Professor and students study
polygyny in Africa
By Mary Elizabeth Fratini
Photos by Lacey A. Smith
Polygyny expert and Lyndon State
College Professor Janet Bennion took a group of six LSC students to study the
Watha tribe of Watamu, East Kenya, in June. Polygyny is the marriage of one
man to multiple wives. “The goal was to bring students into the field for
humanitarian aid, and also to learn and practice anthropological techniques of
observation and interview,” Bennion said.
On their last day in the village
the Vermont group was blessed by village elders, thus joined to the family.
From left: Bini Didi, Hilary Denton, Keresey Proctor, Professor Janet Bennion,
Fallon Bean, Lacey Smith, Casey Smith, and Margaret, Bini's daughter-in-law.
The group stayed in an extended
family village of 150; their host household included over 50 people. Bennion
has visited the same family every summer for the last three years, always
bringing students with her. “I have watched this family grow more
conservative over that time as they converted to the Baptist faith,” Bennion
said. “But they do hold onto some of their traditional beliefs and rituals,
and welcomed us as part of their family with a blessing from one of the elders.”
Bennion is studying the Watha to
see how a culture transitions from traditional beliefs and practices to
Christianity, monogamy and agriculture. “The Watha were hunters and
gatherers, but they are being arrested for hunting on what was their land, now
part of a national preserve,” Bennion explained. Over the last 15 years, the
community has shifted from hunting to growing crops that include corn, mangoes,
cassava and pineapples.
The Watha welcomed Bennion’s
expedition. “They have very little income, and our visits, which brought
maybe $20 per person per day, make it possible to send some of the children to
school for the year,” Bennion said. Many anthropologists support this kind
of eco-tourism because it gives tourists an opportunity to experience
“living in the bush,” and brings much-needed income to the villages.
LSC graduate Lacey Smith said that
a typical day began with a crowing rooster, and ended at dusk. “There was no
electricity, so any reading or writing was done under flashlights,” Smith
said. “Or we hung out and everyone told stories; they are big storytellers.”
The group delivered donations from
Vermonters to the community’s school and clinic. One medical officer with a
year of training in Nairobi staffed the clinic. Smith described it as one
small room with a wooden desk and a single cupboard. “There was a bottle of
rubbing alcohol with maybe one cup left; about the same amount of peroxide;
and that was it,” she said. St. Johnsbury Medical Center donated a large
quantity of medical supplies including antibiotics, first aid materials, and
condoms. Bennion mentioned an increase in hypertension and heart disease among
the Watha, and noted increased requests for treatments for those diseases.
Bennion also brought oral
contraceptives, enough to last four women twelve months. “I wasn’t sure
how they would react, but the response was overwhelmingly positive,” she
said. According to Bennion, the community was also open to the idea of condoms,
although men often refuse to use them.
Women’s sexuality, and sexual
relations in general, have been deeply affected by both the Watha’s
conversion to Christianity and their current economic situation. The
traditional marrying age was fourteen; men married additional wives as they
accumulated enough wealth to provide for them. Now, women don’t typically
marry until 17 or 18 because the men cannot afford bride prices, and the
younger generations view multiple wives as immoral. The elder of Watamu has
two wives, but when his married sons attempted to take second wives, their
first wives refused. If it were not for their religious conversion, Bennion
believes, the Watha would continue to practice polygyny.
Bennion found a generational break
in opinions about the move towards monogamy. “The remaining sister-wives
think women have it harder now. They felt that they were freer and had a
larger network for support. But the younger women say it is better now; people
prefer what they already know.”
The Wathas’ conversion also
coincides with the end of their practice of infibulation. A form of genital
cutting, infibulation occurred after a girl’s menarche. First, there was a
blessing and a ceremony to mark the girl’s passage, then her paternal
grandmother would stitch up her vaginal opening to prevent penetration while
allowing drainage, also teaching the girl about her sexuality and clitoral
stimulation. On the girl’s wedding night, the paternal grandmother would
remove the stitches and instruct the newlyweds on making love.
“The older women said they
preferred the old practices, because they could sleep with anyone they wanted,
and their fathers didn’t care because they couldn’t get pregnant,”
Bennion said. And since women married at a younger age, the period between the
stitching and removal was only a few years. “Of all the genital cutting
practices, I think this is probably the most humane,” Bennion said. “I
never thought I would say that, but it is true.”
Bennion is unsure if the end of
the polygynous culture is ultimately positive or negative for Watha women.
“Has this improved their lives or taken something away?” she asked. Some
cite the reduction of promiscuity among the men as one benefit. “The men say
that before Christianity, when they wanted to sleep with a woman, they brought
her home and pushed the wife out of bed onto the floor so that they could use
the mattress,” she said.
However, Bennion also observed
that the women have lost sexual freedom and mobility because they cannot walk
anywhere without a chaperone. A woman cannot refuse sex because it is seen as
one of their duties to provide men with pleasure, Bennion said. So although
rape is devastating, in the larger community, when women are molested, people
are concerned not with the perpetrator but with the potential loss of
virginity and therefore the bride price. “Their virginity is protected to
the point of their being cloistered within the village for their entire lives
Lack of mobility is a serious problem, because the women have no way to tap
into the economic market of the area, even just by going to the next town.”
The Watha are the third polygynous
culture that Bennion has studied. Previously she has lived with the Allreds, a
Mormon fundamentalist community in Montana, reporting that experience in Women
of Principle (Oxford Press, 1998). Desert Patriarchy (University of Arizona
Press, 2004), is her study of three polygynous Anglo communities in Chihuahua,
“People ask me how I can be a
feminist and pursue these studies,” Bennion said. “My answer: I’m
interested in powerful women wherever they exist and there are some very
powerful women in these communities.” However, she points out that the
potential for abuse also exists within any fundamentalist group.
She sees a great deal of overlap
between the three cultures’ experiences of polygyny, particularly in the
economic networking among the wives. “In Mexico, the women are trapped,
geographically and physically; they can’t leave,” Bennion said. “They
manage their families’ survival while the men travel.” Likewise, the
Allred women in Montana work together, raising large families on as little as
$75 a month, and developing economic, spiritual and even sexual relationships.
Among the Watha, a similar solidarity is now collapsing with the move towards
monogamy; meanwhile, the economy forces the breakup of the extended family as
more young people leave to find work.
The Kenya trip was partially
funded by the Vermont EPSCoR Fund, which is sponsored by the National Science
Foundation. Bennion is applying for a larger grant for next summer and the
expedition is open to all students in the Vermont State College system.
Bennion’s group will host an
African Symposium in the Burke Mountain Room at LSC on September 16th at 4:30
pm. The event will include traditional song and dress, and student
presentations on childrearing and psychology; sexuality, myth, magic, and
religion; and ethnographic documentaries.
Mary Fratini is a freelance writer
living in Montpelier. A re-transplanted native Vermonter, she has one husband
too many and no sister-wives to speak of.
with Watha baby
Hilary Denton with Watha child