Tag Archives: Africa

The Puzzle of Polygamy

Actually there are several puzzles about African polygamy:

  1. Why is it relatively high in tropical Africa? Oddly, Madagascar is the great exception: tropical, near Africa, but little or no polygamy. This makes me think that polygamy has deep roots, since Madagascar was settled by a separate population of Austronesians.
  2. There is a belt of high polygamy from West Africa to Tanzania, elsewhere in Africa it is present but at lower levels. Why does it vary? A paper by James Fenske* tests several hypotheses.
    • Inequality among men. It turns out that current inequalities among men are not predictive, but historical indicators of inequality on the eve of colonial rule (taken from the Ethnographic Atlas) do predict polygamy today.
    • Women supporting themselves by farming? It seems that polygamy is least common in those parts of Africa where women have historically been most important in agriculture. But I would add, even if it does not explain variation in Africa, this surely has to be part of the reason Africa as a whole has much polygamy compared to Eurasia.
    • The slave trade, taking men away, leaving more women. Correlation with the slave trade is not robust. Angola sent many slaves but has lowish polygamy.
  3. Polygamy has declined over the past half century. Why? Fenske tests several hypotheses and concludes that falling child mortality explains much of the decline in polygamy across sub-Saharan Africa. The mechanism I suppose is that now women are more confident they can successfully raise children in a monogamous marriage. But is this cause or consequence? Monogamy means more paternal investment, which should lessen child mortality.

The puzzles multiply.

James Fenske, “African polygamy: past and present” (pdf here)


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Burkina Faso Wins! (Polygamy Edition)

Emmanuel Todd has gathered some interesting data on polygamy (actually polygyny) rates.

The world champion is Burkina Faso! Over half of its married women have co-wives. (What do all the leftover men do?)

Arab and African Polygamy Rates

(% of married women with co-wife)


Jordan 2002 6.8
Yemen 1997 7.1
Morocco 2003-04 4.7


Sudan 1978-79 20.2
Sudan   (North) 9.3
Sudan   (Darfur) 37.9
Mauretania 2000-01 11.6


Chad 1996-97 39.2
Chad   Muslims 35.6
Chad   Catholics 46.8
Chad   Animists 51.4
Mali 1996-97 44.3
Burkina   Faso 1998-99 54.7
Ivory   Coast 1994 36.6
Ivory   Coast Catholics 24.7
Ivory   Coast Muslims 44.5
Ivory   Coast Animists 47.2




In Arab countries 5-10% of women are in polygamous marriages. In black Africa, 30-55% of women. The highest levels are in interior West Africa.

Another difference: Arab-style marriage of parallel cousins [father’s brother’s daughter] is uncommon in Africa. Instead cross-cousin [between the children of brother and sister] or exogamous marriage is the norm.


Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd, A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies (Columbia UP, 2011) p. 44.


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Not Beau Geste Any More

Just as good things clump together, so do bad things. The Sahara region has recently been in the news — because bad things are clumping together there. Here’s a couple — drug smugglers and Islamists:


smugglers and islamists

source: BBC News

But the BBC forgot to show things like Darfur, the new state of South Sudan, ongoing problems and peacekeeping in Ivory Coast … and on and on.

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A Political Mystery: Why Are Africa’s States Collapsing?

The current headlines are full of the fallout from imploding states in Africa: French troops fighting in Mali; rebels in the Central African Republic; militias in Congo; hostages and piracy in Somalia.

The Failed State Index has numerous other African countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, and Zimbabwe on alert status.


Of course, not all of Africa’s states are collapsing. But we cannot help but wonder: why is there so much fragility among African states?

One answer is that it reflects ethnic divisions and/or predatory rulers. No doubt it does. But that merely raises the further question of why the ethnicities do not cooperate with each other and why rulers in Africa incline to exploit the ruled rather than cooperate with them.

Another answer is that Africa’s weak states of today are nothing new. Historically Africa did not evolve towards large-scale states. But that too just raises the question of why political cooperation did not scale-up in Africa beyond the level of chiefdoms– whereas it did in the Americas and Eurasia.

Perhaps another answer might involve the influence of polygyny and past slavery – both inclining to undermine trust and cooperation. But they existed elsewhere in places that generated big, strong states.

There may be other possible answers perhaps involving low population density, the prevalence of female farming in tropical agriculture, the possibility that general cognitive ability influences trust and cooperation levels, and no doubt more.

Still, it remains something of a mystery.

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