Ugandans, especially the women, have thought a lot more about polygamy than I have. That wasn't clear to me until I had a frank conversation with one particular man in Kampala a couple of weeks ago. (If you're wondering, Uganda is a largely Christian country and this man claimed the Christian faith.) Just minutes into the conversation, I learned that he has two wives and 11 children (with three different mothers). At age 42, he has one son in his third year of law school. I don't know how the conversation turned so quickly and squarely to the topic, but I was eager to hear a man's thoughts on the matter.
Each of his wives and their respective children live in a separate home, so where he sleeps each night... well, he says, that just depends. I explain that this would be (or is) a prohibitively expensive way to live in the US and he nods in agreement, stating that it isn't easy in Uganda either. I inquire about his wives' education levels and he tells me that they both hold bachelor's degrees and full-time professional jobs. He paid seven cows and one bull for his first wife, but the second family didn't ask for as much. In other terms, I figure that the cost of his first wife was roughly the equivalent of a respectable down payment on a house in a medium-sized US city.
I asked if he has "side dishes" (one campaign's term for girlfriends outside of marriage) and his response was, "It can happen." If you ask him, he's quite an astute polygamist. Other men approach him for advice on how to tell their first wives about their newly produced children and other wives, and how to integrate the children from different mothers. Indeed, what an awkward dinner topic. They ask him because he somehow manages to pile most of his eight daughters and three sons into a van for outings. Fortunately, he intends to share his findings by writing a book.
When I asked what he might do if one of his wives had an affair, "Run away like mad," he said emphatically. I pointed out that we would call that a double standard and asked if he realized how insane that is. "I realize that... it is not just," he finally responded after I pressed for an answer. For emphasis, he added that he'd feel the same way if one of his girlfriends had an affair. What a tremendous sense of ownership that someone can feel about three or more women concurrently.
So, maybe you're wondering what kind of a sex god this guy is? Well, I can assure you that he wouldn't catch my eye a second time (and probably not a first time either). He seems capable enough in business, though, which provides the kind of financial security that many vulnerable women might seek. Better to be the second or third wife and have something than risk having nothing at all. He maintained that a very high percentage of Ugandan men live something like this, but the majority are not open about it. Even if they are open and a woman feels that polygamy is not for her, few will find support from their mothers, mothers-in-law or grandmothers who were one of five or six wives and will quickly point out their good fortune of being one of just two or three wives.
This was not an isolated conversation about polygamy. In fact, I can't tell you how often it came up in conversation. It's not my place to judge how others manage their personal relationships, but it is clear that Ugandan women are not altogether pleased that this is their reality. The bottom line is that more wives and children (and side dishes) results in fewer resources for everyone. Fewer resources means less education. And less education means continuing cycles of poverty. And then there is the issue of HIV/AIDS. The first concern of a Ugandan woman who suspects or knows that her husband has another sexual partner is whether or not he has brought home disease to her and their future children. So, Ugandan women hope that their husbands are faithful, while remaining realistic about the possibility, knowing that they would not be alone.