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Home arrow Travel arrow Stereotyping Africa

I hear people there still marry more than one wife.

Yes, people in Africa still marry more than one wife, but this is a question of choice, and it depends on certain factors too: for example, the concerned person's religion, and his position in society. Whereas Christianity frowns at polygamy, Islam permits it, provided the husband will love and is viable enough to take good care of all his wives equally. Then there are other cases that have to do with the person's status in his society. A traditional leader, for example, is expected to have more than one wife; this is a sine qua non for his position. In the case of ordinary members of society, it is a question of whether or not the man has the money to cater for these wives and if the women do not see anything wrong with being co-spouses with other women. There are cases, however, in which the first wife does not approve of the coming of a second wife, and this may lead to a number of consequences. The husband may decide to impose his will on the household; the first wife may then give in and let the new wife come in, but there will never be peace in that household again, insofar as both wives are together. In a workable and less explosive situation, the husband may decide to keep his wives apart—the wives know they are co-wives, but they never come in contact, except in the presence of the husband. In the extreme, one wife—usually the first who was settled with the man, might decide to leave; the choice is hers, but in that case, the dowry the husband paid for her must be returned, or she remains the man's wife traditionally. If this scenario persists until her death, then her corpse will be taken back to the man's premises for burial, unless he desires otherwise. To prevent this from happening, the wife has to ensure that her family returns the former husband's dowry which he paid in the process of getting married to her; only then is she liberated from her marriage to him. Usually, this is such a cumbersome exercise that the women just move on with their lives, not caring about what will happen upon their death. It must be remembered that this may vary slightly from one African community to another.

The words "brother" and "sister" seem to be generic terms used in Africa to address anyone to whom one is related. Is this true?

This is true, and it is because of the extended family structure in Africa, and the very communal nature of traditional African lifestyle, what C. W. Wigwe describes as the principle of collective responsibility in family relationships. As soon as one has the same ancestry with another, then they both belong to the same family and see themselves as members of that large family, and simply address themselves as "brother," or "sister". Beyond the extended family, as Wigwe points out, it is normal for example, for ".every elderly male or female" to be addressed as "father" or "mother" (13) In most African languages, accordingly, words for such speed-breaks in the driveway of extended family ties as "cousins" and "nieces," do not exist. People simply present themselves as related, as members of a family. If there is the need to point out the closeness, or the exact nature of the relationship, then it is described; for example, this is my sister from the same father, or mother etc. Unfortunately, the extended family, like much else that was traditionally African, is also breaking down today thanks to influence from the West, which has claimed how less burdensome life could be if one were responsible only for oneself, and at best one's micro-family, without the ruckus of dealing with one's extended relatives. This is an unfortunate detour in the family structure of Africa, one must lament, because the extended family meant an ear to listen to one's problems at all times without the need to pay some exorbitant fee, and a shoulder to cry on before all the factors that could lead to an emotional and eventual mental breakdown set in.

Is there sexual discrimination in Africa?

Most African cultures will appear to outsiders without similar values as propagating sexual discrimination since men and women do things in separate groups traditionally. This is the nature of such societies and it does not entail discrimination as such. In the same manner, there are spousal roles in African societies that are different from Western societies, for example, and the West always looks at these things as discrimination; similar conditions prevail in the Middle East, and Asia. The fact remains that in Africa's cultures, just as in the Middle East, and in Asia, there are roles played by women, those by children, and those by the men. These roles define and maintain the social structure of the family, and the people as a whole. It is true that in Africa, like everywhere else, some men look "low" on women and this, I believe, is simply because of the physically fragile nature of the female sex and not necessarily because she is some kind of second class citizen. It is not uncommon, therefore, to hear a man, even in the West, say "I cannot let a woman beat me at this game" and so on. This is not because a woman is less a person but because it is obvious, speaking generally, that a man has more brute force than a woman. This notwithstanding, women have proven how equally strong, or stronger even, they can be mentally and emotionally.

With the entrance of some Western habits into Africa, certain traditional tendencies in the way men related to women are changing for the worse, but there are others that are not likely to change; these are core aspects of the people's essence. There is likely never to be the presence of women in all male secret societies, or the emergence of female traditional leaders in traditionally patriarchal societies; these are two examples that are likely never to be. It must be remembered, though that these changes are not only in connection with the female sex but with society as a whole. The question of sexual discrimination in Africa, therefore, depends on who is looking at what and from what perspective. Oyekan Owomoyela confirms this scene when she observes about women in Zimbabwe:

Without a doubt, women are subject to certain disadvantages in modern Zimbabwe vis-`-vis men, but this does not reflect the way things have always been. Traditional social arrangements took account of women's interests in communal affairs and provided for their full participation on a par with men, although in most cases the genders operated as exclusive groups with discrete functions. The actions of the earliest Europeans to penetrate the continent and impose their will are largely responsible for many of the disadvantages women face today in comparison to men in African societies. For example, the first Europeans, who as a rule were men, brought their chauvinistic Victorian prejudices with them and interacted only with local men, paying scant attention to the presence or interests of women. Moreover, in the process of forcefully appropriating African lands and maneuvering the deprived people into the role of cheap hired labor, the white settlers drastically distorted the time-honored relationship between men and women, and exacerbated the resulting inequities by passing laws and regulations that further disadvantaged women in relation to men. (101)

 
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