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Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage
and the Christian Churches

Path: Behaviour change and sustainability African Plural Marriage Demography

Chapter 3) The Occurence of Polygamy

People have thought for a long time that the practice of polygamy would die out, but it hasn't. There are many societies where polygamy is 'preferential', that is, a social ideal. In these societies, monogamous
unions may be potentially polygamous, although more numerous.

It is important to recognise this idea of 'potentially polygamous' marriages. If you live in a society where you marry one woman and throughout your life together you always have the option of marrying another, then your marriage which is in fact monogamous is different from a normal monogamous marriage. Those who advocate enforced monogamy try to say they are following nature, as most marriages are monogamous, blissfully ignoring the fact that the vast majority of societies in history have allowed some form of polygamy and created an awful lot of 'potentially polygamous' marriages. In fact, in Tanzania in 1969 the government were proposing legislation that would have made all Christian marriages potentially polygamous.

The author then goes on to provide some statistics for gender distribution. They are dated by the age of the book, but still interesting. They give Guinea as a country having 122 women to every 100 men, and Tanzania as a country having 100 women to every 95.1 men. In such situations monogamy creates difficulty for women in finding husands, increasing the incidence of nunnery and prostitution. The differential mortality rates seem to result from preferential treatment given to females and differences in the hazards facing the sexes. The chances of finding a husband in a monogamous system are reduced due to the incidence of male celibacy and the existence of a chronological age gap between males and females at the time of marriage. Where the birth rate is increasing the gap widens further.

This is demonstrated in a quote from R. E. Hanin - "Women, as a rule, marry at an earlier age than males, so men in the younger age-groups are excluded from the pool of "marriageable" ages. Further, if it is assumed that the number of births is increasing from year to year, then if women aged 15 marry men aged 20, they marry men born five years earlier than their own date of birth. But five years earlier fewer births were occuring. A large differecne between the ages at marriage of men and women in a population of high mortality with increasing numbers of births tends greatly to reduce women's chances of marriage in a monogamous society."


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Mr Hillman then gives us an account of the practical reasons why a system of bride-wealth payments (from the husband to the bride's parents) exists in African communities.
These are:-
1) to act as a support to the permanence of marriage.
2) to provide compensation for the loss of a family member.
3) as a pledge of ability to provide adequately for the bride.
4) to show willingness and the ability to help in-laws.
5) to show that he loves his prospective wife more than his hard-earned possessions.
6) To encourage later marriage (through the need to save) and thereby encourage polygamy.

This is done to show that male lust does not figure at all among the factors that make polygamy a preferential form of marriage in 78 per cent of African tribes south of the Sahara. 34 per cent of these tribes have an incidence of polygamy which is more than 20 per cent of the population. The estimate in 1967 was that the average incidence of polygamy in the sub-Saharan region was 35 per cent, with 245 wives per 100 polygamous men, or 150 wives per 100 husbands. Far from decreasing, the incidence was varying in both directions in different places - indeed, the number of polygamous husbands was increasing along with wealth and the introduction of a cash society. In 1964 in Lagos 14 per cent of households were polygamous and 17.3 per cent of Catholics and 23.3 per cent of protestants were in these households.

Chapter 1 - The historical missionary and pastoral problem of African Polygamy
Chapter 2 - Cultural Presumptions of the West
Chapter 3 - Demography
Chapter 4 - Anthropology
Chapter 5 - Biblical texts
Chapter 6 - Theological Rationale
Appendix - On the Council of Trent


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