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Professor and students study polygyny in Africa

By Mary Elizabeth Fratini

Photos by Lacey A. Smith

Polygyny expert and Lyndon State College Professor Janet Bennion took a group of six LSC students to study the Watha tribe of Watamu, East Kenya, in June. Polygyny is the marriage of one man to multiple wives. “The goal was to bring students into the field for humanitarian aid, and also to learn and practice anthropological techniques of observation and interview,” Bennion said.

On their last day in the village the Vermont group was blessed by village elders, thus joined to the family. From left: Bini Didi, Hilary Denton, Keresey Proctor, Professor Janet Bennion, Fallon Bean, Lacey Smith, Casey Smith, and Margaret, Bini's daughter-in-law.

The group stayed in an extended family village of 150; their host household included over 50 people. Bennion has visited the same family every summer for the last three years, always bringing students with her. “I have watched this family grow more conservative over that time as they converted to the Baptist faith,” Bennion said. “But they do hold onto some of their traditional beliefs and rituals, and welcomed us as part of their family with a blessing from one of the elders.”

Bennion is studying the Watha to see how a culture transitions from traditional beliefs and practices to Christianity, monogamy and agriculture. “The Watha were hunters and gatherers, but they are being arrested for hunting on what was their land, now part of a national preserve,” Bennion explained. Over the last 15 years, the community has shifted from hunting to growing crops that include corn, mangoes, cassava and pineapples.

The Watha welcomed Bennion’s expedition. “They have very little income, and our visits, which brought maybe $20 per person per day, make it possible to send some of the children to school for the year,” Bennion said. Many anthropologists support this kind of eco-tourism because it gives tourists an opportunity to experience “living in the bush,” and brings much-needed income to the villages.

LSC graduate Lacey Smith said that a typical day began with a crowing rooster, and ended at dusk. “There was no electricity, so any reading or writing was done under flashlights,” Smith said. “Or we hung out and everyone told stories; they are big storytellers.”

The group delivered donations from Vermonters to the community’s school and clinic. One medical officer with a year of training in Nairobi staffed the clinic. Smith described it as one small room with a wooden desk and a single cupboard. “There was a bottle of rubbing alcohol with maybe one cup left; about the same amount of peroxide; and that was it,” she said. St. Johnsbury Medical Center donated a large quantity of medical supplies including antibiotics, first aid materials, and condoms. Bennion mentioned an increase in hypertension and heart disease among the Watha, and noted increased requests for treatments for those diseases.

Bennion also brought oral contraceptives, enough to last four women twelve months. “I wasn’t sure how they would react, but the response was overwhelmingly positive,” she said. According to Bennion, the community was also open to the idea of condoms, although men often refuse to use them.

Women’s sexuality, and sexual relations in general, have been deeply affected by both the Watha’s conversion to Christianity and their current economic situation. The traditional marrying age was fourteen; men married additional wives as they accumulated enough wealth to provide for them. Now, women don’t typically marry until 17 or 18 because the men cannot afford bride prices, and the younger generations view multiple wives as immoral. The elder of Watamu has two wives, but when his married sons attempted to take second wives, their first wives refused. If it were not for their religious conversion, Bennion believes, the Watha would continue to practice polygyny.

Bennion found a generational break in opinions about the move towards monogamy. “The remaining sister-wives think women have it harder now. They felt that they were freer and had a larger network for support. But the younger women say it is better now; people prefer what they already know.”

The Wathas’ conversion also coincides with the end of their practice of infibulation. A form of genital cutting, infibulation occurred after a girl’s menarche. First, there was a blessing and a ceremony to mark the girl’s passage, then her paternal grandmother would stitch up her vaginal opening to prevent penetration while allowing drainage, also teaching the girl about her sexuality and clitoral stimulation. On the girl’s wedding night, the paternal grandmother would remove the stitches and instruct the newlyweds on making love.

“The older women said they preferred the old practices, because they could sleep with anyone they wanted, and their fathers didn’t care because they couldn’t get pregnant,” Bennion said. And since women married at a younger age, the period between the stitching and removal was only a few years. “Of all the genital cutting practices, I think this is probably the most humane,” Bennion said. “I never thought I would say that, but it is true.”

Bennion is unsure if the end of the polygynous culture is ultimately positive or negative for Watha women. “Has this improved their lives or taken something away?” she asked. Some cite the reduction of promiscuity among the men as one benefit. “The men say that before Christianity, when they wanted to sleep with a woman, they brought her home and pushed the wife out of bed onto the floor so that they could use the mattress,” she said.

However, Bennion also observed that the women have lost sexual freedom and mobility because they cannot walk anywhere without a chaperone. A woman cannot refuse sex because it is seen as one of their duties to provide men with pleasure, Bennion said. So although rape is devastating, in the larger community, when women are molested, people are concerned not with the perpetrator but with the potential loss of virginity and therefore the bride price. “Their virginity is protected to the point of their being cloistered within the village for their entire lives Lack of mobility is a serious problem, because the women have no way to tap into the economic market of the area, even just by going to the next town.”

The Watha are the third polygynous culture that Bennion has studied. Previously she has lived with the Allreds, a Mormon fundamentalist community in Montana, reporting that experience in Women of Principle (Oxford Press, 1998). Desert Patriarchy (University of Arizona Press, 2004), is her study of three polygynous Anglo communities in Chihuahua, Mexico.

“People ask me how I can be a feminist and pursue these studies,” Bennion said. “My answer: I’m interested in powerful women wherever they exist and there are some very powerful women in these communities.” However, she points out that the potential for abuse also exists within any fundamentalist group.

She sees a great deal of overlap between the three cultures’ experiences of polygyny, particularly in the economic networking among the wives. “In Mexico, the women are trapped, geographically and physically; they can’t leave,” Bennion said. “They manage their families’ survival while the men travel.” Likewise, the Allred women in Montana work together, raising large families on as little as $75 a month, and developing economic, spiritual and even sexual relationships. Among the Watha, a similar solidarity is now collapsing with the move towards monogamy; meanwhile, the economy forces the breakup of the extended family as more young people leave to find work.

The Kenya trip was partially funded by the Vermont EPSCoR Fund, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Bennion is applying for a larger grant for next summer and the expedition is open to all students in the Vermont State College system.

Bennion’s group will host an African Symposium in the Burke Mountain Room at LSC on September 16th at 4:30 pm. The event will include traditional song and dress, and student presentations on childrearing and psychology; sexuality, myth, magic, and religion; and ethnographic documentaries.

Mary Fratini is a freelance writer living in Montpelier. A re-transplanted native Vermonter, she has one husband too many and no sister-wives to speak of.