One man, three, four wives, and a strong home, a marriage that lasted till the end of their lives. How did our grandmothers, and great-grandmothers do it? How did they cope with the sleep roasters, sharing their men’s affection, attention and bodies? Didn’t they ever get jealous, feel betrayed when the men they love bring in new women? Wait, did they ever love their men? Their husbands? Maybe love never existed in their vocabulary? If love wasn’t part of the marriage deal in those days long gone, what held their homes and marriages together? What made it bearable when they saw their husbands come out of the bedroom of another woman?
The marriage institution then was sacred. These days, it’s like a show with a few episodes. You hear loud screams and squeals when the guy goes down on one knee and proposes. The girl prances and announces it like Jesus Christ had just been born, again, showing off the ring like it’s a million US dollar note. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful thing to be proposed to with frills and thrills but it is still a show, my personal opinion. The noise and announcement are unnecessary, if you ask me, and I hereby propose a private, solemn wedding proposal for the next couple. Who knows, maybe it’s all that loudness that jinxes many proposals and cuts short the joy that is expected to accompany the journey. Or is that today’s women look for the wrong things in the right places or they take the right shopping list to the wrong markets and shopping malls?
One minute, it’s the sound of music and champagne popping and the next a long louder hiss of discontentment and list of reasons of irreconcilable differences. So, why did the marriages of many wives last forever in the days of yore and our monogamous ones only last a few moons? Don’t tell me you have never wondered why marriages of the last 50 years or so fail so quickly? I know it bothers you too. It’s like today’s couples only look forward to the ceremonies, the number of times they change from one outfit to another, the photo shoots (what does that one even mean?) and the entrance dance that is neither solemn nor elegant. Millions of naira and plenty of wasted plates of food later, the couple starts eyeing the exit.
Yet, our grandmothers did it. They managed to love and share their husbands. They covered the nakedness of their husbands, raised their six or 10 children and stayed in their homes till their dying breath. Did they not pass on the genes of polygamy to us, their daughters? Why do their sons want more than one woman and we girls have no coping skills for multi-women relationships? The boys inherited all that philandering and women-acquiring genes, without the skills, yes, but we girls just have no bed-sharing bones in our bodies. Maybe there’s nothing ‘genetic’ about polygamy. Maybe it’s just an acquired taste. And we have refused to acquire it. Don’t laugh, it’s not an easy taste to acquire.
Take the case of Grandmother Ibidun. Her granddaughter shared her story. She married into a royal family and as a prince, her husband was entitled to many wives. The old man loved the wife of his youth and did not want another but his mother insisted with every clout she had. She pressured his son and harassed her daughter-in-law. She called Grandma Ibidun all kinds of names, accused her of witchcraft. Grandma Ibidun decided to take the bull by the horns, threatened to return to her father’s house if prince did not take another wife. Long story shortened, a new wife arrived. But prince refused to ‘lift her wrapper’ for weeks. Of course, Grandma Ibidun noticed her husband’s reluctance to perform his conjugal duties and promptly renewed her threat.
‘You cannot sleep with me if you won’t sleep with her.’ Eh eh eh, I can imagine my modern sisters clapping that cynic clap and making faces. I feel you girls, but not Grandma Ibidun. She led her husband to the new wife’s chamber and waited until she was sure her husband had commenced commissioning his new bride before retiring to her own chambers. Now, that is beyond what I can call tolerance. Is she accommodating, patient, confident, nice or what? Those women of old were made from a mold that has since been dismantled. Which one of us will lead her husband to the waiting arms of another woman? I can hear all of you muttering ‘God forbid’, ‘I jump am pass’, ‘For where’ , even as you read this.
Grandma Medina’s story is even weirder by today’s standards. She actually paid the bride price of the new wife. Here’s what happened. Her husband had proposed to a young woman but could not come through with the bride price and all those things his new in-laws demanded. One month became two and then six. The prospective in-laws became impatient and the bride-in-waiting got tired of waiting. Indeed, she started ‘listening to other suitors, richer suitors. Words filtered into the ears of Grandma Medina. Farmers with bigger farms were eyeing the woman meant for her husband. W-h-a-t! Such affront. What would people say, that she was married to a poor man who could not afford the bride price of a second wife? The whole community would start looking down on her husband, her family. She must have imagined the colourful rumours.
‘Is that not Raheem, the one who couldn’t pay the bride price of Baba Imam’s daughter?’
‘I wonder why he started what he couldn’t finish.’
‘I heard he could not even feed the wife in his house.’
‘So, I heard too. Poor Raheem. I hope a rich man won’t eventually take his wife from him.’
To save her husband’s reputation and her own pride, Grandma Medina woke her husband up one night, handed over her savings to him so he could bring home a new wife.’
Is somebody’s jaw on the floor? Go on, pick it up. Even yours sincerely who prides herself as a woman with no single jealous bone in her body won’t use her money to bring home a rival. No, thank you. Or is there anyone who knows any woman born in the last 40 years who would fund the engagement/ traditional wedding list of her husband’s bride-to-be?
Grandma Shodiya was the eldest wife of her husband’s three wives. Baba Shodiya was a good-looking man who was proudly conscious of his good looks and took full advantage of it. He was the quintessential man-about-town of his time. But he was all looks, little money. Well, you know some women since creation have always fallen for the fine-face-smooth-tongued men. So it was for the Shodiya women. The two younger wives only discovered that their husband was nowhere nearly as rich as he professed when he was courting them. The industrious eldest wife was the real financial backbone of the family, not Daddy-fine-boy. And she indulged him all the days of his life. So the other two wives would not disgrace their husband, she would buy fabrics for the three of them and give Pa Shodiya to give the three of them. When the other two wives threatened to tear papa’s agbada for not providing food for their children, Grandma Shodiya would call her husband aside, give him money and he would come out of his chambers like a big boy and shame his nagging wives with money. Mama’s money.
Today’s wives, how many of you are covering your husband’s nakedness? And for how long have you done so and how long more are you willing to go to prevent his excesses from shaming him? For our forebears, their devotion to their marriages were legendary, complete with hard-to-believe tales of sacrifice and determination. Once they got married, they simply gave it their all, even in polygamy.
While I’m not preaching polygamy, not that I have to, I think we all need to do better with this marriage institution. I don’t think those who do not believe in the long haul should bother us with the wedding invitation cards and the fanfare. Weddings do not make marriages. All the instances cited here actually happened. Those old women who lived in and with polygamy made it work. Can today’s women at least try to behave like we really are descendants of our grandmothers?