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However, polygamy was most likely practiced in West Africa before the arrival of Islam. In ancient times, the taking of more than one wife may have been necessary for the continued prosperity of a family. In a subsistence farming culture, families need as many children as they can get to conquer the shear mountain of daily labor that farming requires. Malaria, diarrhoea, and other ailments are also very common in The Gambia and they can be lethal to children and pregnant women. In ancient times, having multiple wives bearing many children increased the chances that a man’s family would survive to the next generation. Having multiple wives also ensured that the family had extra care-givers, in case one mother died during child birth or from disease.
Is it practical or is it not? Even today, a majority of Gambians continue to be subsistence farmers. The lack or modern farm tools, such as tractors and harvesters, means that most farm work is done by hand. In this respect, having large families is still practical. However, as far as ensuring survival against diseases such as Malaria and diarrhoea is concerned, polygamy is no longer practical. Though these diseases continue to be lethal, the use of bed nets, insecticides, and better attention to hygiene have decreased the annual death toll. In fact, a major problem facing The Gambia today is over-population. The Gambia has one of the highest fertility rates in the world; about five children per woman. It is currently one of the most densely populated countries in Africa; with only about 10,000 square kilometers of habitable land (about twice the size of Delaware) and a population approaching 2 million. My former host-father had 13 children and three wives. He told me that most of his nine older brothers and sisters had more children than he did. This means that just two generations of his family could probably form a small village of their own.
Polygamy can also lead to divorce, which is permitted by Islam. A common cause for divorces is conflict between co-wives. More often than not, the many wives of a single man will not get along. The men seem to react to spousal conflicts in different ways. Some men will take the side of one of the two wives and beat the other wife in order to settle the argument. In my experience, my host father simply ignored the fighting. He often acted as if nothing unusual was going on and let his wives settle the dispute themselves. Divorce, it seems, is only used in the most extreme cases. Indeed, my host-father had divorced his first wife because she did not get along with his second wife.
Polygamy, like Islam, is an integral part of Gambian culture. Young men tend to model their elders, who had many wives. Having many wives and children is also a sign of wealth and good fortune. An abundance of children is also a sort of retirement plan for parents, who expect their children to care and provide for them when they are too old to do the farming themselves.