Subsequent to my blog “I want three wives!” I discovered a book titled Forty years among the Zulus. It was written in 1891 by Rev Josiah Tyler, a missionary in Natal.
Here are his observations regarding polygamy at that time:
- “Polygamy presents a gigantic obstacle to the elevation of the Zulus. It has been well called their ‘idol and their curse’. All that a Zulu man hath will he give for wives, and the number he possesses is limited only by the number of cows he has with which to but them … ‘A man’s wives make the house great’ is a common Zulu saying. With only one wife a man is considered poor. ‘If I have but one wife, who will cook for me when she is ill?’ is a question often asked by the wife-loving Zulu when arguing in support of his darling custom. In Natal for some years the market price for a strong, healthy girl of fifteen ranged from fifteen to twenty cows, but of late ten have been considered the standard price.
None but those who have witnessed the working of polygamy in South Africa can adequately conceive the degradation and misery it involves and the strong counteracting influence it presents to philanthropic labour. Both heart and mind are brutalised by it. Should the wife be sick and unable to perform her daily task she is liable to hear from her husband the question: ‘Why do you not work and get back the cattle I have paid for you?’ If childless, she can be returned to her home as ‘an unprofitable thing’. If not fully paid for, her children can be taken as mortgage till the number of cattle agreed upon is received. Not only is this custom idolised by the men but, strange though it may appear, the poor degraded women who are the chief sufferers argue in favour of it … Rarely do wives object to a husband adding to the number of helpmeets, for they say ‘Now are our burdens lightened’. They seemingly ignore the fact that jealousies, bickerings and quarrels are sure to arise.”
I am left with more questions than answers. Has the husband’s attitude changed towards his wives in present-day customary marriages? More respect, perhaps? What are the present-day perks in the arrangement for wife number one, two, three, four and five? How are conflicts resolved among the entity? And with numerous children, are weekly meetings held to discuss dad’s diary? (whose soccer match will he attend this week?) Finally, it seems that with customary marriages in South Africa, the number of wives the husband is allowed to marry is only limited to his resources. Do the wives get to discuss how many they agree to at the beginning of the marriage? Any customary wives out there got the answers?