Updated: Feb 11
The views expressed in this article are all experiences of the writer who lived through the experience and how it all enhanced her belief system.
I grew up believing my mother and/or father would only be accepted as full members of the church if either one of them died, implying one of the two sinners to a polygamous marriage frees us the only available space for redemption to the other. Not comforting for me. A nudging question for me was “what kind of a God would operate like that?” Spiritually and psychologically, I was always left drained. Even singing in the church choir felt trivial as it seemed God had His ears closed to the praise of sinners and their offspring. How staged my church participation felt only escalated the bitterness inside. Many a time, it was all my parents’ fault, I thought. At other times, I must have been to blame. As I carried the guilt and shame, church never felt like home. And when the men in robes preached Jesus lifted away the sins of man, the comfort the narrative brought quickly dissipated as I understood my parents’ sin, that willingness to consummate in polygamy, was the unforgivable kind.
It was not until I was 7 that I realized my mother was the second wife, and that my father had other children in his first marriage, making me third to my father and mother but the 5th child born to my father. From those early years, all I knew was that father was home at times and was not at other times. No one questioned such decisions. It was normal that our father had two homes. According to my paternal aunt, my father married my mother to bear male children who would carry on the family name as his officially-wedded first wife had only given him daughters. It made sense how the patriarchy valued sons (even in this day) who carried on the name of their father and protected the posterity of his legacy. As much as polygamy was the solution for my father and his kinsmen, it had far reaching effects on the dynamic in children’s lives and our mothers.
Unlike many polygamous families, where both wives would live the same compound, my father separated the two homes as much as he separated our lives and relationships. I did not really know my half-sisters and their household; neither did they know me and mine. Yet, we all often competed for our father’s attention, none of which we really got. The easy recourse was to hold grudges against each other, a commitment we carried into adulthood.
The consequences of our polygamous family took a toll on me in the latter years as I witnessed the feuds, gossip, bitterness and frequent exchange of harsh silence between the wives and among the children. The worst was watching the sister wives competing for the attention of the man, ceaselessly proving one was better than the other, while tagging us along. The negative energy was insurmountable and made me feel small, unloved and vulnerable. Well, one does not normally expect sister wives to be best friends, or barely friends for that matter. And to shield himself from the drama he had voluntarily created, my father erected an impermeable social wall around himself. It was thus hard to know him. The outside world praised him as a man of the people. A respected and revered man. But at home, he was invincible, unreachable and cold. To him, I think, the bitterness and strife was normal and expected. Perhaps it was. But it left me helpless and insecure, and no one cared to explain to me why this idiosyncrasy was normal.
At 11, I was sure of my mother’s mistake to marry another woman’s husband. This was compounded by society’s perception of second wives, the home wreckers, a loathing well reinforced by marriage songs. Once, on a journey to another village where one of my cousin was married, to honor a tradition where you visit when a husband had finished paying lobola, and along which we would sing songs of marriage that celebrated the augmented family ties, one of the songs went, “if I was a young woman, I would never marry another woman’s husband, because of the fighting over the man that often happens, each woman claiming ‘he is mine’; and please leave that man for the other woman.” But my mother was one such woman who invaded another woman’s home and subjected us all to the insults. Along this journey, all I heard the song do was talk about me, although my mother assured me how the innocent lyrics were never targeting us every time I confronted her. A simple truth for the child of a second wife like me, however, was I also bore the identity of second best. If she had not married my father, I would not be part of this mess.
Although wishful thinking that I was probably adopted offered temporal solace, the mumblings of my resemblance to my mother and my father were quick at bringing back our harsh realities. My mother’s hard work to keep us happy and normal usually fell short. She was not equally a happy wife. She attempted to leave on several occasions, but she had all of us to think of. So she stayed on to be the mother we needed. I grew close to my mother, seeing the sadness in her eyes, living as if she were hiding. I saw her grow a thick skin to weather the storms that life brought on us. But while in our home she was everything we wanted in a mother, out there she shrunk and stayed invisible. And her sadness angered me.
There were times my father could be away for 3 years, when the other house enjoyed his exclusive presence. Our turn always came. This made my father only a biological parent who doubled as a stranger in my life. A mystery. As a pre-teen, the yearning for a relationship with my father was a far-fetched dream. But the thought of friends and relatives who had never known their father was comforting, although deep in my heart, a father who never existed in your life was better than a present one who hardly showed up.
As I recount at the beginning, our family configuration had far reaching implications in our religious lives as members of the Presbyterian Church – the Synod of Livingstonia, where the polygamy sin automatically deletes you from the church register, and assuringly in the life after as well. My parents would be allowed to attend service but could not partake in holy communion, the men’s guild or the women’s guild, participation of which almost equated one’s standing in society. The children could not be baptized at birth, although labeled as church and Sunday School goers. Because of this, my father completely stopped going to church. Although more welcoming (and usually desperate) churches existed, my parents did not go to those either, for my father’s pride was not going to stoop that low.
For us as children, church was the ideal opportunity to break from the midweek pandemonium of polygamous life. Yet at church I was still a child whose mother was not fully accepted. By implication, neither was I. All my friends had their parents in church, but my father was conspicuously missing while my mother coiled herself in a corner of the outcasts. It was as if she knew she had made her bed and had to lie on it. At the age of 11, I had to carry the heavy shame of my own family being my disgrace. I, a product of a sinful union, was yearning for a way out.
What inevitably followed was a long journey of conversations with God Himself to find answers to my existential crisis. I wanted to understand why He was so vindictive and unforgiving. Why he was so judgmental on me and my family when he embraced others regardless of their sins, knowing that a strong drink, gossip, fights, witchcraft and adultery were not supposed to be favourable in the eyes of the Synod. The hypocrisy of the church confused me even as it failed to draw the line between the law and the human interpretation of it. It failed to facilitate the forgiveness my mother and siblings sought. It was the authority it wielded on regular folk like us that I questioned in my pursuit of God’s mercy on that single most sin my mother had committed.
Regardless, my conditions for this mercy were set. My right to God’s forgiveness was inalienable from His acceptance of my family, the full combo that included my parents. God had to answer even those questions about why He let many wallow in poverty under His watch, because I was not ready to take “Lucky are the poor, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God.” So, although I later got baptized in the church, there was little immediate compensation this made to the hollow the stigmatization had dug deep inside.
But it was, thankfully, my mother whose quiet moments brought me to the light. Her spirituality was personal, and certainly not an artefact that only a church could present for grabs. Although we were not a prayerful lot, she made us pray our way through every major family milestone. Even as a polygamous woman, she taught us to seek and find, to knock if we wanted the door to swing open. These lessons worked as miracles as things manifested in our lives. I started accepting that I was not necessarily a mistake. That being born in a polygamous family was not unique, nor was it abnormal.
My parents may not have had a good peek into the double life and the quandary I experienced as I navigated family and spirituality through my childhood. At the time of leaving secondary school, I had come to terms with being the child of a polygamous duet in which my interests were still a priority. It was enough that my mother made sure I excelled academically and socially. That seemed to finally bring some peace within. And, when my father died, my mother was accepted in the church, where she now serves in its membership and the women’s guild, and takes holy communion.
The downside is how my parent’s polygamy molded me into a spiritual nomad, bouncing from one church to the next since leaving my village. The burdens of my past continue to assert themselves heavily on my life. I have mastered detecting how every church seamlessly executes the laws of God but through its eyes. Although great church leaders exist for truly spiritual purposes, and I have encountered some of them, I still face some difficulty, mainly anchored in my experience where the church is projected as an inhibitor of the full realm of the deity.
As for the lingering inquisition on whether polygamy is a sin or not, I submit that to
judgement of a higher power rather than a church law.