Marriage as a social institution carries different meanings in different cultures. In the west, we understand marriage to be between two people that are in love. However, much of the world has a very different view of who marries and why. When studying rural Sub-Saharan Africa, many cultures not only condone polygyny, where a man has more than one wife at a time, but also place great value and need to have multiple wives. For them, multiple wives, and children, are a symbol for stability and wealth. To understand this relationship we must first see how the family unit functions in these types of cultures (Lec).
Many families in rural Africa are centered on kinship, rather than the western idea of bloodlines and namesakes. Kinship places more importance on continuance of a particular clan within a tribe. The continuance of the clan depends on having enough marriages and children to do so. As an example, if a male in a patrilocal residence and patrilineal descent clan (meaning when married, the couple lives with the males parents and the line of descent continues through that clan) marries a woman from a different clan, the woman lives with the males family and all of the children are 100% descendant from the male clan (LMW). Since the woman's family is losing a clan member, usually, the male's clan will compensate the other clan through a bride- wealth. This is like a dowry, and in the case of the Dinka, it may be as much as 50 to 100 cows (Deng). This process helps to redistribute wealth (cattle) among the clans of a tribe. This can also be a limiting factor on how many wives a man can have. He must be able to afford to pay the bridewealth and living expenses for each of his wives. Not only does having many wives show great wealth, but also for Dinka men in particular, it insures they will have male children to carry on the clan name and thus venerate him as the ancestor (Deng). For the Dinka, this is one of the most important aspects of have multiple wives. If a man dies without producing a male heir, a relative would have to take on that mans wife and rear a son with her in the dead mans name to remove the dead mans shame (LMW).
Marriage in these groups is a stabilizing factor. It is a responsible act of maturity and is seen as desirable for everyone in the clan. Marriage combines the two extended families, so it is not just between the two people. Divorce can be complicated because the bride's family would have to return the bridewealth to the groom's family, which may create a hardship. So the tribes make ways to dissolve a marriage difficult and undesirable.
Along these same lines, there are circumstances that are reducing the number of available males in rural Africa. Even though life spans in general are rising in Africa, men are being lost to disease and particularly in civil wars. This is creating situations in many tribes where there are a dwindling number of males available to marry. Since marriage is culturally desirable, this means that the surplus of available women must marry the few available men, creating polygamous marriages. There are other benefits for the women in this circumstance. First, being married affords some financial security for the women since the men are obligated to provide for them. It also provides a rightful place within the tribe for the woman, where she is no longer a social liability to the tribe. It will also supply the tribe with more male children to replenish those lost to war (Lec).
This is also true for the areas in rural Africa that experience a high mortality rate. Multiple wives would be able to produce more children, and thus offset a higher infant mortality death rate (Lec). But, there are also cultural factors that might slow the natural birth rate. Some cultures health and/or religious rites also dictate when a man can be in contact with his wife, and even when they can be intimate. For some cultures this means that men can't eat food prepared by a menstruating woman, therefore another of the mans wives would step in to fix the food. In some cultures, men can't be intimate with a wife when she is pregnant. Since that would be nine months, the man would frequent another wife during that period. Other cultures dictate that the man may not be intimate with his wife until their newborn child is weaned. That could be as long as two to three years (Lec). These rites and practices help to keep the birth rates at high but not outrageous levels. Much of rural Sub-Saharan Africa, except those areas ravaged by diseases, have fertility rates above 6.0, so the celibacy rites and practices are not a hindrance to the growth patterns of the region (SA-A 127).
Probably, the most obvious consideration for polygamous marriages in rural African tribes is to increase the potential workforce within any given clan. But, to do so, we must consider the impact on the various types of groups involved. We will start with the hunter/gatherer groups such as the San of the Central Kalahari. The reason I start here is because the San have experienced a drastic change in there way of life over the past twenty years. Before being moved from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to relocation camps, they were egalitarian hunter/gatherer groups of 25 to 50 people. The men did most of the hunting, while the women did most of the vegetation gathering. When relocated to the camps, the gender lines began to blur. The men were forced into an agro-pastoral lifestyle and wage labor positions. The women vied for some of the same jobs, and the division of labor was less clear-cut. This type of society found that the food sources didn't have to produce a surplus of stored food because that would deplete their food supply quicker, and create more work in the mean time. Therefore, fewer workers were needed so multiple wives were not needed to produce more food for the clan, and therefore never developed the idea of multiple wives (Sanderson 32-42). As the clans increased in size to create villages of 100 to 200 people, the groups became more sedentary and started simple horticultural societies. Because these groups could produce somewhat larger quantities of food, the groups could expand in size. The simple horticulturalist groups would then grow into intensive horticultural groups, increasing their technology to the point of becoming a full agrarian society. The agrarian groups were the first societal structure to feel the need to increase the workforce. Some nomadic pastoral groups were large enough to utilize multiple marriages to fill workforce needs, but the need within the agrarian groups was most prevalent. There was also a big difference between the hunter/gatherer, simple and intensive horticulturalists and the agrarian groups. The pre-agrarian groups had reciprocity and redistribution systems for their food between clans. If a group didn't gather enough food for a family, another clan might give that family food, knowing that the day would come that they would need them to return the favor. And some horticultural groups would pool their resources into a general collection of food that would then be redistributed equally to all clans of the group. This took the emphasis away from overproduction of food, and the need for more field hands, and placed it on the overall survival and well being of the group. The agrarian groups were generally of such great numbers that food production was very important. Horticultural groups usually became agrarian groups by the introduction of some technological leap such as the plow and traction animals. Higher food productivity would generally produce a surplus of food. Some of the food would go to the political leaders, and to pay rent. Other places the surplus could be used are in purchasing land to produce ones own crops. This is where the greatest division of labor is present, and this creates the real need for an increase in farm labor. Since labor is too expensive to hire out, the logical place to get the labor force is from ones own family. As a farmer would make a little profit, he could afford the bridewealth for another wife, which not only gives him an additional farm hand, but also gives him additional children to become farm hands in the future (Sanderson 43-81).
This is how multiple wives are seen as a positive aspect of rural African life. The harder one works, the more prosperous he becomes. His ancestors are pleased at his prosperity. The more prosperous he becomes, the more wives he can marry-being able to afford the bridewealth price. The more wives he can afford, the more children he can have. He can be assured of having a male heir. The more wives and children he has, the larger piece of ground he will be able to work, which leads to even more prosperity.