Three wives and a Score of children, the African way ...
Imagine having several women you are required to call "Mother," not because they gave birth to you, but because each is your fathers wife. According to the African tradition of polygamy, this makes every one of them your mother.
In a culture where infant mortality is outrageously high and the average woman has fifteen children, most of whom do not survive, polygamy has been practiced to not only show a mans wealth, but also to assure the continuation of the mans family. It is also considered a strong indicator of a mans virility and need for sexual satisfaction.
Men can also accumulate wives as a result of inheritance. If a mans brother dies, he would take over the family of his brother, including his wives. These women would be distributed among the surviving brothers, based on the preferences of the men and the widows of their brother. It is also common for a man to take the youngest wife of his father upon his death, and a father will take the wife of his son upon the death of his child. This keeps the extended family together and guarantees that the children of the family are raised within the fathers family.
In the common African community, life is hard and women have long seen the advantages of having co-wives to help share the burden. This allowed a division of labor, in which there were more women to build the family home, which is considered a female responsibility, and other work. It also eased the burden of child bearing, as each wife was not carrying the burden of the family procreation alone. Few women wanted to be a lone wife in a marriage, given the multiple burdens society and tradition would require of her.
Women, also being in the position of being held responsible for the sex of their children, risked being returned to their parents for not producing children of the sex desired by their husband. Therefore, women were far more secure in a polygamous marriage where there was less attention on a single woman and the sex of her children. Being returned in disgrace to ones family not only was an embarrassment to her and her parents, but it was also a hardship as the bride price paid to her family had to be repaid.
Women are also responsible for weeding the family food garden, and due to the large size of these gardens, it was not a job for one wife. By tradition, the husband will invite friends and clan members to assist with this chore, so women do not only have help weeding their family garden, but are also obligated to help the women who help them. As this family chore is considered "womans work," there is no thought of hiring outside labor to accomplish this task.
Despite the dependence of the wifes on each other to accomplish the burden of work and child bearing, there is always unavoidable conflict. A man showing preference for one woman over another, showing more love or favoring her children, would result in jealousies, although actual fighting is very rare. Fighting could result in the demand of the bride price being returned from the offenders family, which could be devastating to her family as the cost to them could be as much as 20 head of cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens. Because the bride price received for a young woman would enable her brothers to pay a bride price for his own wife, it could be very difficult to repay the price paid. This often results in the women finding a way to stay in the marriage without altercations.
In order to reduce conflict, the man often will rotate his nights among his wives, sleeping in each ones house in turn. When purchasing clothes, the same quality and style would be purchased for each, as would be done for their children. Unfortunately, this does not prevent the wives from instigating problems among the children.
Fortunately, this way of traditional marriage is declining, and victims of this in-fighting among the children of polygamous marriage are fewer. But although they share a father, the children always stay with their mother, in their mothers home. Fights and hatred fueled by their mothers is common. If a wife dies, her children are often taken in by the wife she was the closest to, regardless of any prior antimosity.
My father has three wives. I am the oldest child of his first wife. Unfortunately, my father developed a preference for his second wife, which resulted in preferential treatment for her and her children. My birth mother is very close with my fathers third wife, although we, her children, are closer to his second wifes children as we grew up together during a time in which our mother was away from the family.
Education, an important commodity, is also often unevenly distributed. In rare cases, when a man is wealthy enough to provide equally for all of his children, this is not an issue. But usually, the children of a favored wife are given more educational opportunities than the rest.
It is difficult to live in the polygamous family. Grievances are never forgotten, and there are deaths of parents and children resulting from poisoning and witchcraft that overshadow what could be a wonderful experience for a large family. Wives will practice witchcraft in order to eliminate the other wives and gain favor for themselves and their children. And, even worse, some children will kill their father, in order to inherit his wealth and afford more benefits for their mother and siblilings.
Wives practicing witchcraft, to eliminate one another and charm their husband to win over his heart for their to themselves and their children. Children in many occasions kill their father to assume heir of the family so they can have a big share of the family cake with their mother.
Although this form of marriage has benefits to both the men and women involved, it is often hardest on the children, who often end up the pawns of manipulative parents. Being a child of a polygamous marriage myself was difficult, and I feel the opportunities for the potential of a wonderful supportive experience was wasted through petty jealousy and unequal educations for us. I was fortunate to find a sponsor to continue my education, but many of my siblings have not been so fortunate.