Polygamy is not a concept that is foreign to us on the African continent, or indeed other parts of the world. Despite this, the cultural practice still raises eyebrows. We take a look into this often unspoken-about practice and spoke to some real-life polygamists
Fifty-year-old Tafadzwa Gova is a Zimbabwean who lives in Northcliff, Johannesburg. He has two wives, and says that in his culture it is the norm, as it prevents a man from cheating.
“The thing that our culture frowns upon the most is a man who goes out of his home to seek pleasure with someone who is not his wife. If a man has developed an interest in another woman, it is his responsibility to introduce her to his wife, and also to his family, and take that woman to be his wife and join his household. You do not find any wife objecting to this, as it is part of our culture, and in fact, it shows that the man is honest and does not do any philandering,” he says.
But what do Gova’s wives, who live full-time in Zimbabwe, have to say?
Susan Gova*, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mother of four who is Gova’s first wife, admitted that coming to terms with her husband having a second wife was not easy at first. “All our children are girls, and my husband initially brought up the subject of taking on a second wife when he told me that he wanted a son and an heir. In some aspects I understood where he was coming from, but I felt bad as a woman. I felt like I was not good enough for him. It was not a good feeling,” she says.
To make matters worse, she tells us that before she could even process the news that her husband wanted to take on a second wife, he had spoken to her family about it, and they had reached a consensus. “In my culture, having a son is a big deal, so I think that was the reason that my family and his agreed that this was what he needed to do. After my family was on board, I was left with very little choice in the matter.”
Susan recalls the first time she was introduced to her husband’s second wife, and it soon becomes clear that, initially at least, it was not a friendly meeting. “I could not stop staring at her. Maybe I was sizing her up; I don’t know. I wanted to see what features she had that I didn’t. I did not have a lot of words for her, and I kept to myself. Luckily, she was very friendly and seemed just as nervous as I was, so it made it easier to embrace her.”
For her part, Gova’s second wife, 37-year-old Brenda Gova*, says that Gova was very upfront about being married, and wanting a second wife. “In a way, I admired his honesty. But at the same time I was worried about what the first wife was going to be like; if she would be cold and cruel, or if she would see me as her equal.
“The first few weeks were hard. I felt like a stranger. Moving into another woman’s house is always quite difficult. I did not know whether it was okay for me to touch her pots and cook, or whether I should have brought my own. Plus, she rarely spoke to me, so it was hard to read her.”
The two wives say that they eventually warmed up to each other, and are now “the best of friends.”
Brenda bore Gova the son he always wanted, followed by two girls. The women say that all their children get along, and call both of them “mom”. But do they ever get jealous of each other, especially where affection and sex is concerned?
Susan was the first to admit that it wasn’t always easy. “Initially, when my husband would ‘visit’ her room, I would cover myself with blankets and not want to hear a thing. I would also want to be more affectionate towards him the following morning in order to make her feel that I was still present, and that he loves me just as much.” Now, however, the wives say that they are closer than ever.
“Our husband really takes care of us. We do not feel any jealousy or angst towards each other at all. Our needs are met equally, and there really is no need to be childish about things. Everything we do is for the betterment of our family, and in some ways I feel blessed because having someone there to talk to, who genuinely understands, is reassuring. It’s like having a big sister,” Brenda says.
We also spoke to a South African polygamous family from Pongola in KwaZulu-Natal. They spoke to us on condition of anonymity, but for purposes of this article we shall call them the Xaba* family. Thomas Xaba was initially apprehensive about his three wives being interviewed about their experiences, but he eventually agreed to a conversation with one of them. Although very demure, his first wife, Anastasia*, managed to give us a bit of an insight into what it is like to be part of the polygamous sisterhood.
Xaba, a 53-year-old metered taxi driver, lives in the Johannesburg CBD with Anastasia. He says that being in a polygamous relationship is part of his culture, and that he has not experienced any hiccups so far. His other two wives live in Pongola.
“My husband came to me and told me that he would like to take on a second wife. In fact, he was asking for my permission, and I agreed,” says his first wife, a professional nurse. “He also asked for both our permission when he took on a third wife, and we had no problem with it. It is our culture,” she adds.
Anastasia was reluctant to go into detail about the dynamics of their love life, but said that each wife has her own house, albeit in the same yard. She says that the other two wives have no qualms about her being in Johannesburg with her husband on a full-time basis, as they get to be with him every month.
As a professional working woman, she doesn’t let it be known that she’s in a polygamous relationship. She says, “No. My colleagues and the people in my social circle do not know about me or my married life. In some ways, it is none of their business, but at the same time I do not want to be judged harshly because some people who are from the city do not really understand our cultural practices, so I would rather keep my home life private.”
Psychologist Mampho Mofokeng says it is not always easy for women to question cultural practices that they have grown up with.
“In many instances, the women actually do embrace a polygamous culture, mainly because they do not want to be seen as deviant or acting against their culture.” She adds that love is a contributing factor, “Because the situation is often presented as an all or nothing scenario; where you find that the man has already made up his mind and choosing the nothing button is almost out of the question, so they have to dig deep and accept the situation.”
Mofokeng also believes that feelings of jealousy do arise in a polygamous relationship. “It is human nature to be jealous when you are in a situation where you have to share a partner. Some human experiences are naturally monopolised, so breaking out of that box and embracing a situation where you are sharing intimate experiences and living spaces can be emotionally taxing. The only thing is that no one will ever raise their hand and admit to these feelings of resentment, jealousy, and generally feeling unappreciated.”
Mama Kgomotso Monnakgotla, who is a traditionalist from Kuruman in the Northern Cape, says that contrary to popular belief, polygamy does not belittle women and is not a chauvinistic practice. “Women are always consulted when a man wants to take on another wife. Their opinions matter, in that they are put in a position where they have the freedom of choice. If they do not consent to a particular woman joining her household, the man has to respect that. It’s a very empowering position for a woman to be in. So in no way does polygamy trample on women’s rights and dignity,” she insists.
Lastly, we asked Xaba the burning question: why? Apart from culture, why do some men insist on having more than one wife?
“People have different qualities. You cannot have one person having all the qualities that you will love. One person can be good with children, another person might have a bubbly personality, and another will know how to please a man sexually.
Very rarely would you find all these attributes in just one person. Having more than one wife gives one the experience of all the different qualities that come together to make for a very successful and strong family dynamic,” he says.
* Not their real names