Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, July 4

Will You Be My 2nd Wife?

Yeah, I’ve been asked, but I declined. It is time to describe what I’ve learned about polygamy Senegal style. First off, the legal stuff. A man may legally have up to 4 wives. When he marries the first one, and fills out the marriage license, he must at that time declare the number of wives we plans to have. He cannot change his mind later, legally. There is no penalty for an unfulfilled wife tally. However, should a man exceed his claim or limit, all subsequent wives have no claim on anything relevant, ever. It would seem the safe bet is to assume 4 wives from the beginning. Better to underachieve than underestimate?

Any of the wives may be the man’s niece (daughter of a brother) or a first cousin. This is to preserve the family ties, which are held with the utmost regard in West African culture; family is life. Although side effects of incest are prevalent (crossed eyes, limb deformities, etc), they are dismissed as God’s will.

A man usually takes his first wife in his late twenties. Traditions mandate that he is financially stable, and has a house (or at least space in the family compound) for him and the new bride to live in. Depending on the village, dowries must be paid- generally in cash or live stock form. First wife is forevermore the most important women of the household (that is unless Mom’s still around). She will make all decisions relating to spending of finances for food and clothing and be the guardian of her husband’s salary. She will give her husband as many children as possible (as birth control is completely unheard of both in African culture and the practice of Islam) until she becomes too tired.

Though I’ve generally heard the coming of the second wife described as a relief for the first one, who is no longer under continuous pressure to satisfy her husband, there have been occasions when she is not welcome. I talked to a woman once who was hurt that her husband said he loved another, younger women… but that there is nothing she can do about it. Second wife is a worker bee to the queen. She is tasked with all household chores of which first wife is tired. She will also produce as many children as possible.

Third and fourth wives are pretty much like the second; only hold less standing in the house hold. They also produce children and not only seem young in comparison to the husband, but truly are. I may have neglected to mention earlier that wives can be as young as early teens… and it doesn’t seem to matter how old the husband is. It’s as though every ten years the husband will find a new wife in her teens or early twenties and “start” a family all over again. Sometimes the wives all live together in one big compound- each wife getting a bedroom while their husband rotates around. Sometimes the families live in different towns… though the kids will take holidays to visit the other households.

As of recent, there’s been significant pushes for young girls to stay in school through high school before marrying. There have also been campaigns for the idea of family planning, or spacing between child births, so as not to stress the mothers and pocketbooks. I’ve spoken to males of my generation who claim they want nothing to do with more than one wife, then chuckle and say one women is crazy enough… who would ask for more of that? But quite frequently men are persuaded because multiple families are a sign of wealth (like having multiple cars in the US???) so it remains to be seen what will happen with this take on marriage.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alys, my name is April and I've just been invited to serve in Senegal (SED). I stage on Aug 9th. I'm in the midst of deciding what to pack. Any suggestions from you would be great. Email me at Thanks in advance. Also, how accessible is the internet for you (I guess I'll find out)?