Love in Far Off Lands

Inside the Modernized Polygamous Marriages of Senegal

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Senegal has more positive energy than anywhere I’ve ever visited, even everywhere else combined. And sure, that’s a vague, new-agey thing to say but you’ll hear it from a lot of visitors. It has to do with a cultural phenomenon called taranga, a way to be open to each other. “If I am open to you, you will be open to me, and then we won’t have to worry about each other. Because then we are each other’s people,” the saying goes. Taranga gives the Senegalese their characteristic warmth. A little boy asked me for money on the street. I said as a joke, “maima xadis?”—“you give me money?” and the kid reached into his cup and pulled out two coins and offered them to me.

“The situation for women here is really messed up,” my friend Althea told me upon arrival. Senegalese men will fall all over themselves to carry something heavy for you or hold a door open. They will often leave hanging out with their friends saying something along the lines of, “I have to go, I miss my mom, I haven’t seen her since this morning.” They really seem to revere women. So based on my first impression, the severity in her tone surprised me. But Althea was right.

BoysComeBoysGoMy first interview took place en route to the grocery store. I was walking arm in arm with Angela, who I’d just met, because she was worried I was going walk into the street. My friend Althea was there too, translating for Angela and her friend. I asked, “How is dating Senegalese men?” They literally stopped in their tracks. Angela spun me around to face her, held my arm, looked me in the eyes, and stated, “They are liars. Toubobs [whiteys] are sincere. If you ask them if they’re lying and you say, ‘For real, what happened?’ Then they will explain. But Senegalese men will say ‘It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me!’”

Senegalese women constantly told me that the men are liars. I even asked a group of four guys if Senegalese men are liars and they said that the ones who don’t lie are the exceptions. Angela said that they lie “so deeply” that her husband went “underneath [her] and out and had multiple other wives in secret”. Every time she would ask him, he would deny it. “They will never ever admit anything,” she said.

Obviously not all Senegalese men lie, but still, so many people repeated this to me, I started to wonder where the belief came from. Another divorced woman, Amina,*  gave me a detailed rundown: “What we call ‘lie’ maybe is something else. They have problem to be in front of you and tell you the truth. When you’re frank… they treat you like a European or American, a Western person. You go straight to the subject and they don’t appreciate it. So maybe it’s a fact of culture.” What do they lie about? “Mostly,” Amina explained, “about relationships.” She became quite serious and said, “Most Senegalese are Muslim and Islam says you can have four wives but there are conditions. But if you follow the conditions, you will never take a second wife. So they hide the truth. Islam asks you to discuss with your first wife. She must agree. They don’t follow the rules. They are cheaters. They can be with you and years after they go and marry another wife and you are the last person to know.”

“So they set up a whole new wife in secret? Is that common?” I asked. Yes! It’s very common!” She stressed, “If you tell your wife, your actual wife, that you are going to take another one, people will think you are mad, you are crazy. You have to do that in secret!”  I asked if the second marriage is legal, and not just a mistress situation. She told me they can legally marry a second, third, or even a fourth wife without permission from their first. One caveat: when they get married, the first time they must sign a document for monogamy or polygamy. “And the wife doesn’t know?” I asked, confused. “She knows!” Amina replied, “But she cannot do anything about it. It’s sometimes they say, no I don’t do that, I will never take another one. But, you know, then they do.”

According to the 2010 USAID Senegal Gender Assessment, “Men are permitted to unilaterally divorce their wives under a Muslim tradition of ‘talaq’ and have stronger rights to children after a divorce. Women, in contrast, must take their claims for divorce to court.” Some well-off men in Dakar still have consensual polygamous marriages with wives living together or in separate houses. The 2005 Demographic and Health Survey for Senegal stated that half of Senegalese marriages were polygamous. But the trend has decreased in the last ten years especially in Dakar.

YusufI spoke to Alain Oyonoa, a saxophone player from Cameroon who lives in Dakar, Senegal’s capital. He said that in his country the gender roles are pretty balanced, but that in Senegal, women are “really underneath their husbands. Whatever he wants to do he can do.” With polygamy, he explained, “the woman has no power. She can’t leave. She has no options. In Cameroon if you did not want to be in a polygamous marriage you could absolutely leave. While there is polygamy, it might be one or two percent and that’s because women have the power to leave.”

Only one young man I met was willing to tell me he supported polygamy, and he was also the only one I spoke to not from Dakar. “It’s not good when it’s in secret but I have nothing against it if you can afford to treat them all equally. The women are culturally accustomed to it;” Yusuf told me, “even educated girls want it because it means less housework for them and more freedom time.”  I heard this from Amina too: “Out in the countryside you can find women that pray to have a co-épouse! So they can rest! Because when you get married, you join your husband in his family house and you have to cook, to do everything. And it’s far more difficult than living in Dakar.”

But Dakar also has its own more informal and modern brand of polygamy among rich men. Their women are really something between a mistress and a prostitute called an mbaran.  Angela’s brother explained, “It’s pretty common for rich men. They will actually rent a luxury apartment and just keep a woman there and go there when they want and she has to be there.” Amina stated, “Being rich is the right way to cheat. Because then they are boss: ‘I am the one who has money. I am the one who buy everything. Then my woman don’t have to say anything. She just have to shut up, to stay at home, to care about the housekeeping and children.’”

The opinion tide among the younger generation is clearly changing. While Amina informed me about secret marriages, my friend Mofia (Mo-fi-yah) disagreed: “Nobody do that in Dakar anymore – maybe in the village. Women get so mad if you say you want to have a second wife here. It’s very different in the village.” Young men in Dakar usually told me they did not want second wives.  “Our religion permits it but we don’t want it. If you see me, you’re not gonna see other people. Same goes for me, same rules… When the world modernizes the people have to modernize.”

*Amina is a female rapper that speaks English, French, Italian, and Wolof.