In the modern culture, polygamous marriages have been demonised as responsible for the spread of sexually transmitted infections making people in polygamous marriages a sexual minority.
Churches and other people who subscribe to modern culture look down upon the practice of polygamy and insist it has no place in modern society.
While agreeing there are people who try and sham polygamy, traditionalist and medical doctor, Professor Solwayo Ngwenya, noted such sentiments were said by those who lost sight of what marrying multiple spouses was all about.
“Polygamy is not about lust,” he said. “It is one of the most important cornerstones of Ndebele culture.”
“Polygamy was meant to produce a big clan and continue the legacy of a family for many years to come. Unfortunately, after colonial conquest in 1893, new cultures emerged and people abandoned their own culture, negating one of the most important pillars of our culture and society. That is why there are families that don’t survive past some generations. Polygamy was meant to maintain families for centuries to come.”
Prof Ngwenya scoffed at those who looked down upon polygamous marriages yet some men had lots of ‘small houses.’
“I don’t feel any inferiority complex or feel as a minority. I don’t care about discrimination. I’m an African, whose culture has lived for many centuries and that life cannot be validated by anyone else.”
A Bulawayo resident Bakidzanani Dube, argued that people in polygamous marriages have always been a minority despite the practice being cultural.
“I will give an example of my village -Madlambuzi in Bulilima West where there are barely more than 15 families who are polygamous out of the whole village of more than 250 families. The majority of people seem to be content with one woman. However, almost every man in the village had a small house one way or the other,” he said, pointing out how wives looked aside when their husbands had mistresses.
“It’s not necessarily to say married women accepted their husbands having other women but they become silent because of the intensity of patriarchy. Even if they wanted to talk about the matter, they would not win and dejectedly give up.”
Dube highlighted polygamous marriages were indeed an ‘abrogation’ of women’s sexual rights.
“When you talk of sexual rights a lot comes to play for example,” he said.
“For example, when you talk of STIs, it is your sexual right not to sleep with a man with multiple partners. However, in a polygamous setting, that right is trashed as a woman.”
He added it was also difficult for men to please their partners.
“Unless if the man is powered by some sexual arousal medicine but by the time he reaches the fourth wife, he is tired therefore there is no sexual pleasure for the woman.”
Dube noted polygamy and the culture of small houses was more or less similar.
“Of course both are not good, to begin with,” he said.
“If I wanted to choose a lesser evil of the two, polygamy is better because you are dealing with someone who you know, you can discuss with and come to terms to safeguard your own health. It is better than dealing with an unknown mistress because you wouldn’t know her mentality, nor her health status. As a wife, obviously you don’t want to find yourself talking to the mistress as if you approve of the illicit affair.”
Human rights defender, Silethemba Mathe said in spite of challenges around polygamy, it has strong social-cultural significance for African communities’ traditional values.
“It symbolises the ability of a man to take care of a big family and also an opportunity for a man to expand his lineage,” she said.
“However, when we look at the current African modern society, polygamy becomes problematic because it becomes a breeding ground for diseases such as HIV and a very fast transmission of STIs.”
Mathe conceded the modern culture of having mistresses or small houses, is “equally responsible for the spread of diseases.”
“What makes polygamy more dangerous is that it is an accepted normalised part of traditional values whereas mistresses are just girlfriends or side chicks that are hidden from the main family,’ she said.
The human rights activist said she really believes “polygamy is rather retrogressive.”
“It doesn’t allow for a progressive society as resources tend to be overstretched within families and there is prioritisation of boys over girls. It reduces investment in the education of girls, which really diminishes their ability to thrive and compete for opportunities and space with boys.”
A sexual rights defender, Nozipho Zypo Moyo said in thinking about polygamy and its place in modern society it is important to realise that “culture is dynamic.”
“With time, the way we run relationships has evolved and part of it is how we structure relationships when it comes to commitment,” she said.
“Before, issues of polygamy have been very common. However, we moved with modernisation and colonisation in the African context, only those who are attached to religious groups like the Apostolic Faith, or those governed by traditional courtships deep in the rural settings, still acknowledge and practice openly polygamy.”
For Moyo, the modern trend, especially among the urbanised communities, where “we have people who have side partners” is as equal as polygamy.
“You hear of the phrase ‘side chick’ but this is just a term to sugarcoat ‘wife’ because when these men die an inheritance is left to the other house,” she said.
“So, we need to first acknowledge in our DNA that we have polygamy. However, let’s take into context, not everyone can fully maintain a polygamous relationship especially in a crippling economy.”
Prof Ngwenya summed how it was a tragedy that Africans now equated being educated to the western lifestyle.
“Despite the enormous education I have received, I can never turn my back to what kept my clan for centuries. I follow my culture very strictly. I am very proud of my heritage and those pillars that kept society going,” he said, describing himself as a “conservative traditionalist.”
“Above all polygamy is sharing of labour, sharing life, produces very strong family values and background. I strongly recommend it.”