On Love and Polygamy: Lessons from Malawi

Morning finds me strolling along the dusty roadside, small fires grilling maize into crispy gold, dough bubbling in hot vats of oil…the village coming to life. I reach the little thatch covering where people wait to catch pickup-truck matolas into Mangochi and hear my name, “Claire!”

Grinning, I walk over to where Timson stands frying up sliced potatoes on a sizzling metal plate. Jokingly, I pick up our conversation on school curriculum, “Why is it that in geography, you learn about the Prime Meridian and navigating from stars but nobody here can tell me where California is?” I pout. “Is it expected that you’ll be roaming the high seas without a compass anytime soon?” Timson laughs. “But in Malawi, we learn many useless things!” he says, telling me how at one point he had to memorize the names of all the different Malawian soil types. I laugh, citing some of the more esoteric topics I’ve covered in school…terrestrial arthropod anatomy…the science of smiling…an hour passes.

The roar of a motor on the road. I turn around hopefully but it’s just a passing motorcycle. No matolas in sight. Turning back, “Claire, this is my wife.” I hadn’t even noticed her. Hidden from view behind Timson, she is crouched squatting in a back corner, fingers busy slicing potatoes into long, thin strips. “Ajimwichewuli” I say, “Good morning.” She doesn’t respond and turns back to slicing. I look down at my pants, worn today because I am headed into Mangochi; the big city. Have I offended her with my manly attire? “Don’t worry. She is shy” Timson says. I smile; the moment passes. Soon a matola comes, and I clamber aboard, standing up to face the oncoming wind, leaning my upper body on the cab for support, surrounded by bodies and chickens and one loudly protesting goat.No matolas in sight.

It is dinnertime. My friend and host mom Jureka and I set up, placing dishes and tea, containers holding beans and cooked maize-flour nsima on the ground where we will eat. Jureka’s husband Shaibu is out. Little gnats fly about, seeking the reflectivity of the porcelain plates, zooming at them only to have their lives snuffed out, leaving little black bodies strewn over the dish. I pick the plate up to blow off their lifeless forms, and…the lights go. That makes blackout number three today. I sigh, and fumble about to my room for my headlamp. When I come back, Jureka has set up a candle in an old coke bottle. The effect is pleasing: romantic candle-lit dinner vibe. I make a joke about this being our third date. How did she and Shaibu fall in love?

Jureka looks uncomfortable. “But here in Malawi, what people care about is money. Not true love. You will know more when you go to these villages. They will say, ‘No, my husband is not here. He is staying with the third wife.’ If one wife has a small baby, then the man can go to enjoy sex with another wife because the man can’t have sex with a woman when she is pregnant. Here the man can do anything. Men just dump women and leave them with babies without marrying them.”

I am here in Malawi to interview women about life, their pregnancies, and specifically about how they prevent and treat illnesses during pregnancy, be that illness witchcraft or malaria. Girls as young as 12 and 13 are married with a pregnancy of their own, husband gone off to South Africa for nine months at a minimum. “Is your husband a polygamist?” a standard question on every interview.

“But why would a woman ever marry a man who she knows has another wife?,” I ask. I see Jureka shrug in the dim light. “I don’t know” she says. “Sometimes a man says he will leave his other wife but then after he marries his second wife, he is still with the first”.

“Is it legal?” I ask “To have more than one wife”

“Yes. It is not illegal. Because it is believed that a man can have as many wives as he wants as long as he can meet their needs.” She pauses, “Even I myself am wishing I could be a man. I think that men enjoy life more than us. Because here in our culture a man can go out in the evening but a woman cannot. Here a woman cannot work outside the home. Our work is to bear children.”

I think about Shaibu and Jureka. In Lungwena, theirs is a progressive, wealthy family. Even though it is Jureka’s job to care for the house and raise their daughter Ambumulire, Jureka attends school and has a small income outside of her husband.

I think about it some more. Shaibu, I know, has three children by several other women. They don’t live here. In fact, even after living in Lungwena for four months, I haven’t met any of them. Shaibu is technically still married to one of his previous wives, although I learned this information speaking to my translator (and Shaibu’s friend), Rashid, rather than from Shaibu himself. Jureka doesn’t seem to know. At mealtimes, Shaibu and I eat first, Jureka ladles food onto Shaibu’s plate and hands it to him, waiting until we have eaten our fill before she helps herself. Of the 120,000 kwacha salary I give Shaibu every month (an exorbitant sum in a district many fisherman live off 5000 kwacha every week), Shaibu gives Jureka 20,000. And that is to buy the groceries, pay the electricity bill, and generally keep the house running.

Jureka is certainly my closest friend in Lungwena—confidant and giggling sister. But if we take a trip into town, I suddenly feel as though our roles revert. I pay for Jureka’s transport, she asks me for lunch money, and as we buy groceries, she sneaks in little items she wants for herself, knowing I will buy them. It bothers me. I think of being ten years old and begging my dad for ice cream. Of course, this is Lungwena. Women are seen as second-class as they will spend their entire lives dependent upon their husbands. This drives the marriage of young girls whose mothers will encourage them to have sex soon after their monthly menses begin, and then move into the home of the chosen partner, so that the girl will become a financial burden on the husband, rather than on the parents.

Of course, this isn’t every household and maybe this is old news anyway. Maybe I’m freshly surprised at something that shouldn’t bother me.

Sitting here on the porch next to little 8month old Mbumu. She has just learned to pound, and is energetically engaging in her discovery with a little plastic clown, emitting a clang every time it hits the cement. “Ga” she says, looking up at me with those bright, sparkling eyes. She sees my shoe and reaches towards it, tongue sticking out in preparation for the coming bite, her whole body straining to fit her little mouth around the wide front. Jureka laughs, “Ah, she is like a boy!” I don’t ask what she means. I am thinking of Mbumu’s future. We like to think of children as limitless, wholly unformed beings who have the potential to be anything, to do anything, to seek out their growing personalities and in them discover meaning and passion, to grasp and pull and bite and dig into this world that they have been given a little piece of. Mbumu is lucky. If Jureka stays married to Shaibu, she will have an education. She will have clothes and shoes and enough food to make her fat and healthy. She will have clean water and can get treated if she is sick. She has a mother who loves her and was born with all her little limbs and parts and vision and sound…she is alive and she is happy. But with all that, sitting here looking at her now, I can’t help but wonder about her life.

Claire Donnelly (Yale University)
31_Very Exciting Lizard!A native of Berkeley, CA, Claire has always had many interests and passions–people being one of them. She grew up juggling and unicycling, riding horses, waterskiing, and roaming the hills and beaches of the Bay Area. One auspicious summer, Claire discovered molecular biology and has never looked back. She received her degree in the subject from Yale in 2014, and is now spending a year researching malaria in pregnancy in a tiny village in northern Malawi. Claire is new to Humanism, but hopes to use her love of people and stories to expand her thinking, especially through her work with this blog.

6 responses to “On Love and Polygamy: Lessons from Malawi

  1. What a brave man you are arabpikachu4wp, to comment thus on other’s posta but not daring to publish critical comments on your own.


    • Great article, extremely evocative. Also the topic is incredibly important to think about, I’m glad to see it presented so skilfully. I’d be interested in seeing how you think this kind of problem should be dealt with!


  2. Pingback: Families, Kinship & Marriage | Welcome To Malawi!·

  3. Pingback: Families, Kinship & Marriage – Welcome To Malawi!·

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