Wednesday, February 22, 2017

USA Africa Dialogue Series - Emir Sanusi on Polygamy, Procreation, and Poverty


Emir Muhammadu Sanusi of Kano recently caused controversy by proposing a new Islamic family law to regulate polygamy, which he linked to unregulated procreation, poverty, juvenile delinquency, and terrorism.

In principle, I agree with the emir of Kano's pronouncement on polygamy, procreation, and poverty. However, there is need to proceed with caution on the legislative intervention he is proposing. I am not Muslim or Hausa so I may not be able to speak to the theological and cultural issue at stake. However, I do know that our societies in Africa are driven by patriarchy and notions of masculine pride and dignity. This culture tends to mediate how people see these things.

Like the emir, I used to display an unqualified intolerance for people who want to bring many children into this world despite lacking the means to care for them. I used to preach vehemently and somewhat haughtily against unbridled procreation among my own poor extended family. 

Then I decided to scold this stubborn member of the family, a primary school teacher who insisted, as he put it, on having as many children as God would give him, despite clearly not having the means to care for them. Several people in our family had spoken to him to no avail.

Because I was occasionally supporting him financially I felt that I had some leverage and sway with him and could convince him to see what every other person was seeing and drop his policy of unrestrained procreation. The first time I talked to him, he listened to my long speech and politely promised to look into the matter.

A couple of years and another child later, I decided to confront him again on the issue. Everyone felt that he would only listen to me. This time he was ready for me, fuming while listening to me. Because he is much older than me, I took his fuming to be a response to my tone and decided to persuade him rather than scold him for his choice. 

When my sermon was over, he cleared his throat and declared that he too had something to say to me. He said essentially that as a man, a man of our ethnic group, there are two things that one aspires to possess in abundance: wealth and children. These two possessions or at least one of them, he said, made one a man. He said he didn't have money and could never be wealthy, having become too old for wealth to happen to him. All he had left to demonstrate his masculinity in order not to be considered a failure in life was to have as many children as he could have and to be remembered for being blessed with children when he is gone. He said people like me who "have money" would not understand, since we already had the ability to possess the two gold standards of manly success. He said if he had money like me, my advice would make sense and he would not need to have many children.

Folks like him, he said, will have lived unremarkable, vain lives if they did not procreate liberally when they were on this earth. With my wealth (he saw me as wealthy) I was already guaranteed respect as a man, and regardless of how many children I have, I was assured of maximum cultural capital as a man, as well as a legacy. He then tried to appeal to my clan pride. He said I was a small boy, that I didn't know that our lineage had been depleted by untimely deaths and needed to be repopulated, and that I should appreciate and support his effort to assure the lineage of continuity and human capital in the future. Finally, he asked if I didn't think it was mean and selfish of me, a successful man assured of recognition and respect, to stop him from fulfilling his manly destiny the only way he could still do so. He was accusing me of trying to stop him from getting to where I was--a place of masculine accomplishment as defined by our culture. He was accusing me of trying to kick away the proverbial ladder that got me to the place of respect he imagined me to occupy. 

I was humbled. I piped down. He had successfully emotionally blackmailed me. He had turned the leverage I thought I had on him against me. I came into the conversation on the offensive. He had put me on the defensive. I now had to reassure him that I was not out to keep him from building a legacy of masculine accomplishment. Even though I still disagreed fundamentally with his rationalization of his unbridled procreation, he made sense from a purely cultural perspective, the most dominant frame of reference available to him.

We agreed to disagree on the issue, and I told him that he would see my point in the future and that I hoped that he would not regret shunning my advice.

Even though we parted on a note of disagreement, I came away with a better appreciation for where he was coming from, for his masculine anxieties, and for the unspoken patriarchal cultural pressures against which he was struggling, and which were unfortunately determining his procreation decision.

I knew that he was speaking from a well established cultural script. In my village in Benue state, a man considered successful in the old days would boast that he had money and he had many children, meaning that he was complete. I connected what he had said to this manly tradition of success and fulfilment.

I realized that as personal as this issue may seem, it is deeply interwoven with our society's notions of masculinity and masculine pride, and that unless the culture evolves persons operating solely within it may never be persuaded to act outside of its dictates.


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