“Women aged 15-44 are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.” –Half the Sky
Cultural norms are one thing when observed and appreciated from afar for their anthropological novelty. From that perspective, it’s easy to say that everything is morally relative. It’s much harder, if not impossible, to accept culturally-related behavior that negatively affects you or the people you care about directly.
One cultural norm that is practiced in my village by people of all religions, sects, and ethnicities, is polygamy. How many wives you have, like how many children you have, is a status symbol. I had never been offended by it. I happen to come from a place where the concept of love and romance are confounded to the point where one can hardly decipher between the two. Where I come from, love is about individuals and personal choice, so much so that if you decide you don’t love someone anymore you can divorce them. However, in Burkina, marriage is about uniting two families, producing children, and division of labor (for the vast, vast majority). I had always accepted this aspect of Burkinabe family life and observed with curiosity how the “sinomusos” (co-wives) dealt with each other and their husbands. I was always looking for subtle clues as to whether they were all treated equally and who had the most power. I found to my surprise that many women were enthusiastic about having a co-wife since it meant a lightening of their own heavy domestic burden.
I accepted polygamy until it happened in my adopted family. I had always thought of Moussa and Alimatou as an exception to the rule (many rules, really, but polygamy as well). As far as I could tell they were madly in love- they joked around with each other and always treated each other with kindness, if not as complete equals (I still live in Burkina Faso where men are the chiefs of their households and women are subservient). They’re also wonderful parents to three beautiful girls.
One day, I went over to their house as usual for midday tea to find him sitting with a woman I’d never seen before. I figured this was a relative from out of town. After he introduced her as his fiancée, I asked if he was serious. In hindsight, it was weird of me to say but African men are always joking about their new “wives”. He told me that he wasn’t kidding and that they might be getting married next year during wedding season “insha allah” (god willing).
I was in shock. I immediately thought of Alima- was this news to her, too? We finished our tea and I said I had somewhere to be. Really, I just needed to process this. At this moment I wasn’t upset or angry, just very surprised.
Later that night Moussa went out with his fiancée, Bintou, and Alima stayed home with the kids. When he came back he slept with his fiancée in the bedroom while Alima slept in the kitchen. She cooks for them and in the morning she has to bring them both water to bathe. Apparently, this is normal during the courting process.
I tried to picture any American woman I know being okay with this kind of situation: being relegated to sleep in the kitchen after living with your husband for ten years because he wants to sleep with a new woman and then bringing them both food and water when they’re done. Needless to say, I was infuriated. I needed to find out how Alima was feeling.
When Alima and I had our usual nightly chat, she showed a little animosity towards the girl (I use the word girl because she is maybe seventeen years old) but not much. She quickly talked about other things and was even laughing. I felt like an idiot. Everything was fine. The only person who felt awkward was me. As long as my friends are happy, then I’m happy for them. Things are just different here, I thought.
The next morning, after I finished my classes, I went to visit her. I knew that Moussa had probably gone out again with Bintou. For as long as she was visiting, it seemed like this is how things would be. Alima and I chatted a bit and she started complaining about being angry at Moussa for some reason (a reason so silly I can’t even remember it now). All of a sudden I noticed that she had tears in her eyes. My heart sank. People don’t cry in this culture… ever! This is a woman who gave birth on her own on her kitchen floor and didn’t cry. I kept thinking about how much pain she must be in. Even though she now had more power as the first wife, the new wife would be his favorite, at least for a little while. I didn’t know how to comfort her. My culture was telling me to give her a hug and ask her why she was really upset, so we could talk out her feelings. But somehow I thought that this would make her feel pitied and I don’t pity her. She is an extremely strong person and once the situation settles she will take it in stride and carry on, even though its clearly against her wishes. Women do this every day all over the world for the sake of their children. I was furious with Moussa, and any man the world over for that matter, who could completely disregard his wife’s feelings in this way. There is simply no justification- religious, cultural, or otherwise.
I’m not saying that polygamy can never work. I just think that everyone should consent to it first. You can’t ignore the wishes of the mother of your children just because you want to parade around with and sleep with some new woman.
But this isn’t the end of the story, it’s the beginning. Jump forward to a few months later when Bintou is now living in the courtyard full-time acting as a wife even though they are not actually married yet. Bintou is now working with Alima to do both household work and work in the fields. Alima shared her shea nuts with Bintou so that she could sell them for money during the rainy season which I saw as a nice gesture and a sign that things have improved. It turns out you can never truly know how a woman is feeling in a culture where she is consistently told that to be a good wife and mother she must subvert her own opinions and neglect her feelings in favor of her husband’s…
It started with a few misunderstandings and miscommunications and ended in violence. She didn’t bring him lunch in the fields one day, she took the toothbrush cup to go get coffee, she served him his food without water, etc. Result: he chased her out of the courtyard and whipped her neck with a stick. She wasn’t able to turn her head for almost a week. Bintou and Moussa’s uncle had shunned her to sit and be by herself all day. I invited her to have tea with me on my porch and sleep in my courtyard if she felt more comfortable, which she did.
Like all issues in Burkina, the problem was “third-partied” (having another relative or friend step in and ask for forgiveness/mediate on your behalf). The relatively rich uncle who was in town told them both to apologize and move on, while Moussa also asked me to third-party on his behalf for Alima. I politely told him that whatever marital problems they had were between him and Alima, but that I could not and would not be his friend anymore because to do so would be to tacitly condone violence against women. What can I say? I’m still an American woman with all of the connotations and beliefs that come with that and this is one aspect of the culture that I will never, never accept.
Some will contend that, when I mention violence, I’m no longer talking about a “cultural norm”. Some will say that violence is not inherently part of the Burkinabe culture in the same way that misogyny is not part of the Islamic religion. However, I would argue that violence, widespread in the school system, in the domestic realm, and in traditional practices such as female genital mutilation is in fact part of the Burkinabe culture. When you consider that violence is the Burkinabe parenting style, a form of pedagogy for teachers, and the means with which men continue to render their wives submissive, at what point can one say that violence is part of Burkinabe culture, even if it isn’t politically correct to do so? What else is culture if not the sea we swim in, so pervasive that it affects how we approach all aspects of our day to day lives? Burkinabe families and institutions are so entrenched with violence that they’re dripping with it.
. Alima says it doesn’t matter if he asked for forgiveness, she will never truly forgive him and things will never be the same. She says that the men here are not good- as soon as they get a second wife they don’t want you anymore. She says that if it wasn’t for the kids she’d leave (In Burkina, men almost always have the right to custody of their children in the case of a divorce). She was so angry that she didn’t eat for almost two days.
Mostly, I don’t understand why an intelligent man who had always been so persuasive with his words and so loving towards his wife and children needed to resort to violence. I think it’s largely due to the social pressure to be a “good Muslim” or an “African man”. It’s the same reason why Moussa won’t fetch his own bath water, because he says the men in the village would find out and laugh at him for not being a real man. It’s the same reason why whenever I suggest to men to share domestic tasks with their wives they say “C’est l’Afrique, ce n’est pas comme ca ici.” Apparently, beating your wife makes you more of a man, too.
As long as Africans maintain this kind of abuse against women under the facade of tradition and the status quo, they will never develop economically or socially. Without uplifting their women, they have absolutely no chance of achieving the democratic institutions or material wealth that they tell me they desire on a daily basis.
One of the hardest parts of being a Peace Corps volunteer is trying to reconcile our innermost beliefs, what makes us “us”, with the beliefs present in our host country culture. This can sometimes cause a loss of identity since our beliefs are a huge part of who we are. A lot of the time, we are walking on eggshells to remain culturally sensitive. We are told that we will find the answers to problems within the culture. I think the existential crises arise when one realizes that it’s the culture itself which is creating a lot of the problems.