Polygamy is practiced in both Mali and Guinea but there are many differences in the way it is practiced in each country and the effect it has on family life. According to the Quran men can have up to 4 wives* but only men who are very well off will marry this many women. It is important to note that every family is different and will have their own dynamic. This comparison is based on my observations in Middle Guinea.
1. To start, there are significant differences in the time the husband marries the first wife and second wife. In Mali, it seemed like wives were generally close in age to one another. It wasn’t so obvious who the first wife was. In Guinea, it’s an entirely different story. Wives are not usually close in age and they are generally married many years apart. After the first wife has had all her children, the husband will marry the second wife and start having children with her. So only one wife is having babies at a time versus co-wives alternating pregnancies.
2. There are also differences in the housing for the wives. In Mali, wives had separate rooms but they basically lived with each other and shared household responsibilities. Husbands would spend 1-2 nights with one wife and then visit the other one. This, like everything, has its pros and cons. Sometimes wives would fight or be jealous of one another. Here in Middle Guinea, each wife has her own house. While this may seem better it also means that a husband generally has to travel farther and will be away from some of his children when he is visiting the other wife/wives. From what I’ve seen here in Guinea, the husband doesn’t always follow this rule to a T but he is supposed to be visiting all his wives and spending equal time with each.
3. The last difference I want to mention is the result of the first two differences. When kids don’t grow up in the same household or at the same time they will inevitably be less close to each other. There are even words in Pular to distinguish between your half and full siblings. Neenegooto= same mother/full sibling. Babbagooto= same dad/half-sibling. These words may exist in Bambara but I never learned them in the time I was there and the dynamic between half-siblings was different.
During my first 3 months in Mali I lived with a host family outside of Bamako. The family consisted of the father, who was in his early 70’s, his 2 wives, 2 unmarried sons, 1 divorced daughter, and the young families of 2 married sons**. I remember asking my adult host brother in Mali how many brothers and sisters he had. He listed all half and full siblings without distinguishing which was which. I had to probe further to get him to reveal whose mom was whose. Even to this day I’m unsure who his biological mother was because it wasn’t obvious. Now this is only one family so this may not be the case everywhere but I remember thinking how amazing it was that the co-wives had co-mothered and that even as adults the children felt they had 2 mothers.
I’ve seen a mix of things in Guinea.
One of the families I see regularly consists of 2 wives. While the second wife lives in a nearby village, I always see her kids at the first wife’s house. I actually didn’t meet the second wife until 3 months after I’d been at site because she had been in Conakry. During that time, her kids (ages 8,6,5) were being fed and taken care of by the first wife and their older half-siblings so in this case the two families are still very united.
However, when men marry 3-4 wives, I think it is much harder to stay close. In my small village, there is a man with 3 wives. Even though I knew two of his sons it took me a while to figure out that the two of them were half-siblings because I never saw them or their mothers hang out much. Another friend whose mom is a fourth wife said that she really disagrees with the practice of polygamy. Her dad is much older than her mom and can no longer walk so her mom has had to find work to support the family. She said she has a lot of older half-siblings that are either abroad or doing relatively well but they don’t think to send money very often to help out their “co-family”. They preferred to send any money to their biological mothers.
Personal and Local Perspectives
I’ve sortof accepted polygamy as a practice here and when I find a man with more than 1 wife I don’t automatically think he is a misogynist. I understand that it is a part of the culture and it’s a status symbol. Even for me, when I hear a man has 4 wives I assume he has done well for himself financially. The part that doesn’t sit right with me is 50-60 year old men getting married for the 4th time and having kids. Those children are basically going to have a grandpa for a dad which just doesn’t seem fair. Also younger wives sometimes end up having to work and support the family by themselves if their older husbands become sick or pass away. The result is a lot of families that end up being “single-mom households”.
One of my big motivations to work on my Pular is to ask the women in my village (only a few women speak French) how they feel about polygamy. The only literature out there that I know of is “So Long a Letter” by Mariama Ba, a Senegalese woman and not all women have her experience (Her husband doesn’t tell her he’s getting a second wife and then shows up with a girl his daughter’s age). I don’t want to assume that all women feel that way. In Mali I remember meeting a woman whose husband was looking for a 4th wife. She didn’t seem to mind; she said that this way she could travel if she wanted. Also, if you get along well with your co-wife then, like the family I mentioned earlier, you can leave your kids with them if needed while you are away.
As for the feelings of the children in these marriages, here is another story:
Another family I visit regularly consists of only one wife. The husband has told me he has considered getting a second wife, not so much because he wants one but because his mother thinks it is a good idea. His mother didn’t have a co-wife and she lost her husband and now wishes she had a companion. I wanted to keep an open mind about polygamous families; maybe I would feel weird about my dad having another wife and kids but maybe Guineans see it as another mother and more brothers and sisters. So I asked this man’s oldest son (age 23) how he would feel if his dad took a second wife. He was not a fan of the idea. He said “My dad has no reason to look for a second wife because my mom has a job and takes care of the house.” He also said that he wouldn’t be friendly with the new wife or the new kids. Again, I cannot stress enough that people’s feelings towards polygamy will vary from family to family and person to person. It may depend a lot on how old children are when their father marries a second wife.
I’ve caught myself believing that it is inevitable for men to stay with and/or be faithful to only one woman. The way polygamy is practiced here resembles men divorcing their wives and remarrying so sometimes I start thinking here it’s polygamy, in the States it’s divorce and second families. Can’t say one is necessarily better than the other.
For more Mali vs. Guinea comparisons here is a very good post comparing other aspects of life from a fellow volunteer: https://malimarker1517.wordpress.com/2016/06/07/mali-vs-guinea/
*I asked an American Muslim friend about this and she said this was put in place in a time of war when there were a lot of widows as a way to ensure these women were taken care of.
**I don’t know how often this is still practiced but I’ve heard that traditionally in West Africa a wife moves into her husband’s family’s home. All the married sisters had moved out but the married sons were still living there while their children were still small so they could grow up closer to their grandparents and cousins.