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Rationalizing the Legalization of Polygamy
[ Issue 158 Page 10 ] Wednesday, December 27, 2017, 20:33:58 Jae Hwan Jeong Staff Reporter jeong7331@kaist.ac.kr

Although polygamous marriages are generally frowned upon by modern Western societies and mainly have negative connotations, it is possible to identify positive externalities for both parties involved in this arrangement. Long before the British Empire established the East Africa Protectorate in 1895, the practice of polygamy existed in Kenya. To most, this would seem ludicrous; however, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries within Kenya, this was seen as normal and often beneficial to both men and women. This was not only the case in Kenya; it was also a part of life in South Africa, and every citizen, man and woman, had the right to choose whom they wanted to spend their life with and how they wanted to conduct their marriage. By legalizing polygamy in independent countries, people of all beliefs and backgrounds would be able to fit into society.

Before the involvement of Britain in Kenya, polygamy was merely a custom performed by small rural tribes. Ironically, as a result of British missionary suppression of cultural customs, this tradition was legalized in 2014. The belligerent nature of these missionaries ultimately augmented the prevalence of polygamy in Kenya. On July 1, 1895, Britain initiated a protectorate over Kenya and claimed the interior as far west as Lake Naivasha. Missionary activity soon followed, the two most prominent missions being the American African Inland Mission and the independent Gospel Missionary Society in 1901. Initially, the missionaries just taught literacy and numeracy, and the locals supported this positive interaction as it was seen as a vehicle for advancement in Kenya. It was noticed by Thomas Bewes in 1927 that the Church in Kenya was associated with progress, education, and prestige. As a result, many students became Christians and were encouraged to give up their tribal beliefs and rituals, acquire a Western name, and wear Western clothes. Here, the British were slowly stamping out the traditions that lay in Kenya and were trying to pave a new, “better” way of life for them. In doing so, the Kenyans were losing part of their culture. One of the practices banned by the missionaries was polygamy. Although some people adhered to this legislation, most went against it, as polygamy had been part of their heritage for centuries. However, the practice of polygamy was condemned as sexually immoral and contrary to the Christian faith by the British missionaries and thus had to be given up. The missionaries saw the Kenyans as primitive beings and were often disdainful of the indigenous people and their institutions. Such attitudes made it difficult for the Africans to reconcile the Gospel message of love with missionary practices that amounted to racism and interdenominational strife. As a result, there was a lot of opposition to the missionaries, and the new laws that they put in place were not followed. The involvement of the missionaries had an adverse effect on what their initial primary goal was. The forceful nature by which missionaries made many Kenyans leave their practicing of polygamy behind in fact led to a larger number of tribes falling back on their heritage, such as the Massai and Kikuyu tribes that now undergo such practices in Kenya.

Such history indicates that the Kenyan people were not willing to let their traditions and culture slide, suggesting that these practices would remain untouched to retain their cultural heritage. This gives rise to the reason to why the law that made polygamy a legal act for the first time in Kenya was passed. South Africa has a depleted male population due to “unnatural deaths” as a consequence of war. As a result, if one only adheres to monogamy, there would be a large population of women without husbands or a family to care for them in later years. Polygamy had been practiced in Kenya for centuries, meaning that it was not just an alternative to marriage — it was a way of life and part of the Kenyan heritage. By allowing this law, the Kenyan government has been able to indicate to its people that it will neither extinguish its roots nor forget the way in which their tribal ancestors led their lives. This in turn could give strength to the people who see a government that wants to remember what it means to be Kenyan. In essence, the British involvement in Kenya pushed many Kenyans closer to polygamy as they did not want to give up their cultural beliefs as first thought by the missionaries. Due to the persistent nature of these missionaries, polygamy evolved from a custom to a legal act.

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