunderink 2009:17), but
Isabel Phiri (a theology professor in KwaZulu-Natal) expresses concern at
the fact that, traditionally, “polygamy, which was a practice of rich men
with the land and money to support a large family, is now practised by
middle-class and poor men” (Wunderink 2009:18). According to Kahiga
(2007:125), supporters of polygamy have customarily argued, in various
cultural contexts, that to marry one wife is like being one-eyed, while
having two wives can be compared to having two eyes, and therefore being
This article is a revised version of the paper delivered at the law conference held at the
University of Limpopo, 29 August to 2 September 2011.
ME Baloyi teaches Practical Theology in the Department of Philosophy, Practical and
Systematic Theology at the University of South Africa. He can be contacted at DOI:
165 Baloyi
capable of seeing far more. The questions of whether polygamy is culturally
acceptable or not, or whether it is good or bad, are not the focus of this
article. To my mind, the important question is whether or not polygamy
encourages the abusive treatment of women. In writing this article, my aim
has been both to reveal the abusive nature of the practice, and, as Majeed
(2004:74) argues, to show how the practice is a challenge to historians,
sociologists, theologians, anthropologists and other scholars. To reiterate:
the main concern of the present article is to focus on polygamy as one of the
manifestations of the oppression of women in different African cultural
contexts (Kahiga 2007:120). In this, I support Mbeya (1994:25), who states
that any aspect of African culture which keeps women in bondage or
reinforces their inferiority must be challenged.
Purpose and research problem
While some churches are reluctant to allow women or the wives of
polygamists to occupy prominent positions within the church, others are
reluctant to permit a polygamist to occupy a church leadership role. Yet
others, such as some of the African Independent Churches, accommodate
polygamists and allow them full and active participation in the life of the
church. Decisions such as this determine how the church (a particular
denomination) will be accommodated or receive support in a particular area,
particularly in rural areas where traditions are still held in high esteem. One
of the research questions to which I sought answers was whether the
denominations that reject polygamy would change their stance in order to
gain more members in the persons of polygamists, or would remain true to
their principles even though this would mean a dwindling membership. The
fact that the Christian church is divided on this issue signals the existence of
a problem necessitating research. It is therefore the intention of this article
to explore the African traditional reasons for men marrying more than one
wife, and to examine the Christian view of this practice. By Christian view I
mean the view of both groups of the divided Christian fraternity, whose
arguments I will critically assess. An important aspect of the research will
entail an examination of the effects of the practice, and as part of the critical
assessment, some advice from the Bible will be offered.
The meaning of polygamy and its historical roots
Polygamy is not the sole preserve of African people:
From its Greek origin, the word polygamy is understood in the broader
sense to include any simultaneous multiple marriage unions for one person,
such as female polyandry and male polygyny; however, the word polygamy
is used throughout this work to describe the state of a man having more than
one woman, including the religious, legal and customary aspects of these
unions (Yamani, 2008:xi). DOI:
Critical reflections on polygamy in the African Christian context 166
According to Gaskiyane (2000:97), the concept is defined as a culturally
determined, socially acceptable and legally recognised form of permanent
marriage where a man has more than one wife at a time. In this case, the
acceptability of the marriage is determined by the social customs of the
people concerned. Kahiga (2007:120) observes that different meanings may
be inferred contextually, but in essence polygamy refers to marriage where
more than one wife is involved.
Shahzad (2009) states that polygamy is as old as human society, and
cites David and Solomon as just two among many examples. Although it is
difficult to say whether polygamy is increasing or decreasing, it remains a
significant and widespread phenomenon (Okorie 1995:1).
Kahiga (2007:120) is of the opinion that while polygamy was
formalised in Africa, it has taken the form of anonymous polygamy, with
partners or concubines incognito in different locations. Kahiga argues that
the cycle of divorce and remarriage in the West amounts to successive
polygamy, because either partner is welcome to remarry after the divorce.
For him it is generally felt that when white people came to Africa, they and
the church combined in their endeavours to abolish polygamy. Hillman
(1975:182) argues that although some of the Reformers viewed polygamy
as not being contrary to the law, Calvin insisted that monogamy was
prescribed by natural law. In the words of Maillu (1988:1): “The colonial
church in particular, has been fighting against the tradition on the basis that
it is incompatible with the Bible.” Although this may have reflected the
views of many, numerous divergent arguments have been put forward by
African scholars and missionaries: while Bishop Josiah Kibira of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania acknowledged the difficulties
presented by polygamy and called for theological study, the Anglican
church in West Africa allowed the wives of polygamists to be baptised
although the same church in South Africa and elsewhere refused to admit
them even to the catechumenate without the authorisation of the bishop. The
Liberian Lutheran church elected to accept polygamists and their wives to
baptism and Holy Communion, while in 1967 the regional conference in
Nairobi asked the Roman Catholic bishops to reconsider the possibility of
adopting new policy regarding polygamy (Hillman 1975:35).
Okonkwo (2003:15) states:
If we seek to identify the main distinguishing feature of African customary
marriage as compared with European marriage, there will no doubt be
general agreement that the most obvious of such features is the toleration
and even approval, accorded to polygamy.
Although Okonkwo may be correct, it would be incorrect to generalise and
assume every African to be a polygamist, particularly in the present day, in
light of the current socio-economic situation and the criticism expressed by
some Christian churches. Bishop Colenso (the English-born Methodist DOI:
167 Baloyi
missionary who carried out his work during the 1800s in what is now
KwaZulu-Natal) is one of those who raised eyebrows because of his
tolerance of polygamy, famously recorded in his “Remarks on the proper
treatment of cases of polygamy, as found already existing in converts from
According to Masenya (2005:188), Sotho sayings such as Monna ke
tshwene, oja ka matsogo a mabedi (literally meaning “a man is a baboon, he
eats with both hands”, in other words, a man may have more than one wife)
not only reinforce the subjugation of women, but also make women
vulnerable to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Phiri (2007:75) draws attention to
the abuse and violation suffered by women when missionaries from the
Roman Catholic and the Dutch Reformed Church in Malawi insisted that
polygamists divorce their wives to remain with one upon conversion and
baptism; many deserted women were left with the crippling economic
burden of caring for their children and household.
Ford (2007) reports that the decisive issues identified by the Circle of
Concerned African Women Theologians, in dialogue with the West, include
violence against women, in which polygamy and male control in the
regulation of sex play a role. The Circle of Concerned African Women
Theologians considered polygamy to be not only patriarchal, but a further
form of violence against women. As Njoroge (1997) so rightly states, the
unlearning of internalised sexist practices, attitudes and beliefs and patterns
is one of the greatest challenges facing women.
In her paper entitled Christene en poligamie, Landman (2010) draws
together a range of controversies relating to polygamy from Roman times
through to the debates that took place at the World Council of Churches
General Assembly of 1988 in Harare, Zimbabwe. For Landman, it is the
principle of equality that matters. She acknowledges that polygamy is not
condemned in the Bible, and argues that whatever the context of polygamy,
the most important consideration is whether the participants in the
relationship treat one another equally, and in that way follow the example
set by Jesus.
Although the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1988
extends the state’s recognition and regulation to both monogamous and
polygamous customary marriages, the bill of rights by extension entrenches
the rights of women in polygamous marriages not to be discriminated
against (Vos 2010). Moreover, the bill of rights by extension also entrenches
the rights of children born of a polygamous marriage to education, which
could increase the economic burden on the polygamist. Therefore most
South Africans, particularly ordinary people, prefer to avoid the problems
associated with polygamy by having only one spouse.
Phiri (2006:6) suggests that polygamous and levirate marriages can be
traced to the fact that the biblical stories were told, written and interpreted DOI:
Critical reflections on polygamy in the African Christian context 168
in a male-dominated society. A more recent example involves the South
African president, Jacob Zuma, who in 2012 married his fourth wife.
Karimi (2012) reported as follows on this event:
Zuma, 70, tied the knot with Bongi Ngema in a traditional ceremony Friday
in the town of Inkandla. It is the sixth marriage overall for the polygamous
president. While legal in South Africa, polygamy is losing popularity with
the younger generation in the continent, while it is still practiced in some
According to Wunderink (2009), polygamy has long been a challenge for
Christians in countries with predominantly Muslim populations and many
parts of Africa. Therefore, although polygamy has been an accepted form of
marriage in most African societies (Waruta and Kinoti 2000:105),
engagement on this topic is still very important and relevant to the
contemporary church and its people.
Functions served by polygamy in the African context
A number of cultures practise polygamy for the same reasons. While the
present study focuses on African people and their practising of this custom,
I do from time to time refer to cultures from outside Africa to illustrate that
African people do not live in isolation, and to indicate the commonality
between all peoples.
A remedy for the problem of infertility
Mbiti (1969:105) conveys the importance of childbearing in African
marriages, stating: “Marriage and childbearing are the medicines against
death. While death continues to demolish life, marriage and childbearing
keep ahead of it all the time.” One is reminded here of the story of Abraham
and Hagar, which suggests the permissibility of polygamy in instances of
barrenness. Cairncross (1974:69) cites the argument as follows: “If a wife is
a barren it is indeed her duty to give such a consent, and even to exhort the
husband to take another companion as Sarah did of old.” This argument is
also favoured by Maillu (1988:8), who suggests that polygamy is the
kindest solution in the case of a wife who is infertile, because this is
preferable to being expelled from the household, and having to look for
another husband.
Kofon (1992:52) explains:
In Bafut (and other parts of Africa) people marry because they want to have
children. This is the principal aim. There is no marrying simply for personal
fulfilment or for mutual pleasure of the spouses. Begetting children is a duty
to be fulfilled.
This view is echoed by Yamani (2008), who reports: “A wife’s infertility is
a valid reason for her husband to polygamously seek another.” Traditionally, DOI:
169 Baloyi
marriage and child-bearing had a cause-and-effect order that was difficult to
break (Burman 1991:36).
According to Turaki (1999:107), begetting children guaranteed eternal
life. A traditional African man needs many children (especially sons) to
ensure the survival of the lineage and to increase his power within the clan
(Nhlapo 1992:143). Gaskiyane (2000:23) reports:
A few groups within nominal Christendom believe that the bearing of a very
large number of physical children brings eternal blessing and that such
families continue together forever in Heaven. From this belief some African
people believe that polygamy is blessed by God.
These arguments all serve to support Mbiti’s statement (1969:133) that
“Marriage and procreation amongst the African communities are a unity;
without procreation, such marriage is incomplete”.
Kimathi (1994:12) and Gaskiyane (2000:10) report that some African
people invoke polygamy to prevent a possible divorce, particularly in cases
where childlessness or barrenness was anticipated. In this context Waruta
and Kinothi (2000:105) state: “In traditional African society, it was almost
inconceivable that a childless marriage could be sustained monogynously.”
This practice also became a solution for marriages where only female
children were born, since the importance of male children was emphasized
(Kyomo and Selvan 2004:36). Gaskiyane (2000:15) elucidates: “In traditional
cultures the greatest desire and requirement is to have children, especially
male children, to be heirs of property.” In this context, Waruta and Kinoti
(2000:36) further contend that “Not only is the birth of a child important
amongst the African people, but the gender of the child is also important. Male
children are valued, especially in many patrilineal African societies.
A solution in the event of menopause
Among some African people it has long been accepted that women may no
longer engage in sexual activities once they have entered menopause.
Kimathi (1994:13) explains:
Menopause among many ethnic groups brought an end to the need for
sexual activities. A woman with married daughters and sons was regarded as
somebody who had finished her sexual role in marriage. She now was
considered too old for sexual encounters. This was something that was
regarded as a duty for the younger wives. It is not surprising, therefore, that
an older woman would tell her husband that it was time he got himself a
new wife as an indication that she was ready for exemption from her sexual
This explanation provides a clear indication that, according to some African
people, sexual responsibility for women was limited in duration, but that
men were allowed to continue to have sexual relations after women were DOI:
Critical reflections on polygamy in the African Christian context 170
expected to stop. This emphasises that sexual relations, for African women,
were aimed mainly at procreation, which was why, once a woman reached
menopause, there was no need for her to continue to engage in sexual
intercourse. Peil and Oyeneve (1998:35) thus claim that a marriage is
considered to have ended once the woman is past child-bearing age.
Kyomo and Selvan make the same point: “One reason for polygamy
seems to be the old taboo of menopause. Many African people believe that a
woman should not have sexual intercourse after menopause”. It was
believed that a woman who broke this taboo would be physically punished:
her stomach would grow bigger and bigger, or else the seminal fluid
accumulated in her stomach would flow out through the genital orifice,
creating an unpleasant odour (Kyomo and Selvan 2004:35, 36).
A solution during pregnancy and nursing
Some African cultures forbid sexual relations between a husband and wife
during pregnancy; in this regard, Labeodan (2007:46) reports:
Most of the women confirmed that once they have 'taken in' (become
pregnant), they cease having sexual relationships with their husbands,
resuming only after three years have passed and the baby is weaned.
In some Asian and Latin American cultures, too, women abstain from sex
during pregnancy (Maldonado, [s.a.]:30).
Kofon (1992:52) makes the observation that some African people
believe that when a wife is nursing a child, sexual intercourse is forbidden;
because the husband may be unwilling to wait for three years before
resuming sexual relations, he might have more than one wife. In some
instances the woman herself may suggest that he take another wife, as this
may reduce the chance of his being unfaithful during such a long period of
abstinence. It was therefore believed in most polygamous cultures that once
a man had more than one wife, immorality and divorce would be unlikely to
occur. Kofon (1992:56) summarises this reasoning as follows: “Polygamy is
supported in Africa for the reason of sexual gratification when one wife is
ill or is delivered.”
A remedy against social exclusion
In many African cultures it is the norm for an adult to be married and to
have children. Kimathi (1994:40) goes so far as to term marriage the
backbone of African society. Single status in African cultures has a number
of negative associations one being witchcraft (Phaswana 2005:1). The
Sotho idiom Lebitla la mosadi ke bohadi (meaning that a woman’s grave
lies in her marriage or her in-laws) expresses the requirement that women
should remain in their marriage, even if that marriage is life-threatening
(Kriel 1991:27). Single women have always been suspected of many evils,
such as lack of feeling and a desire to break up other people’s marriages. DOI:
171 Baloyi
Phiri (2002:25) notes the belief among Africans that being single is a curse;
Kathide (2007:40) articulates the similar view that since it is a disgrace to
be unmarried, polygamy offers every woman a chance to be married and
thus fit in with the norms of society.
This puts enormous pressure on unmarried women, and, in fact,
remaining a single person in an African context is an extremely difficult
choice to make. The belief that every woman must have a husband and
every man a wife has created a situation where a woman would prefer to be
one of several wives rather than be without a husband, as the latter situation
would make her a social outcast (Gaskiyane 2000:17). In the words of
Baloyi (2010:3):
There are people who get married not necessarily because they want to, but
because they feel the pressure of being single. Such marriages seldom last
since they will lack commitment which is needed for every marriage to
Above these arguments, Reynolds (2008:123) points out that there are many
reminders to unmarried women that they are not living a ‘normal’ lifestyle.
A source of labour
In most African cultures men (males) are generally assumed to be the
breadwinners. Stock and crop farming were the common means of survival,
and both require strength and labour. This led Townshend (2008:37) to
suggest that polygamy was originally a means by which men acquired status
and labour, as the more wives a man had, the more children he could have
and the greater would be his labour force. Taking care of livestock and
ploughing of fields would be easier if there were more people than if this
were the responsibility of just one person (the man himself). Thus labour
became a commodity in male-dominated societies where polygamy was
customary. Fenske (2012) points out that the demand for wives is highest in
those parts of the Ivory Coast where female productivity in agriculture is
highest. Similarly, Kathide (2007:39) observes that in Africa where peasant
farming was the means of livelihood, the many children born of a
polygamous marriage would become economic assets as a source of labour
in the fields. Thus the economic motive becomes a very important factor in
the context of polygamy (Blum 1989:98). In my view this is a form of child
enslavement, with concomitant negative effects on children’s education.
Fulfilment of the desire for a male heir
Many Africans believe that it is best to train their own blood sons to take
over whatever they own. Although Phiri (2002:37) recounts that among the
Chewa people in Kenya songs are sung to the effect that she who has given
birth to a baby girl is rich, while she who has given birth to a baby boy is
poor, for many African families a male heir has always been the objective DOI:
Critical reflections on polygamy in the African Christian context 172
hence Kimathi’s (1994:12) statement that a marriage into which only girls
were born is to be pitied. The mother of girls is often blamed by her
husband and his parents for not producing sons. In the past, sonless
marriage always stood on shaky grounds. It was often a cause for polygamy.
Many other researchers have contrasted the celebration attendant on
the birth of boys and the less enthusiastic reception given to girls in African
families. One is reminded of the traditional Tsonga saying: “Vanhwana i
tihuku to khomela vayeni,” the literal meaning of which is “girls are
chickens for visitors” in other words, girls will not stay in their home
forever because they will get married, but boys will stay, ensuring that the
elderly parents will have an heir who will take care of them.
A wife’s ill health, absence and the phenomenon of working
In a traditional African context, his wife’s ill health is not seen as a reason
for a husband to abstain from sex. If his wife was ill for a long period, the
husband’s family would encourage him to think of a second marriage,
reasoning that this would give the first wife time to recover. It was further
reasoned that the second wife would help to nurse the sick woman and
ensure that the children were taken care of (Maillu 1988:18). It has also
been claimed that if women are regularly absent from home because they
work far away, they would ask their husbands to marry a second wife
(Modupe [s.a.]:14). However, I believe that it is possible to challenge such
reasoning. The family would not apply the same principle if the husband
were the one ill. Moreover, it is unconscionable that instead of supporting
his wife during her time of need a man would devote his time to
entertaining a new wife. With regard to the issue of women working far
from home as a reason for polygamy, I can only respond by saying that in
the past husbands and fathers used to work very far from home, but visited
their families regularly, as a result of which there was no need for additional
wives. Women working far from home could do likewise, and again, there
would be no need for polygamy. In any event, Christian marital vows
include the promise of support in health and in sickness, which cannot
simply be ignored in difficult times.
Sexual incompatibility
Mbiti (1969:143) and Kathide (2007:40) agree that polygamy, when viewed
as a preventive measure against unfaithfulness, allowed a man who worked
far from home to take one wife with him to his place of work (possibly a
distant city or town) while another wife or other wives continued taking
care of children and the household in the rural area. In such a situation the
husband would be unlikely to have concubines or frequent female
prostitutes in town. DOI:
173 Baloyi
Maillu (1988:9) suggests that if a wife is less interested in sex than her
husband, this is a justifiable reason for him to take an additional wife.
Okorie (1995:3) expresses a similar sentiment, suggesting that polygamy
results in less temptation for a man to commit adultery.
This, however, is a clearly patriarchal view of sex which promotes
male supremacy and perpetuates the gender imbalance in society.
A way of taking care of widows
Okorie (1995:3) cites a widely African belief that levirate marriage
constitutes a means of taking care of widows. Levirate marriage is seen as a
way of protecting both the widow and her children, who will be taken care
of by the younger brother of the deceased. Moreover, it is a way of ensuring
stability and that the widow will not become part of another family, taking
the wealth of the deceased with her. However, not all widows are receptive
to this practice: Nkhwashu (2012) cites the example of a young widow who
fled from the prospect of being forced to marry her late husband’s younger
brother, taking with her the compensation paid out to her by her late
husband’s former employer.
The African Christian view of polygamy and its effects
Maillu (1988:1) argues that besides being an entrenched custom in Africa,
polygamy features in the oldest historical records. Gold (2007:1) cites the
example of an African pastor who taught his church under the title:
“Polygamy as a pre-requisite for church membership.” According to Gold
(2007:1) the Langham Partnership makes the observation that interpreting
and applying the Bible in the light of African culture and realities furnishes
powerful and relevant insights into the biblical text that transcend Africa in
their significance. Muslims practise polygamy. Saint Augustine and Saint
Thomas Aquinas taught that simultaneous polygamy is not in itself evil,
since it was permitted by God in the Old Testament (Hillmann 1975:179);
they viewed it as being contrary neither to the law of nature nor to the
nature of the Bible.
In the African context, Christian churches were and still are divided
into three categories: the missionary-initiated churches (the so-called
mainline churches), the African Independent Churches (AICs), and the
Pentecostal churches. For the Christian missionaries who first came to
Africa, monogamous marriage was the norm. Furthermore, throughout the
centuries, the teaching of the Christian church about marriage has
emphasised monogamy. In the words of Waruta and Kinothi (2000:108):
Western missionary Christianity with its insistence on monogamy as the
only acceptable form of marriage, its emphasis that marriage is primarily a
matter of a man or a woman ‘leaving his or her mother and father and the
two becoming one flesh’, its largely puritanical if not hypocritical attitude DOI:
Critical reflections on polygamy in the African Christian context 174
toward human sexuality, and its preference for a more individualistic
lifestyle and nuclear families, has created much confusion and anxiety in
contemporary African society.
Earlier Western missionaries felt the need to confront polygamy at the point
of conversion. In short, a man who wanted to be accepted as a church
member was required to bring one wife into the church (where a formal
church marriage ceremony would take place) after abandoning all the other
wives, in order to remain in monogamous marriage. However, as Mugambi
(1989:96) points out, this “common rule” did not bring an easy solution to
this problem. In this regard Wunderink (2009:18) quotes Isabel Phiri, who
argues that this is an example of where missionaries with good intentions
did not have a proper solution to the issue of polygamy, and in fact
promoted divorce without responsibility being taken for the children.
Bishop John Colenso of Natal recognised this when acknowledging that the
practice of separating husbands and wives on their conversion to
Christianity is in opposition to God’s teaching (Hillmann 1975:32). As
Jenkins (2010:45) remarks: “This policy initially limited the impact of the
so-called mission churches, while pushing believers toward new
independent congregations, the African Initiated Churches or AICs.”
Jenkins’s (2010) observation gives us some insight into the AICs as
churches that accommodated polygamists as full members. In the view of
Jerkins James O Kombo, lecturer at Daystar University in Kenya,
African-initiated churches are more welcoming, and one would probably
find a number of (polygamous) families among the members of their
congregations. The same sentiment is expressed by Hillman (1975:33), who
states: “On the whole it is the Independent African Churches, composed
initially of dissident Christians from Western-based churches, that have
taken the more lenient positions.” De Bruyn (1988) reports that Densen
Mafinyani took a stance on behalf of the Zimbabwean Council of Churches
(ZCC) against the World Council of Churches (WCC), recommending that
the latter should accept as members those churches which tolerate
polygamy, because in the African context polygamy is neither wrong nor
evil. Not all AICs require a polygamist to dismiss all but one of his wives in
order to join the church, because the African epistemology differs from the
Western epistemology and recognises both monogamous and polygamous
unions as indissoluble; it also articulates that divorce is not an African, but a
Western concept (Kahiga 2007:131). Some AICs opted not to resist
polygamy, believing that “official polygamy”
was not a great problem, but
that “unofficial polygamy”
was. It was as a result of this difference in
Official polygamy refers to a situation in which all wives are married through the
customary payment of lobolo.
Unofficial polygamy (nke mdogo in Swahili) refers to a situation in which marriage to a
second or third wife is not sealed by the payment of lobolo. DOI:
175 Baloyi
outlook between the missionary churches and the AICs that the latter drew
more converts (who felt ill-treated by the former).
It is claimed that the husband and the first wife often reach agreement
concerning the husband’s marrying a second wife. Kahiga (2007:127)
Women who accept second marriage to their husbands have no choice but to
toe the cultural line. It is not that a woman is so generous to suggest to a
man to take a second wife, no, it is her pre-emptive action to forestall the
man from bringing a second wife that will contribute to disharmony and
perpetual wars in the extended family
In other words, the first wife is faced with a choice either to choose an
acceptable second wife or to leave this entirely up to her husband. This is
why the wife will usually choose a young woman who is her friend or a
relative and recommend her to the husband, because the first wife has a
much better chance of commanding respect from a woman she knows than
from stranger.
According to Gaskiyane (2000:10), there is plenty of evidence to show
that “no woman really wants to share the affection and love of her husband
with another woman”. The testimony of those who have lived in
polygamous homes around the world supports the fact that jealousy and bias
always prevail. (In the Old Testament, Jacob favoured Rachel over Leah and
Elkanah favoured Hannah over Peninnah (1 Samuel 1:5) (Gaskiyane
2000:9). Kahiga (2007:127–128) states:
If marriage entails that a man gives himself to a woman and a woman gives
herself to a man, what then is left to give to another (third person) woman?
The man will not be available unless as a fake man, an illusion a mere
physical and not mental, spiritual complete presence to the other. In this
case the woman will be taken as an object but not as an equal subject, a
means but not an end in herself. Therefore polygamy or anonymous
polygamy is a lie and an intellectual dishonesty.
Although some church leaders initially rejected polygamous marriages in
their churches, Wunderink (2009:1) reports that many African church
leaders regret zero-tolerance policies applied to polygamous families of
converts, saying that treating those marriages as invalid gives rise to a
number of problems.
Critical evaluation
Among the things that a critical evaluation of polygamy helps us to see is
that not only does it encourage the treatment of women as inferior beings,
but it also foments rivalry between wives and forces many women to share
already scarce resources with co-wives and their children. It also has an
impact on women’s health, and has a detrimental effect on the many DOI:
Critical reflections on polygamy in the African Christian context 176
children that the polygamist will have (Struensee 2004). Okorie (1995:6)
mentions the jealousy and intense envy that polygamy gives rise to among
the wives. With reference to the often-cited polygamy of the President
Zuma, one of the most important issues is that of leading by example. If we
examine his polygamous marriage in the light of issues such as HIV/Aids
and accountability, the president has failed to set a good example,
particularly for the younger generation, who require guidance and education
in marital issues. It is important to ensure that from their leaders, including
political leaders, the younger generation, and indeed society at large, should
learn responsibility and accountability in matters related to marriage.
As far as the issue of infertility is concerned, it seems that, in African
culture, it is the woman who is usually suspected of being infertile, even if
medical tests have not been conducted. Kimathi (1994:23) reports on a case
study involving a woman who was unable to conceive. Following a medical
examination that confirmed that there was nothing wrong with her, the
doctor suggested that her husband should also come for a medical
examination; the husband refused to do this. His refusal, of course, suggests
that he had every intention of choosing to believe that there was nothing
wrong with him and that he was entitled to continue to blame his wife for
their childless state. This is yet another example of how African tradition
tends to be judgmental of women, even in the face of medical evidence to
the contrary. As Gaskiyane (2000:10) rightly points out, in some cases at
least, polygamy follows on from a man’s unwillingness to acknowledge that
problems relating to infertility may lie with him.
In some cases, where men have been tested and found to be sterile,
they have demanded that the doctor never disclose this information
(Gaskiyane 2000:11). This is precisely why Baloyi (2010:12) recommends
that, before a man marries a second wife for reasons of infertility, both he
and the first wife undergo medical tests to ascertain which of the two is
infertile. This will not only reduce the tendency to automatically blame the
woman, but will also enable the medical profession to help the couple
before a third party is involved. It is vital that Christian communities be
educated to understand that marriage is not intended for child-bearing only,
but also for the achievement of goals such as friendship, intimacy,
complementarity and partnership (Baloyi 2001:11–20).
Moreover, there is no medical evidence to support the notion that
sexual relations after menopause are a danger to health this is nothing
more than a myth perpetrated by certain African traditions. Although sexual
relations after menopause may be regarded as taboo in some cultures and
traditions that do not constitute the focus of this article, the fact that this
view is cited as a reason for polygamy in some African cultures needs to be
exposed. DOI:
177 Baloyi
In my view it is very difficult to defend polygamy in modern times,
especially given current economic circumstances. I fully support Kahiga
(2007:121), who expresses the view that although it cannot be ignored, the
practice of polygamy no longer has a place. Kathide (2007:41) shares this
sentiment, making the observation that aside from the problems of rearing
and disciplining children and quarrels amongst the wives, the harsh
economic reality of modern times is sufficient to discourage polygamy,
since providing a house for one wife as well as giving one child a decent
education is already a great responsibility. The modern African woman is
assertive of her marital rights and her right to equality and dignity, and is no
longer prepared to live out her life in perpetual sexual slavery in a
patriarchal system in which polygamy is used as an oppressive practice.
Current socialisation as well as a culture of respect for human rights and the
acknowledgement of gender equality should combine to topple polygamy as
custom and tradition. Of course, oppression is encountered in some
monogamous marriages, but that is another subject altogether. Mbeya
(1994:16) recognises a definite connection, throughout the world, between
polygamy and oppression under patriarchy and other serious forms of
inequality. Although he does not explain how, Jenkins (2010:45) claims that
pressure is being placed on even some of the long-established AICs to
change their stance on polygamy. As Chapman (1986:28) points out:
Sharing is not for every woman, but every woman needs to open her eyes so
that she can recognize when she is sharing her man with someone else. Too
many women pretend that they can share in order to have a relationship and
then end up overwrought with anxiety
Fear of being a social outcast
Although some African cultures are changing their stance under Western
influence, others continue to treat unmarried women as outcasts. It is the
duty of the church, through its leadership, to teach that marriage is indeed
part of life, but that life can still be enjoyed by those who choose to remain
single. There is no reason to force a woman into a polygamous marriage to
prevent her becoming a social outcast: just as marriage is all about
commitment, singleness is also a legitimate choice (Baloyi 2010:11). Denis
and Ntsimane (2006) report on the current phenomenon of women who
choose not to be married, but nevertheless have children, but for the purpose
of this article I wished to draw attention specifically to the negative
connotations of being unmarried and how this is exploited as a reason for
polygamy. The traditional fear of being single is one that needs to be
addressed through counselling, so that people are able to accept themselves
as they are. As Fagerstom (1996:77) suggests, we should not look to others
for approval and self-esteem, but to the One who created us. DOI:
Critical reflections on polygamy in the African Christian context 178
Health and economic considerations
If health-related problems are encountered if the husband and wife engage in
sexual relations during pregnancy and nursing, the best advice one can give
them is to consult their family doctor. In contemporary society, any man who
marries a second wife because of such problems needs to remember that, in
doing so, he may well be exposing himself and the whole family to the HI
virus –aside from the fact that marrying a second wife for such reasons is
obviously unfair to his first wife. If the problem is not health-related, then the
church has a moral obligation to teach the couple to stay together.
It must be remembered that in earlier times in Africa, polygamy was a
way of life that could be practised only by wealthy men who could afford to
take care of a number of wives and a great many children (Wunderink
2009:17). Our communities should therefore be educated and actively
encouraged to have families that they can afford to support. South Africa is
currently facing a very high level of unemployment, It would be extremely
unwise for an economically deprived or unemployed man to practice
polygamy. It is not only unethical, but also extremely irresponsible to have a
larger family than one can afford to support. In those cultures where a
surviving brother is obliged to inherit his deceased brothers wife, the family,
clan, community and local pastors have a moral obligation to review this
custom in light of the wishes of the widow, and health-related considerations.
Polygamy has long been the preferred form of marriage in Africa.
Nevertheless, the Christian church needs to take a decisive stand with
regard to polygamists who want to join the church. Faith is the
responsibility of an individual, but church is the responsibility of people,
and faith manifests itself in the church. It is my conviction that
understanding the constitution of different churches and their structures can
enable a polygamist to choose a church which he understands and in which
he can be happy; it is not necessary to point fingers at another church that
has a different policy. Finally, I wish to reiterate that people should be
advised to consult their doctors concerning infertility, menopause,
child-rearing and other related issues before they invoke polygamy as a
solution to any of these problems, and that men should be advised to take
the cost of living into account before deciding to marry a second wife. I
would like to conclude with the words of Olukoya (2004:258): “The spirit
of multiplication of wives and concubines causes disaffection and
frustration in monogamy, and has destroyed many promising destinies. It is
the root of most divorces, remarrying and early widowhood.” DOI:
179 Baloyi
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... Africans can travel over 500 km to attend a funeral of their grandparents' neighbours. According to Baloyi (2014:2) your faithfulness is proven through your attendance at other people's funeral, the more likely it is that mourners will come to help you when a member of your own family dies. Large number of people coming together for a funeral from far away, is not only normal for Africans but also an obligation. ...
... Daily services leading to the funeral have been an integral part of the African culture for years and as part of the healing process for the family. Baloyi (2014) argues that: ...
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Burial rites are very common among many Africa communities. In the African context, burials are not the end of life but rather the beginning of another life in the land of the ancestors. In spite of the importance of the African funeral rites, the missional role of the church in mourning and the burial of the dead in the African communities, the COVID-19 pandemic led protocols and restrictions placed a huge challenge on the African religious and cultural practices. Contribution: In the light of the above-named challenges, the article discusses the religious-cultural effect of the pandemic with special focus on the African liturgical and missiological challenges in the context of the COVID-19 restrictions on funerals and burial rites.
... In many regions, polygamy considered a way to ensure a family's socioeconomic security and stability [6,7]. African polygamy is contested in defense of the rights of women increasingly [8,9]. Nowadays, polygamous marriage in Africa is declining due to the increased cost of living, an increase in women's education, and a gradual change in the status of women to resist polygamy. ...
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Introduction Polygamy is commonly referred to as the union of a man with multiple women or the practice of having more than one wife at a time. In Ethiopia, polygamy has practiced in all regions. In particular, the stress of polygamous family life predisposes mothers to psychological problems. Being a serious public health issue, the stressful experience among polygamous women was not known in Ethiopia. Aim To explore a stressful life experience among first married polygamous women in Gedeo Zone, South Ethiopia, 2021. Methods This study was conducted using a phenomenological study approach from February 20–30, 2021. A purposive sampling method was used and an in-depth interview was conducted. Data were collected from 13 first married women from polygamous. Findings Three themes emerged from the study including reaction to polygamy, socio-economic challenges in polygamy, and bonds of families in polygamy families. The finding indicated that the status of life experience among first married women in a polygamous family was stressful. They experienced various degrees of psychological difficulties including anger, mistrustfulness, emotional distress, loneliness, emptiness, unhappiness, and lack of intimacy with their husbands. Conclusion and recommendations This study highlighted how polygamy is a complex issue and common practice in the Gedeo zone. There has to be a mechanism for serious follow-up to educate women properly. A long-lasting measure to empower women in the economy, social, political, and creating a level of consciousness to resist polygamy is important.
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... It is of no relevance that, even though, as anthropologists show, the majority of people live in monogamous relationships, out of 849 human societies, as many as 700 allow polygamy (which surely does not mean that is common practice) (Agnosiewicz n.d.). Studies conducted among Indians and African peoples show that polygamy is not contrary to nature (Baloyi 2013) and it is a natural (though not very common) practice in Muslim countries (Sakowicz 2011(Sakowicz -2021. ...
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Work-family (WF) research in Africa has just begun to address unique elements of work and family relationships on this continent. In this paper, the relationships between family demands and resources in polygamous homes and family-to-work conflict and enrichment are put forward. Although some WF research has begun to broaden the definition of family to include extended family members, to date, polygamous family structures have been left out of the conversation. Yet, polygamous family structures are an important minority group with unique family-related resources and demands that impact the work-family interface. Drawing from a demands-resources approach, we discuss how demands and resources foster family-to-work conflict and enrichment among employed men and women in polygamous homes. We theorize about differences in family-to-work conflict and enrichment between employed men and women from both polygamous and monogamous African families. We also consider how gender roles and family values impact the experiences of employed husbands and wives within polygamous family structures. Opportunities for future research on this topic are discussed to foster understanding of the work-family interface for men and women in this non-trivial segment of the growing African economy.
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This article sets out to present Joshua Dibundu and Lotin Same, two clergymen and contemporaries of John Chilembwe of Nyasaland and Simon Kibangu of the Congo, who stood out against European missionary pressure and colonial administrative oppression in an effort to establish and sustain the first African Independent Church (AIC) in Cameroon: the Native Baptist Church (NBC). I argue in this article that unlike the Cameroon kings and chiefs who resisted European occupation of the territory, and nationalists who fought for independence, the leaders of the Native Baptist Church represent another type of early nationalist and change-oriented agents who deserve their place in the historiography of the country. I have privileged the use of archival documents, structured interviews and some critical empirical literature to establish this account.
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In spite of Christianity and western civilisation, polygamy remains a major issue in Christian marriage in Africa. In Nigeria, most of the mainline churches officially adopt monogamy, whilst many of the African Initiated Churches (AICs) practise polygamy. Because Africans consider procreation as the primary purpose of marriage, some childless Nigerian Christians engage in polygamy in order to have children. But apart from the factor of traditional passion for children, some engage in polygamy to have children because they take the phrase ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis 1:28 as a divine command to everyone to produce children. Therefore, this article examines the text with a view to ascertain whether it is appropriate to exploit the passage as a basis for the adoption of polygamy as a solution to infertility. The target population is those Nigerian Christian men and women who engage in this practice. The article employs descriptive and exegetical methods. It found that, although couched as an imperative, the phrase ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, rather than being a command to procreate, should be simply understood as a saying that God blessed the humankind with offspring, just as he did the fish that are not expected to obey or disobey (Gn 1:22). It therefore does not provide a basis for adoption of polygamy as a solution to infertility. The article recommends that apart from assisting childless Nigerian Christians to realise their dream of childbearing, the church should make them understand the biblical position that every individual and couple need not have children.Intradisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary implications: This research involves the disciplines of the Old Testament and Christian Ethics. It examines Genesis 1:28 with regard to the adoption of polygamy as a solution to infertility amongst Nigerian Christians. The article postulates that the passage is not a command for procreation but is simply a saying that God blessed the humankind with offspring; hence, it does not provide a basis for the adoption of polygamy to solve the problem of infertility.
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This chapter discusses the experience that a group of South African children have of their fathers in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Thirty-three families affected by HIV/AIDS in KwaZulu-Natal were interviewed in the study. In these families, only 27 per cent of the fathers regularly resided with their children, or had resided with their children if the interviews were conducted after their death. A slightly higher percentage of fathers (34%) were giving some form of support - material or emotional - to their children. The actual percentage may be higher, given that not all interviews provided information on the fathers' whereabouts. We can assume, however, that the men who were never mentioned in the interviews were probably completely absent from the life of the household. This means that nearly three-quarters of these biological fathers had not had sustained contact with their children. This research is based on 31 group interviews conducted between 2001 and 2003 in the Durban area and in the Natal Midlands. The group interviews were conducted by Nokhaya Makiwane and Sibongile Mafu, two fieldworkers - or 'memory facilitators', as they are often called - of the Memory Box Programme, a research and development project run by the Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Denis, 2004; 2005; Denis & Makiwane, 2003; Denis & Ntsimane, in press). In this chapter, the word 'father' refers to the biological father as opposed to a child's younger and older paternal uncles who, in isiZulu, are respectively referred to as ubab'omncane, (younger father) or ubab'omkhulu (elder father). These uncles are expected to assume the role of the biological father in his absence.
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There is a growing movement gaining momentum to contest the legality and legitimacy in a health and human rights context of widely accepted social, customary, traditional and religious practices - a problem complicated by the apparent division among native women on the very important question of the place of custom and religion today. Polygamy is important to study in even in countries which disallow it. It presents complex issues of multiculturalism and the issue appears frequently in contexts of immigration. Although civil law has banned polygamy in many nations, customary law still allows it. In many countries with multiple legal systems, the customary law on polygamy allows a man to take multiple wives and it prohibits a current wife from objecting to her husband's marriage to a new woman. This practice treats women as inferior members of their families and as inferior in status to men. Polygamy also has a detrimental effect on children because when a man has more than one wife, he often has a large number of children in a short period of time. Conflicts often erupt among the families because several rivalrous wives and children are competing for resources. Although polygamy itself is not a prohibited practice under international human rights law, allowing it to exist legally permits it to violate fundamental rights including rights to dignity, equality, health, and equal protection under the law. It also perpetuates women's already lower social and economic status by forcing women to share already scarce resources with co- wives and their children. In its complex role in divorce and inheritance law, for instance, polygamy negatively impacts a women's health, including mental health, sexual and reproductive health and her death from AIDS.
In our society the norm is thatevery adult should get married one day. This could imply thatunmarried people do not feel welcome either in the community or the church. They may feel neglected or even like outcasts. It is a pity that the church, which also finds itself within the community, is composed of people who still continue to havethe kind of attitude that excludes singles, even inside church circles. While churches run programmes that have a strong emphasis on marriage and family life, nothing is being doneto address singleness and its related problems. As a result, singles often regard themselves as unimportant and worthless. This article is aimed at un-covering the role of the church through its leadership (pastors in particular) to assist and helpto redeem the damaged image and self-esteem that singles may have in their respective communities and churches. The article focuses on singles in the African church and society. It is crucial that a church programme of care and counselling be structured in order to minister to persons who are separated, divorced, widowed or never married for whatever reason.
I evaluate the impact of education on polygamy in Africa. Districts of French West Africa that received more colonial teachers and parts of sub-Saharan Africa that received Protestant or Catholic missions have lower polygamy rates in the present. I find no evidence of a causal effect of modern education on polygamy. Natural experiments that have expanded education in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Kenya have not reduced polygamy. Colonial and missionary education, then, have been more powerful sources of cultural change than the cases of modern schooling I consider.
In our society the norm is thatevery adult should get married one day. This could imply thatunmarried people do not feel welcome either in the community or the church. They may feel neglected or even like outcasts. It is a pity that the church, which also finds itself within the community, is composed of people who still continue to havethe kind of attitude that excludes singles, even inside church circles. While churches run programmes that have a strong emphasis on marriage and family life, nothing is being doneto address singleness and its related problems. As a result, singles often regard themselves as unimportant and worthless. This article is aimed at un-covering the role of the church through its leadership (pastors in particular) to assist and helpto redeem the damaged image and self-esteem that singles may have in their respective communities and churches. The article focuses on singles in the African church and society. It is crucial that a church programme of care and counselling be structured in order to minister to persons who are separated, divorced, widowed or never married for whatever reason.
The battle has been joined. Gay and polygynous marriages are out of the closet and in search of legitimacy
  • D M Majeed
Majeed, DM. 2004. The battle has been joined. Gay and polygynous marriages are out of the closet and in search of legitimacy. Crosscurrent, Summer: 73-81.