In Lagos sometime last year, I was introduced to someone as an anthropologist, and he said – I suppose as a compliment – that he was happy that there are people willing to help preserve our culture. To his credit, he knew about anthropology – in the most general sense, it is the study of culture. That is more than what one can say for another person who thought that it had something to do with the study of insects. This week, I remember the compliment regarding my role as a ‘preserver’ of culture, and I decide to write about an element of the cultural tradition of many African societies. I hope I can sustain your audience till the end of the article.
To at least get your attention, let me quickly say that this article is about the marriage of women by other women. In the most common cases, a wife would get a second wife for her husband. Many societies in which the size of the farm, for instance, was tied to the size of the family, had this kind of arrangement.
Among the Dinka of Sudan, the widow of a deceased man could be married to the brother of her late husband in what is normally described as a levirate marriage. If the widow had no children for her dead husband, and if she is too old to conceive of a child by her brother-in-law, she could marry a girl whose offspring would then be ascribed to her dead husband. The case of a man who died without a male offspring was recorded. A girl was married on his behalf, and the children from that girl were treated as his progeny.
And before you wonder about what you might imagine as the horrible identity issues that children from such arrangements might face, let me quickly draw attention to a case among the Nuer of southern Sudan. A childless widow ‘fathered’ children through many wives by giving cattle to men in order to impregnate her wives. The woman founded quite a large family, but one of the wives decided to leave with her children. When one of the sons of the wife who ran away grew up he returned to the house of his ‘father’, the woman who had paid the cattle for the man to impregnate his mother.
An interesting case was recorded by Melville Herskowitz, an American anthropologist who worked among the Dahomeans in present day Republic of Benin. Although it was more common among upper class families and royalty, a woman could take a wife for herself and build a family of which she would be the ancestress. Of course, in order for her to become a proper ancestress she would have to have children through the wives. She paid the full bride-price on the wives, and she was totally responsible for them. She could then have her male friends or acquaintances do her the honour of impregnating the women on her behalf.
Ifi Amadiume, an Igbo anthropologist who conducted a study in Nnobi in Igboland detailed cases of women acquiring wives as a matter of status and prestige. She gives the example of a woman who had wives, wives who then aided her in trading. It is the job of the female husband to get men who would impregnate her wives. The children from any such sexual relations belonged to the female husband. I heartily recommend Ifi Amadiume’s book, Male Daughters, Female Husbands, to anyone who wants to understand the changes that colonization brought to sex, gender and gender relations in one African society.
The point of this article is not to shock you. It is meant to draw attention to elements of the different ways society was ordered in pre-colonial Africa. Besides, since I started writing this column I have not written anything that people who might have the traditional impression of anthropology might consider as proper anthropology. So, this is for the person who thought that I was working to preserve our culture, and for all those who think that anthropology is the study of primitive societies.