A Case Against Legalizing Polygamy

By Saye R. Gbetu

The Perspective

September 13, 2001

Like organisms, societies have a life cycle. From birth, they grow, mature, and die. The pace of growth and their longevity depend on whether they have the capacity to renew themselves. Societies capable of self-renewal are called learning societies. Such societies are characterized by a free and healthy atmosphere for non-violent dissension and divergent viewpoints on local and national issues, tolerance for more than one "Rooster" in town, that is, a recognition of gradation yet equally important leaders in different spheres of society. For instance, student leaders, religious leaders, trade union leaders, business leaders, leaders of various interest groups, etc. are legitimate cultural leaders in their own right. Our national leaders have a responsibility to treat them with the utmost respect and honor.

A nation that encourages other leaders as mentioned to flourish does not have every Johnny or Mary wanting to become president. Neither does it use its energy and meager resources to thwart their efforts, be they legal or illegal. Why should Johnny engage in ritualistic killings to become president of Liberia if he can become president of a local development association where his skills and leadership talents not only could be utilized to the benefit of his community, but also where he could be equally influential and recognized? You, tell me why would Mary want to take up arms to overthrow the government of Liberia if there were a variety of ways her talents could be utilized with benefit to her and the community?

Societal growth could be measured in terms of its intellectual, material, and moral development. Furthermore, growth in such indicators can occur on a continuum, which stretches from primitiveness to modernity. Generally, a people move from a primitive society toward a modern society, though events over the last twenty years in our country defy this kind of thinking.

Reference to African cultural values in an August 14, 2001 Inquirer Newspaper article, "At 51st Session: Legislature Faces Tough Challenge," apparently in an attempt to justify or garner support for legalizing polygamy in Liberia portrays culture as though it is a static phenomenon. Culture, as a matter of fact, is always in a state of flux. It is not cast in concrete! As a society grows intellectually, materially, and morally, its culture is constantly being created, recreated, and sifted. Thus, in proportion to their intellectual, material, and moral development, a people continually evaluate their culture. They not only weed out the bad and keep the good, but also pass on the good to the next generation.

Consider two examples, which expose the shallowness of those who never invoke African values in dealing with their own poverty-stricken countrymen and women, but claim to be captives of African values when it comes to flirting with baneful ideas. In the olden days when clothes were scarce, some indigenous Liberians used to wear what a certain tribal group in Liberia calls "Kpeneka." Kpeneka literally means to "wrap around." In the west as well as in Japan, it appears to be a novelty. In the United States, for example, where models and strip dancers wear "Kpeneka," it is called "G-Strings." In Japan, where Sumo Wrestlers also wear "Kpeneka," it is called "Mawashi." Nowadays, I do not believe that anybody wears "Kpeneka" in Liberia anymore. Its use has been discontinued not because clothes are now abundant, but because it exposes the buttocks and draws attention to the private parts. Indeed, wearing kpeneka was an African custom. If those who advance legalizing polygamy want us to accept their argument, would they want the Liberian people to return to the use of Kpeneka since the state of our economy, along with the poverty it has bred, provides a good reason for doing so?

I am inclined to believe that had those who parade with banners for legalizing polygamy been a part of the next example, they would have clung obstinately to that African custom come what may. According to legend, the warriors I prefer to call "Golowhy" warriors once saved the people I call "Yelekpunah" people from genocide at the hands of an invading tribe. As a result, the Golowhy and Yelekpunah people of a certain county in Liberia, in a mutual pact, swore never to see each other's blood. Unfortunately, it is said that Golowhy men perverted the cultural observance of the pact as it passed down from one generation to another. Whenever they traveled to Yelekpunah, they would not report to the town chief to request lodging as it was (and still is) customarily done in that part of rural Liberia. Instead, they took their belongings to any homes and declared that they came from Golowhy. Once they made that declaration, the Yelekpunah men would leave politely and their wives would stay to take care of the strangers' needs during their stay. But, as more and more Yelekpunah and Golowhy people became educated, this particular aspect of the culture faded away because they considered it gross and immoral. This practice, too, was an African custom! Again, would the purveyors of legalizing polygamy suggest that this African custom be practiced in Lofa County? Should the "soldiers" fighting to "liberate" Lofa County from dissidents have a carte blanche to go to Lofa after the war and have Lofa men accord them the same courtesies as the Yelekpunah people accorded the Golowhy men?

Next, let us briefly examine the long and arduous road our mothers, sisters, nieces, aunts, etc. have traveled in order to appreciate the new and legally sanctioned hurdle the very leaders they voted for in 1997 are conniving to erect in their path to respect, dignity, and human progress. In our progress toward modernity, there was a time money, as we know it today, did not exist for use in commercial transactions. As a result, a man's wealth was not determined in dollar terms, but in terms of the number of wives, children, livestock, etc. he possessed. Wives, then, were not only looked upon as sex objects and baby manufacturing machines, but also as the primary source of farm labor. Men were not only interested in women's bodies, but also interested in whether their mammary organs were erect or flabby. As a result, when women became spent from bearing children, hard farm labor, and their sexual values depreciated, their husbands married younger girls. No wonder why Soul Singer James Brown sings, "It's a man's world." But I have always interpreted that song as a wake up call for women. Thus, we may say that the use of women as sex objects, workhorses, and abandoning them when they begin to age is an African custom. I, too, am an African. More importantly, I relish African values. However, I consider legalizing polygamy an asinine and farcical display of African values. If, for Liberian men, the legalization of polygamy is an attempt to fulfill the promise of "milk" and "honey" during the 1989 "Revolution" or "DeathVolution," what about Liberian women? What about their "milk" and "honey"?

The low status of women in Liberia was a less-talked-about reality before 1989. As acquired properties, sex objects, baby machines, and workhorses subject to disposal in times of depreciation, they were always at the mercy of men. As if that level of degradation was not enough injury, the "DeathVolution" added insult by forcing the people to choose between disgrace and death. The situation soiled the dignity and reputation of Liberian women when some were forced into the oldest profession to survive, let alone those whose sanctities were violated for sport. Thus, part of the euphoria and what appeared to be an irrational thinking that characterized the 1997 elections was the hope that a strong women-and children-friendly national leadership would emerge to formulate the kind of public policies that would help reclaim not only the dignity and reputation of Liberian women, but also our children from a culture of violence. Sadly, instead of bringing the Liberian people together to work towards achieving these worthy causes and, by so doing, correct the sad commentary on our country, time, energy, and public resources are being siphoned off, once again, to champion another glaringly destructive cause.

I think people who have not only succeeded in redefining what is shameful, but also refuse to hear the loud voices that the emperor is naked can finesse and advocate polygamy as an African value worthy of strengthening our national position and character in the internet age. The bankruptcy of the idea lies clearly in how its economics affects the quality of life of its practitioners. With all things being equal, the quality of life for a family decreases as the family size increases. In today's society where, in general, the more educated one is the better one's quality of life, how will polygamy, which has the propensity to increase the number of children, improve the quality of life of the Liberian people? Where are the priorities? Legalizing polygamy or rehabilitating hospitals, schools, and other basic services now in ruins, let alone the national image? As you struggle in this misery to make ends meet, have not those who brought the "DeathVolution" shown their "breastless" chests as turtles do to their babies, that is, you are on your own? Where will you take your children from your multiple marriages for treatment when they get sick? Where will they go to school? How will you pay their tuition when you do not have a job? How will legalizing polygamy help mitigate the hopelessness and misery that abound in our country?

Public policy is like air. It is vital for our survival, yet we do not see it. As such, we take it for granted. Most of us do not know the kinds of public policies that are on the books. The point is, whether we know them or not, they affect the way we live. This is why we must tenaciously resist the temptation to fold when few powerful people hatch bad ideas and push them through the legislature. The mark of a good public policy is its ability to establish a framework for programs that concomitantly promote the socio-economic and moral development of a people. Polygamy does not meet this criterion and, as such, it is not just a bad idea, but also a terribly bad one. I think those who want to legalize polygamy are looking for ways to shift the blame for their active participation in the cultural degeneration of our country. Sorry folks, the badge for championing the destruction of Liberia is indelible!

I cannot put my pen down without asking the backers of this insidious policy this question: what do they really think of Liberian women? I want to know because, before someone, who knows me, makes a pass at my wife, the chances are high that he already did not think highly of me. Therefore, in matters concerning people's dignity, such as the policy of legalizing polygamy, it is not the action or public advocacy that matters, but the thought about those whom the policy will impact.

To conclude, I know that polygamy is still widely practiced in Liberia. Judging from the way things happen in Liberia, I would not be surprised if members of the national legislature acquiesce and give the powerful people what they want. Let me just remind all of us that Liberia is a pariah nation today partly as a result of medieval thoughts and practices. Therefore, the way out is not to plunge further into medieval thoughts and practices. One way to get out of this quagmire is to help educate Liberian women. Perhaps when we heed what Rousseau once admonished, we would be able to lessen the insidious tide of sexist male chauvinism in our country: "When women become good mothers, men will become good husbands and fathers." When Liberian women, by their education, become good mothers, they will rear good boys who will, in turn, become good men, husbands, or fathers. Maybe, in this way, Liberian leaders will be forced to stop propagating such bad medieval idea as polygamy. So, with no place, no relevance, and no positive contribution towards helping Liberia rise out of the ashes, let polygamy die a natural death.

Click the links below for related articles:
The Cock And The Gun: Liberia's Continuing Legacy Of Violence And Male Domination
Polygyny (Polygamy) Is Already A Practice

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