Not always at straight forward as it seems | a story on African polygamy

“..On one of my trips I worshipped in an African church where nobody knew me. After the service I talked to two boys who had also attended.

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” I asked the first one.

“Three.”

“Are they all from the same stomach?”

“Yes, my father is a Christian.”

“How about you?” I addressed the other boy.

He hesitated. In his mind he was adding up. I knew immediately that he came from a polygamous family.

“We are nine,” he finally said.

“Is your father a Christian?”

“No,” was the typical answer, “he is a polygamist”

“Are you baptised?”

“Yes, and my brothers and sister too,” he added proudly.

“And their mothers?”

“They are all three baptised, but only the first wife takes communion.”

“Take me to your father.”

The boy led me to a compound with many individual houses. It breathed an atmosphere of cleanliness, order and wealth. Each wife had her own house and her own kitchen. The father, a middle-aged, good-looking man, tall, fat and impressive, received me without embarrassment and with apparent joy.

I found Omodo, as we shall call him, a well-educated person, wide awake and intelligent, with a sharp wit and a rare sense of humor. From the outset he made no apologies for being a polygamist, he was proud of it. Let me try to put down here the essential content of our conversation that day which lasted for several hours.

“Welcome to the hut of a poor sinner!” The words were accompanied by good-hearted laughter.

“It looks like a rich sinner,” I retorted.

“The saints come very seldom to this place,” he said, “they don’t want to be contaminated with sin.”

“But they are not afraid to receive your wives and children. I just met them in church.”

“1 know. I give everyone a coin for the collection plate. I guess I finance half of the church’s budget. They are glad to take my money, but they don’t want me.”

I sat in thoughtful silence. After a while he continued, “1 feel sorry for the pastor. By refusing to accept all the polygamous men in town as church members he has made his flock poor and they shall always be dependent upon subsidies from America. He has created a church of women whom he tells every Sunday that polygamy is wrong.”

“Wasn’t your first wife heart-broken when you took a second one?” Omodo looked at me almost with pity “It was her happiest day,” he said finally.

“Tell me how it happened.”

“Well, one day after she had come home from the garden and had fetched wood and water, she was preparing the evening meal, while I sat in front of my house and watched her. Suddenly she turned to me and mocked me. She called me a ‘poor man,’ because I had only one wife. She pointed to our neighbor’s wife who could care for her children while the other wife prepared the food.”

“Poor man,” Omodo repeated. “1 can take much, but not that. I had to admit that she was right. She needed help. She had already picked out a second wife for me and they get along fine.”

I glanced around the courtyard and saw a beautiful young woman, about 19 or 20, come out of one of the huts.
“It was a sacrifice for me,” Omodo commented. “Her father demanded a very high bride price.”

“Do you mean that the wife, who caused you to become a polygamist is the only one of your family who receives communion?”

“Yes, she told the missionary how hard it was for her to share her love for me with another woman. According to the church my wives are considered sinless because each of them has only one husband. I, the father, am the only sinner in our family. Since the Lord’s supper is not given to sinners, 1 am excluded from it. Do you understand that, pastor?”

I was entirely confused.

“And you see,” Omodo continued, “they are all praying for me that I might be saved from sin, but they don’t agree from which sin I must be saved.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the pastor prays that I may not continue to commit the sin of polygamy. My wives pray that I may not commit the sin of divorce. I wonder whose prayers are heard first.”

“So your wives are afraid that you become a Christian?”

“They are afraid that I become a church member. Let’s put it that way. For me there is a difference. You see they can only have intimate relations with me as long as I do not belong to the church. In the moment I Would become a church member their marriage relations With me would become sinful.”

“Wouldn’t you like to become a church member?,,

“Pastor, don’t lead me into temptation! How can I become a church member, if it means to disobey Christ? Christ forbade divorce, but not polygamy. The church forbids polygamy but demands divorce. How can I become a church member, if I want to be a Christian;~ For me there is only one way, to be a Christian without the church.”

“Have you ever talked to your pastor about that?”

“He does not dare to talk to me, because he knows as well as I do that some of his elders have a second wife secretly. The only difference between them and me is that I am honest and they are hypocrites.”

“Did a missionary every talk to you?”

“Yes, once. I told him that with the high divorce rate in Europe, they have only a successive form of polygamy while we have a simultaneous polygamy. That did it. He never came back.”

I was speechless. Omodo accompanied me back to the village. He evidently enjoyed to be seen with a pastor.

“But tell me, why did you take a third wife?” I asked him.

“I did not take her. I inherited her from my late brother, including her children. Actually my older brother would have been next in line. But he is an elder. He is not allowed to sin by giving security to a widow.”

I looked in his eyes. “Do you want to become a Christian?”

“I am a Christian.” Omodo said without smiling.

As I walked slowly down the path, the verse came to my mind: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.”

What does it mean to take responsibility as a congregation for Omodo? I am sorry that I was not able to see Omodo again, because I had met him while I was on a trip. I just report to you the essence of our conversation because it contains in a nutshell the main attitudes of polygamists toward the church It is always healthy to see ourselves with the eyes of an outsider.

I asked myself: What would I have done if I were pastor in Omodo’s town?

From Walter A. Trobisch, “Congregational Responsibility for the Christian Individual,” in Readings in Missionary Anthropology II, ed. William A. Smalley (South Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1978), PP. 233-235.


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