Saturday, February 9, 2008

Malian Love Stories - Part 2

It was Sunday morning, and we were having coffee on the terrace. Malé’s phone rang, and as he was responding to the call I could tell –even though he was speaking Bambara- that the news was upsetting. When he finished the call he told me that it was Adama who had called, the husband to his younger sister La Veille.

[La Veille is really called Aramata, named after an old auntie. However, here it is never polite to call an older relative by their first name; instead, one refers to them as “le vieux” or “la veille” (“the old one”, or “der Alte/die Alte” in German), even to their face. So therefore, young children named after elder family members will be called “le vieux” from birth on. - Referring to a two year old as “le vieux” really takes some getting used to ….!]

Adama was upset with his wife and wanted Malé to help him by talking to her. He felt that she was being difficult and stubborn, and he knew that she would listen to her older brother Malé. It seems that La Veille became upset last night when Adama told her that he will get married next weekend, and that she will have a co-wife. He was counting on Malé to calm her down … Malé was taken aback. He had always really liked Adama and felt that he and La Veille had a loving marriage. (Above is a picture of them.) He could not believe that Adama would do something like this to his sister! He hardly made enough money to support his wife and their four kids, but he felt that he needed to have a second wife? Adama knew that La Veille would be hurt by his announcement, and now he was trying to enlist Malé to smooth things over? No, Adama was told, Malé was going to support his sister and not Adama.

Malé immediately called his sister. She was furious, but calm. No, she did not see that coming at all. He had never hinted at wanting a second wife. They hardly had enough money to cover the rent every month (about $80). Last night, at dinner, in front of the kids, he announced to her the big news. She replied that in that case she will leave him, that she will not accept a co-wife. The kids started to cry, fearing that they would be loose their mother. It was horrible. Eventually Adama left the house, shaking his head at his unreasonable wife. Malé told his sister that it really is her choice how to deal with this matter, but that no matter what her decision, she can count on Malé’s support. She should not feel that she has to stay with Adama because she is financially dependent on him. La Veille appreciated Malé’s response; she knows that she can count on him. Later that day, as her other siblings and her mother found out about this event, she received similarly supportive calls. She just had to make her decisions, and her family would support her.

[Other women are not so lucky. When their husbands present them with a new co-wife, they often feel that they have no other option but to accept their husband’s decision. Usually the woman does not earn any income, or just very little, and depends entirely on her husband to support her and the kids. In addition, they will get very little sympathy from their family (having a co-wife is not seen as a very tragic occurrence in the bigger scheme of things), and/or their family is in no position to take on the financial burden of supporting the woman and her kids. The wife could go to court and divorce the husband officially, but if she has no income, the husband will get custody of the kids. So leaving the husband really means either leaving the children as well, or living in poverty with them – her choice.]

Adama was not around all week. He was waiting to see what La Veille would do. And La Veille was waiting to see what he would do. The children were sad and scared, and waiting to see what their parents would do. I was holding my breath. I was glad that La Veille was angry, but calm, and that she knew where she would draw the line. I was so grateful for Malé’s position and support of his sister.

When we visited with her the following week, it was apparent that she had lost weight. She hardly spoke. Adama had married the other woman; it was official now. And La Veille had made her decision: she would not leave him. She was staying for the kids …

[Malé and I speak a lot about the institution of polygamy in Mali. Since it is unfamiliar to me I always have a lot of questions about it. For instance, in this case I really was wondering about Adama’s motivation. He seemed happy with his wife, even though they were always struggling financially. So why would he want a second wife and all the responsibilities that that entails? If he just wanted to sleep with another woman he could easily do so without marrying her. Malé feels that he did it just because he can: a matter of status, perhaps, feeling like it’s the thing to do, maybe. Finding a woman here that is willing to marry you is apparently easier than me finding a can of cat food! You don't have to be good-looking, successful, smart, tall or especially nice. And if you don’t have the money for the dowry … no problem: you get the woman on credit! You can pay later, or, if you are not happy, you send her back. And if you don’t have the money to set her up in a separate house, then you just leave her at your parents’ house, or move her in with the first wife (like Moussa did). Your first wife does not really have to consent; you just have to get her used to it afterwards. The government requires couples that get married officially (at City Hall) to declare if they will practice monogamy or polygamy, and so the wife has to consent to future co-wives. However, many couples never get married legally, and even if they do, the husband can always change his mind and marry a second time, and the wife basically will be in the same position as La Veille…]