Polygamy was practiced in the tribal culture I found myself living in. It wasn’t hard to observe as there were several men in the community with multiple wives and it seemed the practice was accepted as a cultural norm without any challenge or adversity. But as I got to know the culture from the inside, I began to see a whole different view of the practice.

Allow me to give you a little background about the culture to help you understand the basis for polygamy. As an outsider to begin with, I observed the beauty of sharing like I had never seen before. People would literally give you the shirt of their back in the tribe. You could ask for anything, especially food, and it would be given to you. The contrast with my culture was staggering. To a fault, the extreme of my culture is greedy, only caring for the individual in order to get ahead and thrive. Sounds so evil, but it has contributed to innovation and the development of a lifestyle of great comfort and conveniences. Tribal culture shares to a fault, caring for the community in order to survive as a whole. Sounds amazing, but it has contributed to a lack of innovation because everyone must be equal, and no one is allowed to get ahead. Well, almost no one. There were those who took advantage of the equality and used it to leverage themselves, thus the not so ideal practice of polygamy.

There was a strong man on our river that was feared all over, not just in his own tribe. He was a great hunter and industrious. He had strong magical powers or poison that the people feared. And he had seven wives, yes seven wives giving him the ability to produce a lot of food, something dear to the heart of hunter-gatherers. If you visited the strong man’s hamlet you were lavished with food and given even more to take home. This ability to “take care” of people gave the strong man power over people as well. He could basically do anything he wanted, and people wouldn’t confront him because of that control. It came down to fear. People feared his strength, his magic (or perception of it) and they feared losing their connection to his gracious giving of food.

How did the strong man get his seven wives? The first two wives were regular marriages and the third was a widow from another area. But the four younger wives were sisters. Being the great and kind guy that he was, the strong man offered to care for the four sisters when their father, his cousin, died when the girls were still young. With three wives already, taking on the sisters was no hardship at all. But there was a sinister plan in the making. As each of the sisters reached puberty, he declared them to be a wife!

One day some of the young men and I were visiting the strong man upriver at his hamlet. We were all treated to delicious smoked bat, cooking bananas and an endless supply of sago. Visiting between us and our host was full of conversation and storytelling. When it came time to leave, each one of us left with armfuls of food. The guys decided to float back down river in order to consume as much food as possible. That caught me by surprise. Was that selfishness rearing its ugly head? The conversation as we floated along was all about how selfish the strong man was. The fact that he had taken all those young women that other young men could have had for wives was totally unacceptable to them. Discussion went on and on as we continued to float down the river. I was shocked at how much they despised the strong man and his greed.

I tried to put my thoughts together over the following days and came to some interesting conclusions about not only what I observed, but also what I learned from spending time with the people. It became very evident that polygamy was not an ideal in the culture just the same as stealing, lying or laziness weren’t ideals. But if you could get away with it, then do it! Very interesting. Sounds a lot like my culture after all!

The strong man did end up losing the youngest two wives. But I’ll have to tell you about that in another blog.

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