Culture Corner: Polygyny among the Maasai of Kenya
By Hilmelda Tenkeu
Thumbnail Photo Courtesy of theconversation.com
It is not inconceivable that the average Maasai man marries three women or even more. That is in fact what is expected of him, as long as he has the financial capacity and ability to cater to them and the offspring of that union. The Maasai are the most well-known and recognized indigenous ethnic group in East Africa.
They live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley. Their population in Kenya is expected to be about one million and counting. Despite civilization and western cultural influences, the Maasai are widely known for clinging to their traditional way of life. It’s common to see them in their traditional dress, even in the streets of the cities.
The culture of the Maasai is mainly based on their cattle. From them, they obtain everything they need: meat, milk, and blood. Another aspect of culture among the Maasai is polygyny. They account for the majority of polygynous marriages in Kenya but from the look of things, the culture might evolve and change
The Maasai culture is predominantly patriarchal, and that is why a girl’s childhood is dominated by a strict avoidance, and fear, of her father and other men. Her marriage prospects and her family’s reputation hinge on her ability to develop an acute sense of respect. She is socialized to accept her subservience to her future husband.
This is one of the reasons for which polygyny is still practiced among the Maasai. The girl is taught to respect the man and even fear him.
Back in the day, women did not have a say in the choice of their husbands but as time goes, culture evolves. Now, a woman can choose whom she wants to marry, bearing in mind that she will be joined by another woman as the marriage journey goes on.
These women have grown up in polygynous homes and, that is what they know to be the best form of marriage. It is not essentially a practice to be abhorred, so far, there have not been major complaints.
The practice is organized and respects certain norms that have been established and followed through to date. When a young Maasai man is ripe for marriage (usually around 25 years old), he marries the lady he has been wooing (if both families have no objection). This young girl is habitually around 15 years of age and knows the fellow. Before the young man marries, he makes sure he is financially secured to look after this family that he is about to start.
This aligns with the general thought in the African society that a man is responsible for his family. He is the sole provider for his family and has to make sure nobody lacks. The upbringing of the boy child in the Maasai community ensures this is followed .
Whereas the girl is always with her mother and other ladies, learning how to cook, look good, take care of herself and her future household, the boy child is with his father, the other men, or herding cattle. He has to learn to be a man, handle disputes amongst many wives and always provide for his family no matter how large it gets.
The boy child grows up taking care of cattle and other livestock. By the time he has been circumcised and is learning the ways of marriage, his father gives him his own cattle and he begins to take care of these and multiply, such that his own family never lacks.
This is one of the reasons for which polygyny is considered good by many cultures in Africa and the world at large. Yaayai, the first wife of a Maasai polygynous marriage has been interviewed by a popular and certified youtuber on the topic of polygyny.
To the question why do the Maasai practice polygyny, she says “the Maasai have many wives because it is good… many wives bear many daughters from whose bride prices the family gets cows and this adds the family wealth.”. “I liked it a lot when the second wife came in, I was very happy. Even when the third was brought in… we live happily together… no we are not jealous of each other, we live together, cook together, take care of the children together”, she adds.
Whereas Yaayai welcomed her co-wives, Josephine another first wife to a Maasai man says she looked for her two co-wives. After about ten years with her husband, she found him a second wife “to help her take over “, she says. Then, a third who was strong enough “to take care of their husband, since the two of us are already tired with children”., she adds. Here, the first wife found the others and we understand that she wanted help in the chores, taking care of the children, and satisfying her husband. Her husband has to be satisfied: no matter what that entails.
Yaayai explains this further when she says “I like my husband to have other wives so that we can be together. For example, in the afternoon like now, sitting outside together with my co-wives. We talk, we spend time together, even without our husband… whatever you were raised with, that’s what becomes your truth. That is why we don’t want our husbands, only to have one wife.”
Talking about the next generation and polygyny among the Maasai is quite sad for Yaayai. “Young people don’t want to follow this tradition anymore; I can see that they will stop doing it because it shows that they don’t want to be in polygynous marriages anymore.
The world is changing… people have come to know many things and many Maasais want to dilute our culture”, she laments. There is no single definition of a happy marriage. Yaayai, Josephine together with their co-wives say they are happy in their marriages and prefer polygyny to Monogamy.
Another person from a different culture will never understand why she would share her husband with another woman. In other cultures, two men can marry and two women too.
It is the diversity of cultures that makes the world a beautiful place to live in and like Yaayai says, “whatever you were raised with, that is what becomes your truth”. Let our different truths, not disqualify another’s.