In Box

Is Polygyny a Slave to History?

How the slave trade patterns of centuries ago are still shaping African marriages today.

For decades, scholars have puzzled over why polygyny in Africa is concentrated in the continent's western countries -- Guinea, Togo, and Mali, among others. There are competing theories, rooted in variables such as relative infant mortality rates and the agricultural roles women play in different parts of Africa. A new study, however, argues that the answer may be found somewhere else, darker and uglier: the slave trade.

The trans-Atlantic trade wildly disrupted West Africa's gender ratios, argue John Dalton and Tin Cheuk Leung, economists from Wake Forest University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, respectively. West African slaves were mostly sent to the New World, where buyers strongly preferred men capable of performing backbreaking tasks on plantations. By contrast, buyers in slave trades centered on the Indian Ocean and Red Sea were often looking for women who could work as domestic servants or concubines.

Record-keeping by European slave traders shows a consistent pattern, Dalton and Leung found: Between 1545 and 1864, 66.4 percent of slaves sent to North America and the Caribbean from present-day Senegal and Gambia were men, as were 66.6 percent sent from Sierra Leone, 65.4 percent from the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and 65.4 percent from the Windward Coast (now Ivory Coast). Going a step further, Dalton and Leung looked at data on the slaves taken from specific ethnic groups and compared it with the percentage of women in those groups who today share husbands with other wives. (They controlled for factors such as education level and religion.) The researchers found that groups hit heavily by trans-Atlantic slavery were significantly more likely to have a high percentage of polygynous marriages.

Certainly, polygyny may have existed before the slave trade began. But this study suggests that slavery encouraged the practice by ensuring that there were fewer men available to be husbands to West African women.

Scholars are still sorting out the myriad ways in which slavery has affected Africa: how it influenced economics, trust levels among groups, and the continent's balance of power. That its impact extends to marriage shouldn't come as a surprise, Dalton says. It's merely a reminder of how deeply slavery scarred every layer of African life.

Illustration by Elias Stein for FP

In Box

Epiphanies From Teju Cole

The Nigerian-American novelist discusses the pitfalls of hashtag activism, the destructiveness of U.S. foreign policy, and that time he dreamed about meeting Obama at a Brooklyn house party.

Teju Cole seems to live to experiment. The Nigerian-American writer has penned two books -- 2011's acclaimed Open City and this year's Every Day Is for the Thief (published in Nigeria in 2007) -- that defy American readers' traditional idea of what has become known as "immigrant literature." This March, Cole published a 4,000-word article about the U.S.-Mexican border entirely on Twitter, where he has more than 163,000 followers. (He decided to take a Twitter hiatus on July 15; "I just needed a break," he says. "And I like to quit while I'm ahead.") In between it all, Cole has emerged as a strong critic of, among other things, U.S. drone policy and the way the West approaches Africa; he famously coined the phrase "white-savior industrial complex." Foreign Policy caught up with Cole over Skype in Zurich, where he was working on his next big project, a nonfiction book about Nigeria. Cole discussed the pitfalls of hashtag activism, why his Twitter profile simply says "We who?" -- and an imaginary conversation he had with Barack Obama about the president's foreign policy choices.

***

Last night, I dreamed that I was with the president and a third dude -- the third dude's face, I remember, was from that meme of Yao Ming looking incredulous. We're hanging out in Brooklyn, and at some point in the evening, I'm bothered enough to finally speak my mind, and I just say to Obama, "You do all these terrible things. How do you live with yourself? How do you carry on?" And he turns to me, and without missing a beat, says, "Well, I'm pretty sure you find a way to carry on." I have no idea why Yao Ming was in the dream.

***

The problem of confronting the part of yourself that's insufficiently just is a common one. But that does not mean that we're all the same. I haven't, to my knowledge, sent out flying robots to assassinate anyone.

***

I never drank the Obama Kool-Aid because I know what a president is. Even the stuff I wrote down to myself or published in 2008, around the election, was full of skepticism about the fervor with which people on the left saw this man coming into office. So I prefer to think of the president not necessarily in these emotive terms. I think more in terms of policies. He has made enormous effort to do the right thing with health care, with equal pay for women, with marriage equality, and so on. He has definitely moved the dial. But he's had an atrocious, atrocious record on specific policies having to do with deportation of undocumented immigrants, the global war on terror, and the extrajudicial murder of certain people, Americans and non-Americans.

***

Being an American citizen should not mean a greater right to life or to protection of one's bodily integrity. Maybe it is because I'm a writer, and I sort of like to get down to that granular level of thinking. I want to think about what war really means, what invasion means, what brutal policies mean, you know? Two presidents of two countries are having an argument, but on whose bodies does that argument show up? Who dies?

***

I feel that it's safe to say that whoever is the next president will be more belligerent than Barack Obama in terms of quote "national security." I think the next person to come into power will be more likely to spy, will be more likely to use drones to kill people in foreign countries, will be more likely to invade countries. Maybe part of the bitterness of seeing this Obama situation is knowing that such is the structure of this present democracy -- the kind of violence that we see as excessive on his part is probably about as mild as the office allows for at the moment. For sure, Hillary Clinton would do more.

***

What I like about Twitter is that you can shape a sentence and put it directly into somebody's head, and that's what a novelist or a writer of books does anyway. Except, in the case of Twitter, it's almost unmediated, because once somebody follows you, they follow you for what you might eventually tweet in the future. Somebody buys a novel, and every time they pick up that novel, they know they're entering your world. But if I send out a tweet right now, there would be no one among the people who follow me who would be expecting it -- not the exact content and certainly not the timing. So there is this way in which every tweet sort of arrives without permission, other than the prior permission of having followed a person. When all these many tweets from these hundreds of people are considered in a single glance, they present a particular narrative of what has happened in the world that day.

***

I do tweet to hear and to be heard, to speak and to be spoken to. But part of the reason we're on Twitter is also from some kind of hope of advancing a certain view of the world. If you have an interest in justice, in certain conceptions of justice, getting the word out is part of it. But also having an adequately nuanced view of any given issue is important.

***

"Bring Back Our Girls" became a thing that united Angelina Jolie, Barack Obama, a bunch of young Nigerian kids, a bunch of American kids, people in Britain, people in India, the Nigerian police, the Nigerian government, and everybody in the world. They were all on one side, and Boko Haram was on the other side. A neat binary. But unfortunately, the world is actually not divided that way. The Nigerian Army is brutal and commits a lot of human rights violations, including mass killings. The Nigerian government is highly incompetent, better known for corruption than for actually serving its people. America has its own foreign policy agendas, which are both good and bad.

***

Young Americans very often want to do good, or want to help, and very often they also want to have a nice emotional experience that has to do with saving these distant people. I think it's definitely instructive that there is no "Bring Back Our Girls"-style campaign around, let's say, gun violence in Chicago. It tells us something about which priorities are more convenient, which causes are easier to champion.

***

In my thinking, I try to foreground certain doubts about inclusiveness, about language, about the assumptions that people make. If "we" are keeping "our" interests safe by dropping bombs on "them," it's natural for me to say, "We who?" I don't accept the basis on which this "we" has been determined. Is it a matter of your passport? Is it a coincidence? Is it about race? Is it about educational level or income? So maybe I am interested in a kind of radical egalitarianism that is not achievable -- but just because it's not achievable does not mean I can't remind myself of it. 

Illustration by Robert Ball for FP