Several years, the then president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, married his fifth wife in his sixth wedding. He had married five times earlier, but one of his wives died, so his sixth marriage was to his fifth living wife. What was striking about the recent wedding was that his other wives did not shun it; they attended it in an act of solidarity.
Zuma’s wedding would not have been possible in England and, indeed, in a number of other western countries. It is an offence, in these countries, to enter into a polygamous relationship, apparently on the pretext that it would infringe on the rights of the earlier spouse. Section 57 of The Offences Against the Person Act (1861) England and Wales, states, in part:
Whosoever, being married, shall marry any other person during the life of the former husband or wife, whether the second marriage shall have taken place in England or Ireland or elsewhere, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for any term not exceeding seven years.
However, nobody in England would so much as raise an eyebrow if two same sex people got into a marital union. This is where Africa fundamentally differs from the west.
I grew up knowing people all around me who had polygamous relationships. I must state that I do not subscribe to, or approve of, that lifestyle because of my personal conviction, but that is probably the subject for another day. What I want to emphasise in this article is that polygamy is deeply rooted in African culture, and no true African would be shocked if they came across people practising it. In many cases, it is with the consent, or even the blessing of the earlier spouse(s), that somebody enters a polygamous union.
Believe it or not, as I grew up, I never knew that people of the same sex could have a sexual relationship. I took Biology in secondary school, but our Biology teacher, Miss Du Preez, never told us that this was a possibility.
I was privileged to partially read Biology in the university, but not once did our learned lecturers—Miss Meredith and Dr Hargreaves—mention that same sex union was an option in nature. I left the University of Malawi not knowing what homosexuality was.
Not surprisingly, when I went to the United Kingdom in 1985, I received, with great shock, though, the news that some people were happy practitioners of homosexuality.
Some people from the entertainment industry that I had heard about turned out to be practising homosexuals, much to my bewilderment. Yes, I was bewildered because I was only a naïve African student implanted in the ‘real world’ for the first time. And in my naivety, I never understood the mechanics, let alone the desirability, of homosexuality. It was not that I was intellectually challenged; far from it. In fact, I knew Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetic radiation like the back of my hand, and I could articulate, with ease, Einstein’s theory of special relativity (which I would struggle to do today), but knew next to nothing about homosexuality.
What the West does not care to understand or appreciate is that there are millions upon millions of naïve people like me in Africa—people that have never, in the their lives, considered, much less encouraged, same-sex unions as an option; people that would be deeply shocked, and irreversibly injured, at the news of somebody they know getting involved in homosexual practices; yes, people that would quickly attribute homosexuality to the influences of witchcraft or Satanism, for want of a more plausible explanation.
Of course, there may be pockets of people among us, more “enlightened” and more “exposed” than the bunch I have described above, and they would quickly trash the assertions in this article, but, take my word, you can count such people on your fingers.
African societies are collective societies. Individuals do not live for themselves, but are knit into a larger family group, and anything they do will inevitably affect the family. There is nothing like a relationship that is strictly confined to two individuals, consenting or otherwise.
A marriage in Africa is, actually, the coming together of two families, not just two individuals. If a member of one African family entered into a same-sex union, straight or otherwise, with a member of another African family, the two families would forever live in shock as a result of the mwikho (strange, unacceptable happening) they would have witnessed within their families.