By Heather O.
Fatouma Kondo, 34–”Pama”, as she is known–is the first of Soumana Natomo’s two wives: Fatoumata Toure is the second. Both families eat together, share domestic tasks, and spend most of the day at Pama’s home. Fatoumata, 28, leaves in the evening with her children to sleep in her own house, which is a short walk away. Soumana, 41, alternates houses, spending the night with each woman in turn.
The joint household is tranquil. Pama (the first wife) says she is glad Soumana has a second wife, and that she would welcome a third or even a fourth. Like Fatoumata, says Pama, the additional wives could help her with the children, the housework, and the family mango orchard.
EXCERPTS FROM INTERVIEW:
How did you and Soumana meet?
Pama Kondo (first wife):Sometimes the man doesn’t even know the woman. But since we lived in the same village, we knew each other–our grandparents were relatives. It’s the man’s parents’ duty to find him a wife, so Soumana’s parents approached my parents.
What was your wedding like?
When I married, there was no big feast. We and my girlfriends and my husband’s friends and the marriage broker just went to city hall. We were asked if we loved each other and we signed some papers.
And your husband married a second wife as well–Fatoumata.
Yes, she helps me. We help each other.
So were you happy when your husband brought someone else in the family?
Yes. We were married in the same month, I and my co-wife, because when Soumana’s parents asked my parents to marry me, it took a long time [4 years] before my parents replied. He thought they would refuse and we went to seek another wife. Both families accepted at the same time.
Is that unusual?
It is not usual.
Do you think Soumana will take more wives?
Yes, to help me. Even if Soumana were married to four women [the maximum permitted by Islam law–Ed], I would be lucky, because I would always be the first wife. That gives me a higher status. I would decide what everyone would do.
What do you do during the daytime? Do you go to fetch wood?
Yes, I do. I pound rice, too. Sometimes I buy unhusked rice, steam it [to loosen the husks], pound it to remove the husks, and then sell it. We use the profits to take care of the children–buying clothes for them, paying school fees, and feeding them.
Children are very expensive. Did you plan to have five of them?
I would love to have more. Five more children, even. (laughs)
Fatoumata (the second wife), what did your father do for a living?
He was a fisherman, like my mother. [Fishing is the characteristic occupation of the Bozo people, the ethnic group to which the family belongs–Ed.]
They fished together?
Yes, we all fished. I spent eleven years working the fishnet in the river.
Did you go to school?
No, we were nomadic, mainly traveling back and forth from here to the east–the Gao region. We barely spent two months of the year here.
[Fatoumata is not literate, but Pama Kondo, the first wife, is.]
To Soumana Natomo (husband) Are your wives of equal standing with you in your home?
The husband, the father, is always at a higher level. I have more respect. I am the chief of the family, and I am superior. Men are superior in Muslim society. If you see a woman in a situation where they’re higher, it’s not a good situation.
What are your wives’ proudest acheivements?
For women one of the [important] things is being able to do commerce and bring back money. And also having children is something that they can be proud of. It’s very important, too, because if you’re old and you don’t have kids that will work in your place, you are poor and you are damned.
To Fatoumata Toure (second wife): What would you like to have more time to do? Working? Sleeping?
Working. Sleeping does not make anything happen.
NOTES: One out of three children die before age five in Mali, so women feel they must bear many sons and daughters–an average of seven–to make sure enough survive to help support them in their old age. But childbirth is risky for Malian women, who have the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Most rural women have limited access to health care, clean water, and education. And as many as three out of four adult women have undergone female circumcision.
In this mostly Islamic country, 45 percent of all married women live in polygamous households. One presidential candidate’s proposal to outlaw polygamy met with no response; the practice is such a fact of life that it seems unthinkable to even discuss such a change.
Women in Mali work hard. With daughters and wives preparing food, sweeping floors, and grinding millet, the household operates pretty smoothly. Pama and Fatoumata understand each other well, though they spend little time socializing with each other and have their own separate circles of friends. The girls worked too, as soon as they were judged capable. Still, Pai (the daughter, 13) was never given direct orders. She was treated with respect and affection.
Interview and notes by Melissa Farlow
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