The year I spent a summer in Cameroon, mass weddings were in. Thousands of ornately-gowned brides, together with their ‘husbands’ and children, lined paths to churches and government buildings across the country on designated wedding days, preparing to exchange vows.
Though most of these couples were already ‘married’ in the eyes of their families and villages, and though some had been together for decades, their unions were cultural not legal. And because they were unrecognized by the government, in nearly every instance, despite being ‘married,’ husbands, not wives, held ownership of the marital homes and lands, and husbands, not wives, controlled the rights to a couple’s assets.
“Please, put love aside and be practical. Love will not put food on the table; it won’t hold you at night.”
Because traditional marriages were not (and still aren’t) recognized legally, when a husband tired of his ‘wife,’ found a new wife, or took a second (or later a third) wife – occurrences that are not uncommon – no divorce was necessary. The husband simply forced his wife out or walked out himself, leaving the woman to fend for herself and the children. If he took a second wife, because the first marriage was not legal, there was little, if anything, the first wife could do.
You may already be imagining the cycle of poverty and abuse traditional marriages can foster. Though not all result in abuse or in grave economic injustice for women and children, historically, so many have that organizations such as the United Nations, local and regional governments, women’s groups, and even radio stations began sponsoring mass weddings across Africa.
Peace Adzo Medie‘s HIS ONLY WIFE is set in Ghana, but the story centers on the same critical issue driving the mass weddings I observed in Cameroon: Unless a marriage is legal, women have little recourse when their partner leaves or takes another wife. And unless the wife is listed as legal co-owner on the title to the couple’s home, bank accounts, car, and other property — all issues the main character in HIS ONLY WIFE must confront — technically, she has no legal claim to any of them.
Afi Tekple, the young protagonist in HIS ONLY WIFE, is from a rural village where men routinely take more than one wife. Her uncle has several, and, in every instance, his wives and children are mistreated.
When the family of wealthy Ghanaian businessman Elikem Ganyo selects twenty-one-year-old Afi for his bride, she can hardly believe her good fortune. The marriage will bring honor to her family, free her from poverty, and offer her a new life in the city.
That Elikem is not at the wedding is unimportant. Tradition dictates that his family can represent him at the ceremony. And that on the day of their marriage he is living in another house with another woman is Afi’s problem, not Elikem’s family’s, and certainly not Elikem’s.
“Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding.”
After the wedding, Afi moves to Elikem’s apartment in the city. Alone. Despite being surrounded by luxury, she grows bored and isolated, and her fear that Elikem may marry the ‘other’ woman as a second wife increases. Yet she doesn’t wait idly while he decides his future and hers. Rather, she leverages her position as only wife — however temporary it is — to further her education and plan a career. She saves the monthly allowance Elikem gives her, and she heeds the advice of the experienced city women she meets, investing in property and acquiring assets with her own name on them.
The conflict between the modern desires of Afi and the traditional practices of Elikem advances the plot, but the transformation of Afi from naive and inexperienced to self-assured and independent is the real story.
In conjuring Afi Tekple, Peace Adzo Medie models for readers the modern Ghanaian woman: a wife who stands up for herself and demands legal marriage.