I grew up believing I had two mothers. My father, two mothers and all my brothers and sisters lived together in the same compound, in the city of Kano in Northern Nigeria. I would have had three mothers but my father’s first wife, the one I was named after, died before I was born, leaving behind 11 children. My birth mother had 12 children and my second mother had 6 so I grew up totally surrounded by brothers and sisters and extended family members.
My father came from a polygamous family – it is not uncommon for Hausa men to marry two or more women and have many, many children. My mothers also came from polygamous households so there was an element of normality to our family structure: the fact that my father had more than one wife, the fact that we all had two mothers and that there were so many of us was not strange at all.
In fact, as a child, I remember thinking that my second mother, who was closer to me in complexion, was actually my real mother. She was always soft with me, lenient and kind. I was convinced that she was my birth mother, not the strict, fair-skinned one. After all, your real mother is meant to be the soft one, isn’t she? But in our case, the lines were so blurred that I was not able to distinguish my own brothers and sisters from my half brothers and sisters – some of the children who look the most alike are actually from different mothers. It was only when I had my first child and a relative came to help me with the baby and started to tell me about my family tree that I learned which of my siblings had the same birth mother as me. We were all treated the same by my father and mothers, you see. My mother, the disciplinarian, beat all of us without fear or favour and her co-wife was just as soft with us as with her own children. We were just one big family, masha Allah, and we were close, just like we are today.
Polygamy in Northern Nigeria is different to what you find in the West. Firstly, it is very common so, in a way, it is expected for a man to marry more than one wife at some point. That changes the way you see your relationship as a wife: you don’t own your husband. Also, space is not an issue so the whole family may live on one compound together, with each wife having her own space for cooking, sleeping etc. It may seem strange to live so close to your co-wife and her children but it means that the children grow up as true brothers and sisters, as we did. Because we all lived together, our mothers could work together to run the household and we saw them both as mother figures. And it also meant that we didn’t miss out on seeing our father.
I saw my father every day, in the morning as he was getting ready to go to work as a qadi, and in the evening, when he got back from court. He would give a lesson in the masjid after Maghrib and then we would all sit together in the living room, often more than twenty of us – children, nephews, nieces and our maids. He would ask us to recite the Qur’an for him, test us on the verses we had memorised and ask us questions on Islamic topics.
My mothers were like sisters; they cared for each other’s children as if they were their own and their different personalities complemented each other. I never saw any evidence of rivalry between them. For example, I remember my mother putting us to bed then taking her paper and pencil to her co-wife’s house to teach her how to read and write Arabic. I think the fact that they all came from polygamous households made it easier for them to create a harmonious home environment.
There was never any difference between children from different mothers. Not only did our two mothers raise us jointly, but they also looked after the children of the first wife who passed away. We were, and still are, one unit, masha Allah. When my father passed away, my older brothers and sisters called a meeting. We needed to decide how things were going to be run, now that the head of the house was gone. School fees needed to be settled, dowries paid for, wedding gifts bought – whatever was happening in the family, we would all come together and share out the duties and responsibilities so that everyone was looked after. This has kept the family together and united, and my two mothers still live on the compound, surrounded by children, grandchildren, relatives and domestic help.
Although I am my husband’s only wife, I would not be shocked if he married again. Only a couple of my siblings are in polygamous marriages at the moment but for us, the way we grew up was normal. Of course, my personal ideas about polygamy have been shaped by my experience: if the polygamy is healthy, then why not? For me, ‘healthy polygamy’ is a plural marriage where there is no fighting between the wives, good relationships between the siblings and no preferences on the part of the husband. If a family can achieve that, then Alhamdulillah.
In this two-part series, Timea Csányi meets sisters who are in polygynous marriages. Here, she meets two Muslimahs who are very happy to be sister-wives.
Papatia Feauxzar shares her experience of growing up in a multi-faith family.