The other night I had a very interesting conversation with my host mom about polygamy. My host mom, Awa, married my host dad, Tidiane in 1978, and in early 1979 my host sister - Fatim was born. Awa and Tidiane have 5 children, Fatim is the oldest at 27 and Magette is the youngest at nearly 14, and between them are three boys - Malik, Guelaye and Baba. About 5 years ago, Tidiane decided he was going to take another wife. In Senegal it is legal for a man to have up to four wives though the gov’t is working to discourage polygamy now. Polygamy is also legal in the eyes of Islam, which also allows up to 4 but with the disclaimer that they all must be treated exactly equally - something next to impossible to do even with two wives, thus some theorize that Islam doesn’t REALLY condone polygamy. So back to my host family - as is common practice here, Tidiane didn’t inform Awa of his intentions until the day of his wedding with Soda - his second wife (Often, men here don’t even have the courage to face their 1st wives and tell them so they sometimes send a messenger in the form of a family member, or even don’t tell until after the ceremony). This was, as is typical, a huge blow to Awa. Even though it is commonplace here, rarely do women see it coming and even more rarely are they ok with it. All Awa could say to me about the situation was "Polygamy, it’s bad, it’s really bad." As it turns out, Soda is several years older than Awa and was past childbearing age when Tidiane married her so she doesn’t have children of her own. Awa’s kids tolerate Soda for the most part, as does Awa, though Awa told me that Soda had been known to boss her kids around and that at least Guelaye really doesn’t like her. Soda lives in the next neighborhood over and we see her about once per week and on holidays. Tidiane has split up his time between the two sleeping at our compound (though he and Awa have separate bedrooms) weeknights and at Soda’s place weekends (not exactly equal treatment). In the village, Polygamy takes on a much different feel because most of the time, all the wives live in the same compound and share the cooking, cleaning and other chores.
As I spoke to Awa about her situation I thought about what I would’ve done in her situation, the gut reaction was divorce. To me it seemed like the ultimate expression of disrespect, but I soon realized that for Awa divorce was not an option. She got married when she was still in lycée (high school) and soon became pregnant and had to drop out before finishing. She’s been a housewife her entire adult life and as the woman in the relationship - education of the children is her responsibility. Both her parents have passed away and so without support of her husband she really would have no support for herself and possibly her 5 kids. This leaves typical Senegalese women that don’t work outside the house with no options, just deal with it as best you can, suffer in silence.
My host grandma; Mariemme (Tidiane’s mother) had possibly an even worse situation. She was the first wife as well and eventually her husband took another wife. After a couple months he divorced the 2nd wife, but he soon married again. This marrying and divorcing process happened 6 times, all the while Mariemme cooked, cleaned and raised this man’s children like a good Senegalese wife.
There may be some hope for the future though. More women are getting higher educations and can support themselves if need be - Fatim is working on a degree at the university in Dakar. With registered marriages, couples are required to determine at registration of the first marriage whether the marriage is going to be polygamous and if so how many wives the man will have. Men are allowed to have less than first contracted but if they say 2, that’s the maximum they are legally allowed from then on. You can imagine there is some pressure on the wedding day to make it a non-polygamous marriage. I asked Awa if she thought any of her 3 sons would take more than one wife, she thought about it and said she didn’t think so - that they had a hard time with Soda becoming part of the family and that hopefully they’d remember how it effects the entire family. I hope that she’s right but then again, Tidiane went through his father taking other wives when he was growing up, the cycle was unbroken.