Over the last few weeks shebeens, sidewalk cafes and the inside of many a minibus have been earnestly discussing the latest addition to the president household.
Some witty person tells me our president is a unique example of being a husband, a fiancé, a divorcee, a widower and a father out of wedlock – all at the same time!
Other people tell me that it is disrespectful to mock his personal life, which is private, and that he is perfectly entitled to practise the time-honoured code of polygamy.
Like all complex issues, both sides are partly valid – and sorting these perspectives out has already been extensively covered by commentators in the media. But few perspectives to date have been informed by a personal experience, of which I find myself with several.
I know first-hand the legacy of polygamy. Until my generation, polygamy was an uncommon but accepted way of life in my extended family, not unlike many other Muslim and African families. Growing up, we somehow understood the notion of multiple mothers, and were comfortable with it. And so, while unusual, it wasn’t frowned upon when one of the patriarchs of my family chose to take a second wife.
But even though the first wife of the household gave her consent to the marriage and accepted it, it was a source of private shame for her, as with probably most first wives. She would go through her later life with much dignity, surrounded by her loving children and grandchildren – and of course her husband.
But like many Muslim and African women (and I daresay other women from cultures where polygamy is practised), a chapter of her life was given over to the humiliation of having her husband choose to publicly tell the world that he intended to share his most intimate experiences with someone else. I can only imagine how she felt on weekends when her husband would leave home, beginning after Saturday breakfast, to spend time with his other wife.
Of course, it is a cultural practice, and of course it has divine sanction in many religions. And of course it is hypocritical to castigate the practice of polygamy while condoning men in other societies practising extra-marital affairs.
But, for me, the sadness of polygamy is due to the personal experiences I have felt in my family, the scars of which still exist and which I suspect exist in many families throughout South Africa, despite first wives publicly proclaiming that they are fine with it.
The matriarch of my family wasn’t the only member of my family to endure this. Several of her contemporaries did as well. None chose to protest too vociferously (though in reality they had little choice, as it is with most first wives in many societies) and over time they gradually came to terms with the sharing of their husbands.
And what was the cost? When I was a child, all the elderly women in my extended family acted and looked the part of wizened old things, presiding over their little areas of the large estate, cajoling us kids to eat this or not to go there in mock-stern voices.
I loved them all. Their dress was the same: beautiful salwar kameezes with pale embroidered dhupattas to cover their heads whenever they left their rooms. It would slip off their neatly oiled tresses only to be retrieved in time to save their exposed heads. This would be an ongoing activity throughout the day, as if they had to make a constant statement of their modesty.
Their gait was invariably awkward, like a heavily laden cargo ship that needed a tug to launch it out into the open seas. They would all walk with slight discomfort, the legacy of a rich diet, luxurious transportation and a life of little exercise – yet they still carried it off with much dignity.
When I think of them now, I realise that their walking discomfort is a useful metaphor for their personal struggles. Their experience was not dissimilar to that of a limp. Over time, anyone who’s been injured or suffered orthopaedic damage gets used to the limp with which they’ve been burdened, and it becomes a part of their life.
In much the same way, these women became accustomed to living with the new marital arrangements, but it was never accompanied by any sense of satisfaction. They literally limped through life.
And what of the sufferings of the second wives? Surely they, too, go through private moments of inner shame and doubt? The weekends must be wonderful, and the contracted periods together possibly mean that the humdrum of marital life is reduced.
Yet when the patriarch in my family died, and his second wife wanted to mourn, she was coolly received in our house for the funeral. Despite her own grief she finally admitted to a daughter of the house, quite touchingly, “I probably deserve to be treated like this because of what I did.” I don’t feel much anger towards her now, mostly pity.
The saddest part of the whole Zuma debate is that it has really been half a debate. We don’t seem to have heard yet from the most important voices – those of the women in our society. Where is the Women’s League in all of this? Where are the African female leaders from other strands of society? Or, like me, the voices of those who’ve experienced polygamy first-hand?
These are the strands which I believe will add the most poignancy to the debate. I beg you, African mothers, lend your voice to us and let us learn from your experiences. DM