Association for Africanist Anthropology
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
Debates about the nature of “African” sexuality are age-old and have been used to justify discriminatory policies since the days of colonialism. Assumptions of “promiscuity” are compounded when one examines the literature on matrilineal societies in Africa, where there has been a consistent emphasis on structurally “brittle” marriages. The scholarly focus on the supposed brittleness of marriage in matrilineal societies presaged more recent discussions about serial and multiple concurrent partner unions in the context of the AIDS epidemic. This paper questions these assumptions by examining the effects of colonial labour practices, such as long-distance male labour migration, on marriage in matrilineal societies in Malawi. I argue that decades of labour migration, at its height during the the time when much of the foundational literature on matriliny in sub-Saharan Africa was being written, greatly exacerbated conjugal instability and promoted competitive multiple concurrent partner sex. The effects of these labour policies linger on today in practices of informal polygyny, covert polyandry and persistent demographic myths about the ratio of men to women.