In modern Cameroon polygamy doesn’t pay

When life is more complex than just fields to tend, a passel of wives is more a financial strain than a status symbol.

Alexis Grant
More is not merrier: The four Ndi Wamba widows (top) with a friend, Lucienne (second from right), who is the first of 20 wives of their village chief. Without their husband, the widows can’t support their large family.

Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

Benoit Ndi Wamba didn’t know exactly how many children were in his family. Like most Cameroonians born into large polygamous families, he never had a reason to count.

But with money tight after the death of his father, the 23-year-old was partly responsible for finding money to pay this year’s public school fees for his siblings. So he ticked off their names, one by one. There was lanky Jean, 21. Sylvain, 18, a top student. Janvier, an 11-year-old who wears, in this French-speaking province, a T-shirt that reads “Fabulous.” And Mr. Ndi Wamba himself was entering his first year of university.

Those were just his mother’s children. Then there were his other brothers and sisters, born to his late father’s other three wives. A handful of grandchildren and cousins also lived with the family, complicating the count. All referred to one another as brother and sister, explaining only after much prodding who, as Cameroonians say, has the “same mother, same father.”

Yet one thing was clear: With more than a dozen children who hoped to attend school this year, the Ndi Wamba family faced a pile of fees.

It was a problem Ndi Wamba swore his own children would never face; he would marry just one woman, he said, and have significantly fewer children than his father.

“If it was just my three brothers and me, we would not be having this problem,” Ndi Wamba said sternly, a folder of university enrollment forms tucked under his arm.
An increasing number of men in this central African nation are coming to the same conclusion, rejecting the polygamous lifestyles of their fathers and opting for monogamy instead. With the rising costs of school, healthcare, and food, it’s simply too expensive to have a large family, they say.

• • •

I met the Ndi Wamba family six years ago, when I was a college student studying polygamy. They were supposed to serve as a case study, but instead became my second family during the three weeks I lived with them in the village of Fongo-Ndeng, in western Cameroon.

When I returned this September for a visit, their lives had much changed. Nearly a year after the death of their 78-year-old husband, the four wives still donned all black, mourning not only his spirit but also the loss of his government pension. With the help of friends and family back home, I paid tuition for the women’s children and others who live on the compound, 18 in all.

Again I chatted with the women as they cooked over open fires on the ground in their kitches, alternating among the four dirt-floor houses that, along with their husband’s empty house, created a semicircle around an often-muddy yard. When he was alive, the husband, too, split his time among his wives, spending one night with one woman, the next with another.

Traditionally, polygamy has been a symbol of wealth and status, particularly in rural areas. Village chiefs until recently married as many as 25 women, while other men typically wed between two and eight wives.

The lifestyle has its advantages, mainly the production of a labor force to cultivate fields of corn, beans, and root crops like manioc. But modernity has taken its toll, even on families like the Ndi Wambas who have shunned other changes such as electricity and running water. Crops can feed many mouths, but only hard currency pays school fees, which start in secondary school around the equivalent of $45 annually and mount for higher grades.

“Before, maybe polygamy was good,” explains Charlotte Nguimfack, who has four children with her monogamous husband. “Life wasn’t difficult like it is now.”

While those economic difficulties are driving polygamy’s decline, other factors also are at play, including the spread of Christianity, which prohibits polygamy. And as more women become college-educated, some have begun to demand monogamy.

In the early 1990s, a quarter of married men in Cameroon had more than one wife, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics. By 2004, just 11 percent were polygamous.

Likewise, the percentage of women who had at least one co-wife dropped to 30 percent in 2004 compared with 39 percent in 1991, institute data show.

Similar decreases are occurring in other countries across central and western Africa, says Savage Njikam, who oversees the University of Douala’s anthropology department.
“The more educated people are, the less likely they are to have the same household as their grandfather,” says Mrs. Njikam, a social anthropologist. “But you still will find educated women who will accept being second wives.”

Monogamous men and women cite another reason to avoid polygamy, one their polygamous counterparts are reluctant to discuss. Some multiwife households suffer from jealousy and conflict.

Sallahou Aboubakar, who grew up in Cameroon’s Muslim north in a two-wife home, says his mother’s disputes with her co-wife influenced him to choose monogamy.

“The wives don’t stay peaceful,” says Mr.. Aboubakar, who lives with his wife and their newborn baby in Yaounde, the capital. “It always causes problems.”

His wife’s aunt, Adamou Patou, overhearing the conversation speaks up to illustrate the point, telling a tale that has her family, all sitting on mats on the floor, roaring with laughter.

When her husband was alive, she says, she and her co-wife fought endlessly, mostly over where the husband would sleep. One morning, after the husband had spent too many nights with Patou, her co-wife entered the bedroom to find the husband freshly showered and back in bed. She threw a bucket of charcoal dust into the room, covering the bed and her husband in gray powder.

Despite such stories, some young Cameroonians continue to keep polygamy alive. Bertrand Folepe, who married his girlfriend when she became pregnant six years ago, took a second wife two years later at the urging of his parents. His father, who had eight wives, wanted him to marry a woman from his village.

Mr. Folepe didn’t protest; he is proud to carry on the tradition. On display in his family’s sitting room, which he shares with both wives, are portraits of each couple, side by side.
“If in the future I have a lot of money, I’ll take more [wives],” says Folepe, who makes a living selling small livestock.

Folepe, who lives with his wives and seven children in the small city of Dschang, has urbanized the polygamous lifestyle. Instead of dwelling in separate, adjacent homes like his family in the village where he grew up, his entire family shares one house. Each wife has her own bedroom, but the two share an outdoor kitchen, swapping cooking duties each week.

Other city-dwelling men have modernized polygamy differently, by creating separate households of independent families that share a father.

Even as traditional polygamy declines, it’s still common for men and women to have multiple partners, by either going outside their marriage or divorcing one spouse before marrying another.

Martha Ngum, head of the sociology and anthropology department at the University of Buea in southwest Cameroon, calls the latter trend “serial monogamy.” Women are driving the shift, she says, because they now attend university, work outside the home and are financially independent more than ever before.

But outside Cameroon’s cities, it’s still a man’s decision whether to take more than one wife and a woman’s responsibility to accept his choice.

Decades after accepting their husband’s decision to engage in polygamy, the Ndi Wamba wives now face another duty: providing for their many children without his financial support.

On the few days when the women aren’t cultivating the fields, they earn petty cash selling snacks at local markets. The wives hope their eldest sons, like Benoit, contribute small income. They also look to relatives for help; several of the children already have left the village compound to live with an uncle or grandmother.

For this family, the years ahead will not be easy. But as the Ndi Wamba women often say, “We must endure.”

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