AFRICAN THEOLOGY AND THE
STATUS OF WOMEN IN AFRICA
[a work in progress]
Presented to the Canadian Theological Society
May 25, 2001
by Ian D. Ritchie, Ph.D.
St. John's Anglican Church, 41 Church St.,
Kingston, ON., K7M 1H2
The paper assesses the role played by African theologians in advancing the status of women in Africa. The perception (common in western church circles) of the African church as a bastion of conservatism and patriarchy will be examined critically. Starting with a brief overview of gender in precolonial Africa, moving to an analysis of the influence of mission Christianity and the African Initiated Churches, the paper concludes with an evaluation of the influence of African theologians. The conclusion that Christianity may be moving African women towards equality more rapidly than in western societies speaks of a positive relationship between academic theology, church and society.[An earlier version of this article formed a chapter of the author's 1993 doctoral dissertation, African Theology and Social Change. The chapter has been revised and updated to include developments of the last eight years, particularly in the Anglican Church in Africa.] revision date: 22 May 2001
AFRICAN THEOLOGY AND THE
STATUS OF WOMEN IN AFRICA
[a work in progress]
It is clear that the role of women in Africa is one of the more controversial issues frequently discussed. While advocates of women's liberation seem few in number in comparison to Europe and North America, nevertheless, their numbers are rising, particularly in the period since 1980. At the same time, general educational levels for women are rising and expectations are changing. In this article I shall examine the strains acting upon conceptions of the role of women, and the changing situation of polygamy (the accurate term for which, in the African context, is "polygyny").
No institution could be considered more important to Africans than the family. Men consider that they must have children, in order to ensure continuity with the ancestors. In traditional thought, this meant that marrying a second wife might become necessary in order to ensure the birth of children, particularly if the first wife proved to be barren.
(i): Traditional Conceptions
Scholarly literature on the role of women in traditional African societies increased greatly in the 1980s and '90s. In some quarters there has been a tendency to emphasize the strong roles women played in traditional African families. The African scholar whose work exemplifies this approach is Mercy Amba Oduyoye, who comes herself from the Akan cluster of peoples in Ghana, the most significant matrilineal peoples in West Africa. Her early work, in particular, seemed to emphasize this angle, though much of her later work qualifies it. Most of the other literature by both women and men has tended to emphasize the largely supportive role of women in African traditional societies, stressing her role as wife, child-bearer and mother.
The anthropological literature points out that almost all ethnic groups in Africa were patriarchal in structure, with relatively few exceptions. Recent research from feminist anthropologists (e.g. Susan Kent, ed 1998) generally support that assessment, with a few qualifications. The Akan peoples are the only matrilineal group in West Africa, and a there are a few more such tribes in Tanzania. With the total number of cultures in Africa reaching over two thousand, the handful that are matrilineal might seem to have received rather more attention than is warranted. Let us first turn, however, to some generalizing studies done by African scholars.
John Mbiti (1991, 63) reports that in traditional African thought, "the value of a woman begins when she is born, not when she gets married." He supports this assertion on the basis of the Lögbara proverb "A baby-girl means beautiful cows" (Mbiti, 64, citing Dalfovo, 214). However, he asserts also that the traditional roles of wife and mother were held in high esteem and conversely the barren woman goes through deep sorrows in African society (64). He cites the Gikuyu proverb "The woman who has children does not desert her home" (citing Barra 1960, 60) and "The woman whose sons have died is richer than a barren woman" (citing Barra, 61). A Swahili proverb says: "A barren wife never gives thanks" (Kalugila, 20), by which Mbiti (64) concludes: "nothing else is as valuable as having children; they are the deepest cause for giving thanks. If a woman has everything else, except children, she would have no cause or joy to give thanks". A Ghanaian proverb says: "A serviceable wife is often blessed with the birth of a tenth child" (Mbiti, 64, citing Bannerman, 19).
The high value which African traditional thought gives to children stands in contrast to attitudes in the modern western world, where, according to one recent survey, 70 per cent of couples with children reported that if they could live life over again they would chose not to have children. While the validity of a single survey may be questioned, the fact that Africans visiting in Europe or North America are often shocked by the anti-child attitudes they encounter serves to underscore the differences which clearly exist.
Mbiti concludes his article on the role of women with the words "They are truly flowers in the garden. They give beauty, scent, and seed to life." (Mbiti 1991, 71). Mbiti's summary, while it seems to give a subordinate role to women, is meant to emphasize their importance, within a certain frame of reference. I might also point out that he makes reference to the importance of the olfactory dimension here, in saying "beauty and scent", a dimension which, as I have outlined above, is often repressed or undervalued in the ocularcentric worldview of the modern west.
Mbiti's methodology has been criticized for its tendency to overgeneralize on the basis of collections of proverbs and myths, thus leading him (too easily) to the conclusion that Africa has one basic religion with localized variations of a relatively minor nature.
Olupona's 1991 collection of essays on ATR would have been strengthened by the inclusion of an article by an African woman on this topic.
(ii): Modern Context
In her landmark (1978) study of the changing role of women in Tanzania, Marja-Liisa Swantz concluded:
Christianity has had a significant role in opening up new roles for women, in giving them more freedom as individuals and considering them as equals to men. Both in individual life histories and in the history of the churches, the initial stages offered new social patterns of integration and assimilation (Swantz 1978, 149).
Swantz's study elaborates upon the processes operating in Tanzanian society during the missionary era, which established new possibilities for women, chiefly in the area of entrepreneurship. In the independence era, the advent of Ujamaa villages brought further gains, as women acquired the right to own land for the first time. Throughout Africa it was rare in traditional societies for women to have this right. The role of the church in promoting women's rights, however, has been an ambivalent one. Swantz reports that the church did participate vigorously in the formulation of Tanzania's Marriage Act of 1971 which created legal protection to women for the first time: a husband cannot take a second wife without the first wife's permission, Christian husbands may not take a second wife at all, divorce cannot be granted unless the matter has been before a conciliation board, a person cannot inflict bodily harm of any kind on his or her spouse, etc. (Swantz 1978, 149). But most people in the villages are unaware of these new rights, and the church seems unconcerned. Swantz reports (149): "the church has tended to look at the issue of marriage as a spiritual matter, not being aware that acute marital problems arise from the prevailing concept of inequality of man and woman." As a result a great deal of unnecessary suffering remains.
Swantz's study deals with Tanzania, and while no one study could represent the social conditions which exist in all sub-Saharan African countries, hers perhaps comes closer than most to being representative, in a generalizing manner, of the average conditions throughout the area under study.
The role played by Christian missionaries in bringing changes in the status and roles of women is now receiving more scholarly attention, and has become controversial. Amongst Nigerian societies it is the almost unanimous verdict of scholars that Christianity has brought increased freedom to women. In an essay collection on Women Missionaries and Cultural Change (Kulp 1987) Salamone writes of the role of Dominican sisters from the rural U.S. in transforming Nigerian attitudes towards women. The following quote draws together in one excerpt several of the themes I have been exploring in this book: the role of the senses, Christian-Muslim dialogue, and the role of women:
In light of Germaine's work, it is easy to understand her deepening realization of the meaning of being a woman. "It is a man's world in Nigeria. We'd make the women feel important." In response to a Muslim who told Germaine that "Women have but one sense. Men have seven," she retorted, "Some men don't have any sense at all," and added, "God made us all. Treat women as equals." Far from being alienated by her bluntness, the man later informed her that he had taken her advice and his marriage was now happier. Germaine uses this statement to support her belief that the presence of Dominican women in Nigeria has been a force in moving people to a deeper appreciation of women (Salamone 1987, 37).
Other essays in the same volume (Kulp 1987) speak of the pioneering efforts of women from other denominations, such as the indomitable Scottish Presbyterian, Mary Slessor, missionary in Southeastern Nigeria. Slessor broke with the traditional roles considered normal for women missionaries, and became a legend in her own time, eventually gaining the admiration of African traditionalists, chiefs, commoners, and colonial officials alike. She frequently intervened in disputes, prevented wars and confronted Ekpe chiefs over the inhumane treatment of women and slaves (Hackett 1987, 51). Her advocacy of independency for women went beyond what was considered correct in churches of the day. She wrote in the margin of one of her bibles, at the passage where St. Paul advocates the subjection of wives to husbands: "Na! Na! Paul, laddie! This will no do!"(Buchan, 138).
The other essays from women and men, missionaries and anthropologists in Kulp's 1987 volume confirm that women in Christian missions played a substantial part in changing traditional views of women and their work in Nigeria. The women missionaries are now seen by many as change agents in African history. They opened up a new space within the African lifeworld. It was often said that Euroamerican missionary women, who were often unmarried, had, as unmarried women, no status at all in traditional Africa, no niche in traditional social structures. Yet these women ran schools and even taught men there. So though they had no official status their presence over several generations eventually carved out a new niche, and opened the way for future possibilities, to which African women might also attain. This is what African women began to do, with a new visibility and power in the 1980s.
At the grassroots level, African Christian women in such groups as the Zumunta Mata (Hausa for "Women's Fellowship") in Northern Nigeria have continued to redefine women's roles and as a result they speak with a new voice today. These groups consider themselves custodians of the best of traditional culture, as they have been the prime actors in the movement to integrate traditional musical instruments, rhythms and melodies in church. They work together to solve common problems such as health care in the rural areas. They often have increased power stemming from their independent economic activities. Though this does not usually issue in increased decision-making powers over the village as a whole, there is a certain leverage which comes from economic independence.
The picture in regard to practically every aspect of women's roles is controversial. In contrast to what I have reported above concerning economic development, Barrett (1971, 147-170) in attempting to discern causes for the development of independent churches, opined that women on the periphery of the mission churches became marginalised, for they had traditionally wielded religious and economic power in the family home: "At a certain point the limit of tolerance was reached; the break then came with the emergence of a charismatic leader, prophet or prophetess, often claiming an experience of wilderness, etc." While there is some evidence for Barrett's views in the case of the ethnic group he studied, one would be cautioned against applying it universally. In places such as coastal Tanzania and Northern Nigeria, both areas where Islam has had significant impact, women's economic roles outside the home are more severely curtailed than in the case of the mission churches to which Barrett refers. Yet it is in precisely those geographical areas that the independency phenomenon has not arisen. The role of women's economic and religious power, then, remains one upon which further study is required.
(iii): Theological Development
The Anglican African theologian Bette Ekeya has coauthored an article with Catholic theologian Rosemary Edet entitled "Church Women of Africa: A Theological Community" (Oduyoye and Fabella, eds., 1988 3-13.) Here, they argue that the church women of Africa form, in themselves, a theological community. They point to the grass-roots level work of theological discernment that goes on in African communities and the role the Bible plays in this task. This has brought a new sense of empowerment to many women in Africa. The groups to which they refer are similar to the "zumunta mata" groups of Nigeria.
Going beyond the redefinition of roles found in Zumunta Mata groups, there is also a phenomenal growth in the numbers of women in leadership roles in the church. The rise in the numbers of African women doing Christian theology since 1980 is dramatic. Before 1980 there was only one African woman publishing theological works on a regular basis: Mercy Amba Oduyoye. One other, Sister Ancilla Kupalo, a Kenyan nun, and staff member of the Pastoral Institute of Eastern Africa from 1972-75 is the only other African woman theologian whose name appears as an author of a published work (Kupalo 1978) before 1980. By 1985 there were three or four more, and by 1990 there were over two hundred.
Mercy Oduyoye now directs a task force set up by the World Council of Churches in Geneva to give encouragement to women to take up theology as a discipline. This has borne fruit in a greatly increased number of active women theologians. Within the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians was formed in 1989 in Ghana. One hundred and fifty-three African women attended the first meeting in Accra - a significant step forward. Twenty-nine women attended the 1992 EATWOT General Assembly, roughly one third of the total number of participants. Many are Roman Catholic Sisters, teaching in universities and seminaries. For example, Sr. Teresa Okure of Nigeria (Executive Secretary of EATWOT at the time) is one of Africa's most notable Biblical scholars. (I later heard from a long time Catholic missionary to Nigeria that few of the bishops would dare to take her on in a theological debate.) At the conference, notice was taken of the considerable progress made within EATWOT over the last ten years in regard to women's issues. Though it was clear that much ground still remains to be covered, it is now clear that women are prominent and their voices are heard and are taken seriously.
The Roman Catholic church has channelled large amounts of money into theological training in Africa in the past decade, and the results of this are now becoming evident in the numbers of new ordinands and in the numbers of African women and men now joining religious orders. This was exceedingly rare as recently as the 1970s, for in traditional thought, it was considered a grave misfortune to be celibate, and the failure to bear children disqualified one from becoming an ancestor. This, then evidences the development of a new "culture of acceptance of the new" in Africa, the acceptance of new categories and new ways of living life. The implications this has for Africa today are enormous, for those things which were said to be "unAfrican" or unappealing to Africans only a decade ago are finding increasing acceptance among the young, thus leading to new possibilities of living while yet retaining one's African identity.
In the field of biblical studies, the fight over which view of women the bible actually advocates will no doubt continue, but the new element is already to be found in the voices of articulate, theologically trained African women. The name of Mercy Amba Oduyoye is best known, as she was the pioneer who opened the field up. Teresa Okure's name is becoming equally well known as a Biblical scholar. A short list of those who have published easily available works is as follows: Rabiatu Ammah, Elizabeth Amoah, Judith Bahemuka, Bernadette Mbuy Beya, Rosemary Edet, Bette Ekeya, Lloyda Fanusie, Teresa Hinga, Musimbi Kanyoro, Hannah Kinoti, Ancilla Kupalo, Anna Mghwira, Anne Nachisale Musopole, Anne Nasimiyu-Wasike, Daisy N. Nwachuku, Mercy Oduyoye, Teresa Okure, R. Modupe Owanikin, Dorothy Ramodibe, Thérèse Souga, Filomina Chioma Steady, Louise Tappa, and Rose Zoé-Obianga. These women are promoting interpretations of the Old Testament in which equality and mutuality are stressed as biblical ideals and as a result are challenging the notion that the Old Testament advocates polygyny. As a long term development, the rise in notions of equality and mutuality between the sexes seems bound to clash more and more with the traditionalist and neo-traditionalist views which advocate hierarchical structures and subservience. It is out of these tensions that a new conception of the African family shall arise in the future, but it shall be shaped entirely by Africans themselves on their own terms.
In January 1998 a conference of "The African Network of Institutions of Theological Education Preparing Anglicans for Ministry" (ANITEPAM) decided on several specific ways to strengthen the education of Anglican women for ministry in the Anglican church in Africa. They put out the following news release to announce their proposals:
African Women Theological Educators Call For
'A Community of Equals' in the Church
African Anglican women theological educators appealed for a series of actions by both the church and its theological education programmes that would demonstrate greater concern for justice for women during meetings held in Zimbabwe this month. Delegates from Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe attended the ANITEPAM-sponsored consultation, 'Nurturing Our Calling-Strengthening Our Ministry,' in Harare. The women called for a review of the traditional theological curricula in Africa; the inclusion of women's studies programmes; greater emphasis on lay training, which is where most women find themselves at present; expanded opportunities for women educators to write and publish; and broadened representation of women on theological education boards and commissions. Participants also looked beyond the boundaries of traditional theological education to embrace a broad role for women theological educators in African society. 'Women in theological education must be in solidarity with women in other areas of society to make claims and work for justice for women' their final communiqué declared. Further, women 'must take courage to challenge aspects of traditional African culture and Church practices that are used to oppress them, and to risk making changes for equal opportunities for women and men.' The Revd Mabel Katahwaire, member of ANITEPAM's Governing Council who coordinated the gathering, told the Council that 'the women took the consultation very seriously. They went back determined to support one another.' While delegates spoke of causing 'discomfort' in the church to encourage transformation on women's issues, they also observed that 'we must remember that we too are part of the Church, the Body of Christ Jesus! Thus the work we have set out for ourselves is and will be part of our ministries for the love of the Church and in faithfulness to Jesus Christ. 'We commit ourselves,' they concluded, 'to a transformational church, a community of equals in the church of women and men and one which models God's peace, love and justice for the whole world.'
The work of ANITEPAM is advancing the cause of equality for women in Africa, another indication that the church is having a positive impact on people's thinking about women's roles in Africa. While the WCC conference in Harare, Zimbabwe concluded that there is still a long way to go in this regard, it also concluded that there are many signs that substantial progress has been made.
Another sign that substantial progress is being made is in the area of female circumcision or "cliterodectomy". In the 1980s it was normal when commentators were speaking about this practice to observe that it was the one area in which not even African feminists dared to get involved or speak. This, it was said, was an area "too hot to handle", due to the deeply rooted emotions surrounding the assumed necessity of the practice to the integrity and morality of African society. This was so much the case that not even African feminists dared to speak against it. However, in the 1990s we have seen an end to this long standing taboo against criticism. In 1993 an organization of women in Nigeria announced for the first time that they were going to be opposing the practice openly. It became a subject of increasingly open and public debate in Africa in the 1990s.
While to date, there is not a great deal of evidence that the criticism of this institution has actually lessened its frequency of practice, nevertheless, one can say that there is now cultural space, as it were, to discuss this matter openly in society, as a long standing tradition that can be challenged without necessarily sacrificing one's African identity in order to do it. This is indeed, a new thing. In the history of social change, no human institution of such age and durability has ever fallen without first a cultural space being opened up for its criticism. This is always the first step in the chain of events which leads eventually to its demise or transformation.
2: Ordination of Women
One indicator of advancing status of women in Africa is the increasing acceptance of the ordination of women to leading roles in the ministry of the various denominations. The Eames Commission was formed following the 1988 Lambeth Conference of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Its mandate was to monitor the progress of the provinces of the global Anglican Communion on the ordination of women. Its report, published in 1997, found that of the 10 provinces of the Anglican Communion in Africa, only three were known to have a policy of prohibiting the ordination of women. Of these, Kenya, Uganda, West Africa ordain women to the diaconate and presbyterate (priesthood) but not to the episcopate (bishops). Southern Africa, which includes South Africa, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, and Angola,) also permits ordination to the episcopate level, though this has not seen actualization yet.
A news release from Sudan announced early in 2000 that a synod there had voted to permit women in all three levels of ministry. Before 2000 there was no information from Sudan, due to difficulties in that country.
It is interesting to note that Southern Africa made the decision to permit ordination of women in 1992, the same year as the Church of England. But Southern Africa and Sudan have gone further than England, in that they do permit women to be bishops, while England still does not. A large majority of African provinces now do ordain women, and some have progressed towards this much faster than countries in the western world long thought to be the "leaders" of Christianity. The chart below lists the dates for acceptance of each level of women's ministry in Africa.
Ordination of Women in Africa (Anglican Communion)
|Province||Status and Level||Date of acceptance|
|Central Africa (= Botswana, Malawi,Zambia, Zimbabwe)||None|
West Africa (=Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia)
|Diaconate and Presbyterate
1983 / 'since 1988'
|Southern Africa (=South Africa,
Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Swaziland,
|Diaconate, Presbyterate and Episcopate (Bishops)||1992
no information available from Congo.
- Sources: The Eames Commission Report of 1997, with updates from Sister Teresa, 2001.
From this chart it is clear that 7 of the 10 African provinces for which we have information, or 70%, do ordain women to the priesthood, and 2 of 10, or 20% to the episcopacy as well. This figure compares favourably with the Global Anglican Communion total of 66 % ordaining to the priesthood, and 30.3% to the episcopacy.
It is particularly interesting to note that on the question of ordination to the episcopacy Southern Africa and Sudan are both further advanced in the process of acceptance than England, Scotland, Wales, and Australia. This may be of special interest to those who were shocked by the anti-African remarks of the Primus of Scotland Richard Holloway at the 1998 Lambeth Conference.
Can we trace any correlation between the current levels of acceptance of women's ordination and traditional status in pre-Christian contact Africa? It might be hypothesized that wherever there were matrilineal societies, such as amongst the Akan peoples of Ghana, there might be a higher level of acceptance of the ordination of women.
My quick survey of the western part of Africa suggested there might be some correlation. Ghana forms the largest block within the Church of the Province of West Africa, which does ordain women, and Ghana has the largest cluster of matrilineal societies in western Africa. Nigeria, without any matrilineal societies, does not ordain women.
A survey of Southern Africa suggests something similar there, as there are a few matrilineal cultures there, notably a cluster in the northern tip of Namibia. Southern Africa was the first province in Africa to permit ordination of women to the episcopacy.
However, in East and Central Africa the story becomes more complex. For there we find that both Uganda and Kenya, which had no matrilineal cultures, started ordaining women in 1983, earlier than any other part of Africa, while the neighbouring provinces of Tanzania and Central Africa, still do not ordain women to any level at all, even today. There is a large cluster of matrilineal societies in the countries of Central Africa, Malawi in particular. In fact, so far in my research the province of Central Africa contains the highest proportion of matrilineal societies anywhere in Africa. This result is precisely the opposite of what we might expect if the norms of traditional societies are influencing denominational policies today.
Even more jarring to the hypothesis is the recent news from Sudan that the church there now permits ordination to all three levels. I have not yet come across any strongly matrilineal cultures in Sudan, even though it contains the largest number of ethnic groups in Africa.
With such poor correlation of matrilinearity to acceptance of women's ordination it seems natural to look for other factors. Perhaps the question can be opened up further by referring to the role African Initiated Churches may have played. These churches have contributed much to Africa's self concept in the 20th century, according to the African theologians, as well as most other scholars of religion in Africa. A disproportionately high number of AICs were founded by women, and thus there was no need even to debate the question whether women might be ministers amongst them, in most cases. At least not in their beginning years. The AICs cannot be discounted as an influence on the mainline churches, as African theologians invariably cite them as one important source for African theology, and a resource for modelling ways of creating a form of Christianity more truly suited to the African context. More than that, they are a visible presence in most African cities and towns, and the ministrations of the women healers amongst them are well known.
It may well be that the AICs have helped create a new climate of acceptance of women in ministry in the larger African society today. If this is so, it might well contribute to an explanation of the spread of women's ordination. One cautionary we may encounter in investigating this line of evidence is the oft noted tendency amongst these churches for the 2nd and 3rd generation of leaders to promote revisionist histories of the denomination, which downplay or even completely remove the female founder from the church's history. One example I have found is the Legio Maria church of Kenya, where early (1965) documentation lists the woman Gaudencia Aoko as the founder and leader of the church, while by 1969 she is totally replaced in a coup by a man called "Baba Messiah". Other examples abound.
A third factor that may be contributing to acceptance of women's ordination is a growing acceptance in the larger secular culture of women's rights and freedoms. The Eames Commission reported that in most parts of the global Anglican communion ordination of women has become "a splendid non-issue," largely due to the larger secular society. There is probably much truth to this comment in areas of the world such as Canada, where secularity has had deep penetration in the larger society. However, Africa has not yet had a significant penetration of secularity, and the profound religiosity of African people is still frequently referred to in the literature today. (Pobee 1998, 9)
A fourth factor we must consider, is the impact of Biblical ideals of shared ministry and the importance of women being involved in hearing the Master's teaching, within the mainline denominations. The role of women missionaries must not be underestimated in that development. The church as the custodian of the biblical tradition is thus a place where we might expect to see people casting aside many patriarchal assumptions.
The Biblical factor is intensified in the felt experience of the East Africa revival, according to a number of African women theologians, such as Hannah Kinoti (1989). She explains that when and where the revival retained its highest levels of intensity for long periods, it has revolutionized people's conceptions of class, and it may also be fair to suggest that the radical message of equality has also been applied to gender, as the countries that embraced women's ordination first are those two that were the most deeply affected by the East Africa revival: Uganda and Kenya. The revival began in Rwanda and Burundi, and although it did not thrive there for long, it is interesting to note that those provinces are also leaders in accepting the ordination of women.
In the colonial period the Euroamerican missionaries considered polygyny to be the greatest offence. In the words of Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi-Boulaga (1991, 19): «Mais la grande obsession, c'est la polygamie, qui requiert les efforts les plus passionnés.» The missionaries were obsessed with this question. For them, adherence to monogamy was the very litmus test of orthodoxy. In view of the missionary preoccupation with the sinfulness of all forms of polygyny, a major emphasis in African theology has been upon reassessing traditional African polygyny, so that ways may be found to integrate at least some polygynists into the church, while at the same time maintaining a Christian view of marriage. The church's strictures against polygyny are widely seen as the product of a western mindset, and as unbiblical.
(i): Traditional Social Context
In traditional Africa, the economy was almost entirely agrarian. In this context, polygyny was viewed as socially necessary in order to ensure continuation of the society, and to provide for the needs of the many women who might otherwise never enjoy the status and benefits which accompany becoming a mother, a bearer of children and are thus a vital link to the ancestors. Wars between groups often resulted in the reduction of the male population, thus females usually outnumbered males. Unmarried women risked social humiliation without a husband and children, thus the system sought to provide for the needs of everyone in the society.
The African polygynous man, it is usually argued, at least sought to shoulder extra social responsibilities as he progressed through life, in contrast to the version of polygyny currently found in western countries, wherein the modern serial polygynist divorces his wife and marries others in succession, all the while seeking to avoid his social responsibilities by shirking his alimony payments and striving to dodge child support payments whenever possible. This practice has become so ubiquitous that it presents a challenge to the western legal system which has become overburdened in its efforts to track down "deadbeat dads", and must create new laws to cope with new societal acceptance of cohabitation sans marriage, such as "palimony" laws.(1) In African tradition, the man who supports many children through his labours is generally regarded as a hero, but the person who consistently dodged responsibilities is regarded as an outcast or something approximating an outcast, and would not earn the right to be called an ancestor.
The Jerawa people, who live to the east of Jos in Plateau State of Nigeria, were reached by Islam just after the turn of the nineteenth century. Though they have long been exposed to Islam, to the present day only the chief and his immediate family are Muslims. This is attributed to the fact that in Jerawa belief it is considered proper that all the farming must be done by women. As a result, only the chief can afford to be a Muslim, as the chief is the only person who is rich enough to be able to afford to keep his wife in purdah (strict seclusion). The long term effect of the strict observance of this rule has been that today a significant percentage of the Jerawa have become Christians, because Christianity permitted women the freedom to go outside of their compound, thus no economic obstacle to conversion was presented. This development is all the more remarkable in the light of the normally observed pattern of conversion. In places where traditionalists have converted to Islam, they seldom convert to Christianity if Christianity arrives in that area later than Islam. This being the case, it would seem that in the case of the Jerawa, the free movement of women was a culturally non-negotiable custom, leaving Christianity in a better position to contextualize itself than Islam, a situation which seems to have been relatively rare in West Africa, though not as uniformly so as is often supposed.
(ii): Modern Social Context
Today in many parts of Africa polygyny seems to be waning, though the rate of change varies from one locality to another. The factors contributing to this variation seem not to be well understood, and statistical data is, again, not only unreliable, but difficult to interpret.
The shift from an agrarian based economy to an urban-based cash economy creates a new situation wherein plural wives are not necessarily an economic asset any longer. It was held in traditional society that women could produce more food than they consume, but in a modern cash economy it is now widely believed that women do not usually produce more cash/goods than they can consume. Furthermore, the children of plural wives cost far more to educate than children in smaller numbers, and education is today a much more highly prized commodity than it was before 1945. Therefore most African men (and particularly those who are urban based) now feel that no matter how much they might like to take a second or third wife, and would like to keep that option open, they also freely admit that for strictly pragmatic reasons the days have probably passed when polygyny is feasible for them.
In most West African countries today, women of the younger generation, many of whom have themselves been raised in polygynous families, are increasingly speaking out against polygyny. While they generally agree that in the past there were economic reasons for the institution, they feel that those times are gone now. They frequently offer the most vigorous attacks on polygyny, saying that they themselves had grown up in such homes and witnessed first hand the jealousies, the manoueverings, the use of witchcraft and even poisonings due to jealousy which seemed, to them, inevitable in any situation where two or more women have to share the same man. They say that consequently they will have nothing to do with it. In my own experience, women under thirty in Nigeria usually argue strongly in this manner. The anthropology documentary film "Asante Market Women" produced in the early 1980s, interviews a number of college age women in Ghana, who unanimously express the same views. My statistical surveys also confirm this throughout Africa. The role of education in bringing about changes of attitude in this regard has undoubtedly been profound.
Even modern architecture militates against polygyny: in traditional architecture, each wife would have her own hut with its own cooking area. But modern houses and apartments have only one kitchen, and often a very small one at that. Only the very rich, those who can afford to have a modern house built to their own specifications, can build accommodation to suit a polygynous family. While this fact on its own is probably not sufficient reason to induce young African men to abandon polygyny, it can be seen as one indicator of a general cultural direction.
In a work entitled Many Wives, Many Powers (1970) which reveals the complexities involved in the transition of the institution of polygyny from the rural to the urban context, Remi Clignet discovered that in some cases polygyny can increase certain types of status for women, but that on the whole, the urban monogamous wife has a more egalitarian relationship with her husband than her sisters in polygynous marriages. This type of egalitarian structure seems to be more likely increasingly to become normal in African life as urbanization continues. Yet his study indicates that norms and behaviour patterns do not necessarily become entirely westernized in such households.
Furthermore, Clignet found that in the modern urban setting, just as in the traditional, the saying "Many Wives, Many Powers" still holds, though in a new way. All of this has a tendency to vindicate the claim of Eboussi-Boulaga, Bujo and others that the future of Africa is not to be found in Europe's past.
Although some studies indicate that in some areas polygyny is disappearing, other studies show a great deal of ambiguity. There is a difference between rural and urban areas, but the amount of that difference varies widely from one area to another. One study, in Western Nigeria, reported that the percentage of married women in polygynous marriages varied from 17 per cent in modern suburbs to 68 per cent in rural villages. If one takes this figure in isolation and conjoins it with the figures in my section above on rapid urbanization in Africa then one might come to the conclusion that polygyny will die out within two to three decades in Africa. If, on the other hand, one looks at figures from Senegal, where in 1978 49.7 % of rural women were in polygynous marriages while the percentage for urban areas was 45.7, then the differential seems so small as to preclude any significant decline in the rate of polygyny even if Senegal becomes completely urbanized, if urbanization is taken to be the primary factor. If this were so then polygyny could still remain a strong institution in Africa a century from now. Some scholars are more tentative than others in their statements regarding the disappearance of polygyny. To a certain extent, this may depend upon how much weight they give to the various factors which have proved to be determinants. Even more strongly than urbanization, education influences marriage choices. Studies very strongly and unambiguously show that young college educated women reject polygyny as an option for themselves. For young men of college age, however, the studies are much less clear. There is, however, a growing number of young men who reject polygyny as an option, for whatever reasons, and these are a new factor in the social matrix of the emergent Africa.
A weakness of many studies on polygyny is that they do not deal seriously with the role of religious beliefs, which is a third factor. While many authors have made the claim that polygyny is less frequent in Muslim and Christian families than in ATR, the surveys do not bear this out. The surveys show that in many parts of West Africa, adherents of Islam report the highest percentages of polygynous marriages, followed by adherents of ATR, and then by Christians. One might deduce from this that those countries where Islam predominates would continue to have a high incidence of polygyny for a long time to come, whereas African countries where Islam is not a major player will see a gradual decline in the incidence of polygyny.
Another serious problem affecting attempts to chart the decline of polygyny is that there are few good longitudinal studies showing rise or decline in one given area over a long period of time. Ideally, one would need such a study covering a period of at least sixty years.
(iii): Modern Distortions of the Tradition
Several African theologians have pointed out that pressures partly associated with the tensions of modern life in African cities are now producing distortions of the traditional African beliefs concerning polygyny. Bujo (1992, 68) tells us:
In polygamous unions, each woman could lead a satisfying life, with her dignity recognized. Today this tradition has been stood on its head. The first wife is no longer consulted before the husband takes a second. Indeed she may well be left to cope with life's problems on her own, a state of affairs which could never come about in the traditional situation. There again the second wife is no more willing than the first to share her husband's love with a rival.
In addition to the distortion of traditional teachings of ATR on polygyny, there are now also revisionist understandings of the teaching of Islam on polygyny. In Islamic ethics there are five categories of actions: (i) actions which are obligatory, (ii) actions which are recommended but not obligatory, (iii) actions which are neither recommended nor discouraged, but neutral, (iv) actions which are discouraged but not prohibited, (v) actions which are absolutely prohibited.
Amongst these five categories of actions, orthodox Islam has always categorized polygyny in category (iii): action which is neither recommended nor discouraged. However, in the revisionist understanding of Islamic ethics now being popularized through the columns devoted to Islamic teaching in the daily newspapers of Nigeria and other parts of West Africa, it is said that Islam "encourages" or even "requires" a man to marry as many wives as he is physically capable of. Meanwhile, in Egypt, long an Islamic stronghold, polygyny has for many years been disappearing as a social institution. Interpretations prevalent there stress that the intention of Islamic teaching is that a man should treat each of his wives equally, and that because it is virtually impossible, in practice, for a man to treat each of his wives exactly equally in all respects, therefore it is best to remain monogamous. However, this interpretation of Islamic thought, while widely accepted in Egypt, is virtually unheard of in West Africa.
Statistics suggest that West African Islam is promulgating a new advocacy of polygyny: in Côte d'Ivoire, of women adherents of ATR, 29.7 per cent were in polygynous marriages, while for Muslim women the percentage was 37.6 (in 1980-81). In Liberia only 31.5 per cent of women adherents of ATR were polygynous, as compared to 51.0 per cent among Muslim women in 1988. This is in stark contrast with the Arab countries of North Africa, where one finds a rate of polygyny of 1 per cent in the urban areas and 2 per cent in the rural areas.
In view of the distortions current at the popular level in Africa, an understanding of the social forces at work is necessary. Young African men under the age of thirty today see the forces producing an inexorable social movement towards the phasing out of polygyny in Africa. Polygyny is not illegal in many African countries, though in some only one wife is legally recognized. But the economic picture is such that many think this will be the last generation wherein polygyny will be economically and socially possible. If that is the case then any strictures of the church become irrelevant. Understood in this light, perhaps we may gain insight into the rather desperate nature of the outcry of young men on behalf of polygyny.
Further, it is important to see that polygyny is promoted by West African Muslims as not just a practice, but as very symbol or touchstone which reveals the Africanness of Islam, and by contrast, the Europeanness of Christianity. Islam then becomes the quintessential "African religion", and "the religion perfect for Africans". Regardless of the weaknesses inherent in this line of reasoning, it has gained so much currency at the popular level that it is frequently accepted as the crowning and irrefutable argument, and many African Christians are cowed by it.
(iv): Theological Response
A few missionaries wrote sympathetic treatments of polygyny: Trobisch (1967) and Hillman (1975) are notable, but most of the work involved in finding a way for the church to accommodate believing polgynists has been done by African theologians. I note the works of Manas Buthelezi (1969), Mpolo (1975), Bujo (1985), Nkwoka (1990b) plus a large number of chapters and sections in monographs dealing with ATR. Again, as we have seen in the other areas under study, the shift in the 1980s has been away from description of the practices of ATR towards a pastoral orientation: the role of the church in regard to counselling members of polygynous families.
We noted above the decision of the Lutheran church of Liberia in the 1970s to admit believing polygynists to communion, and the 1988 decision of the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican church to admit believing polygynists under certain circumstances. The latter came about due to the insistence of East African bishops. The past decade has seen growing pressure in the Roman Catholic church for similar accommodations, but the resistance from the upper levels of the hierarchy has been stronger.
At the same time, there has been a response from African women theologians to the positive appraisal Lambeth 1988 gave to polygyny. Mercy Oduyoye writes critically in The Will to Arise (1992) that no African women were asked to be present when the bishops made their famous decision. Therefore, their decision is suspect. She has, in her earlier work, made defences of traditional polygamy on the grounds that the traditional agricultural economy in Africa made it not only a viable but almost necessary institution. But she now makes a critical attack on it, making the point that in the modern African context, which is increasingly urban, the reasons which once made it justifiable are largely disappearing. All of this being the case, she writes, it was all the more presumptuous of the African bishops to have engaged in a discourse that profoundly affects women without even including them in the discussion.
In summary, the period since 1980 has seen a change in social conditions in Africa, a period in which the social factors favouring older patterns of family structure including polygyny are under serious stress in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time there is the rise of a new group of vocal women leaders within the African churches, a group which was small at the beginning, but has already grown large and will continue to grow and to shape church experience and life more fully in the twenty-first century. As such, their theology is now shaping the new mixture of voices and themes, contributing a new dynamic to African theology in the 1980s and '90s, giving it a new voice which had not been audible in its earlier phases.
* * * * * * *
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* * *
APPENDIX: MATRILINEAL SOCIETIES IN AFRICA (by Country)
The following table shows where the matrilineal cultures are in Africa. Note that there tend to be clusters of them in certain geographical areas, such as Ghana. This table is extracted from the Ethnographic Atlas using columns 22, (descent) 74 (inheritance of real property) and 76 inheritance of moveable property.) The Ethnographic Atlas includes 239 societies in Africa.
|Ethnic Group||Column 22
O = absence of any matrilineal groups or practices.
S= double descent
|Column 74 Inheritance of real property. M=Matrilineal inheritance. P=Patrilineal Q=Patrilineal heirs, not sons.||Column 76
Inheritance of movable property. M=Matrilineal inheritance. P=Patrilineal inheritance
|77: Taita (& Kenya)|
|78: Chaga (Chagga)||O||Pp||Pp|
|O||* mixed P and M succession and inheritance||*|
|82: Gusii [East Nyanza cluster, with Gisu, Sonjo, Vugusu 1N 35E||
|83: Sukuma||O||Pp||*[but matrilineal if no bride price was paid for mother (p.10)]|
|5: Watussi (Tussi)|
|Digo 4S, 39E. Kenya/Tanzania||L||Np||Np|
|80: Ankole (Banyankole, incl. Bahima and Bairu) Nyankole:||O||Pp||Pp|
|86: Baganda (Ganda)||O||Pp||Pp|
|87: Nyoro (Banyoro or Bakitara)||O||Pp||Pp|
|84: Wandorobo (Dorobo)|
|90: Hill Suk
|Digo 4S, 39E. Kenya/Tanzania||L||Np||Np|
|Afikpo||S||*||*mixed, but with a matrilineal emphasis|
|35: Yakö=Ekoi[=Yako?]Niger Delta||L||P||Ne|
|Longuda 10N, 12E (Cluster #66 Nigeria)||Sl||Np||Np|
|13: Dagaba (=Lodagaa?)|
|Birifor 10N, 3W. Ghana||Ml||Qp||Np|
|Jur||O||Qp[but Pe for property acquired]||Qp|
|Hasania [one of the Baggara group]||O||De||De|
|Gimma,Habbania, Hemat, Messiria|
|Darfur (or Fur)||L||Pu||Pu|
|7: Southern Africa 7/16M|
|56: Herero (Namibia)||S||O||Np|
|57: Ambo (=Ovambo: Namibia)||S||O||Ne|
|58: Bushman [Kung] Namibia||O||O||O|
|68: Tswana (South Africa & Botswana)||O||Pp||Pp|
|69: Lovedu (South Africa)||O||.||Q|
|70: Basuto (Sotho)||O||O||Pp|
|Cluster #13: Lunda group: Angola|
|Mbundu [western Angola]||Lo||P||M|
|8: Central Africa (=Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi) 10/16M|
|68: Tswana [Botswana]||O||Pp||Pp|
|Cluster #15: Maravi Group|
|Chewa 14s, 33e = Malawi||S||N||N|
|Nyanja 16s, 36e=Malawi||S||Np||Np|
|Lake Tonga (62 Tonga: Zimbabwe)||Sl||M||M|
|58: Bushman [Kung] also Southern Africa||O||O||O|
|61:Ba-Ila (Ila): Zambia/Zimbabwe)||S||O||Nq|
|Cluster # 14: Bemba-Lamba group|
|73: Bemba (Malawi/Zambia)||S||Np||Nq|
|72: Yao [Mozambique &Malawi]||Sl||.||Np|
|Plateau Tonga Zimbabwe||S||Nq||Nq|
|9: Province of Congo (Zaire)|
|Ndoko 2N. 21E Zaire||S||Np||Np|
|Cluster #12: Kasai group: Zaire|
|53: Bushongo (incl. Lele etc.)||S||.||Ne|
|53: Bushongo (incl. Songo)||L||Np||Np|
|Cluster # 11: Lower Congo|
|46: Kongo (Congolese Rep.)||S||Np||Np|
|Matrilineal groups outside Anglican provinces|
|Cluster #50: Tenda
Coniagui 13N, 13W Senegal?
|Bassari 12N, 13W Senegal/Guinea||Sl||Np||Np|
|Baule 8N 5W. Cote D'Ivoire||Sl||Np||Np|
|Lobi 10N. 4W. Cote D'Ivoire||Sl||Ce||Mp|
|Guanche [Canary Islands]||Lo||Me||Me|
|Bijogo 11N, 16W (Guinea cluster49)||S||Np||Np|
|Serer 14N, 17W (in Senegal cluster #51 with Wolof)||S||Np||Pe|
|Cluster #94 Barea-Kunama
Barea 16 N, 38E (Ethiopia)
|Kunama 15N, 37E Ethiopia||S||Mp||Mp|
|Cluster #105 Tuareg
|Asben (cluster includes Antessar, Azjer, Ifora, etc.)||So||Mp||De|
1. Some American states have passed laws requiring "Palimony" to be paid when the couple splitting up had not been married, but because the wife had contributed so much of her time, money and effort to the relationship, it was felt that she ought to be compensated. Analogous to "alimony", it is given even if the partners were only "pals".