Desertion and Divorce
Desertion and Divorce
Desertion. While desertion did not occur frequently during the period 500-1590, it did happen. Though a woman might leave her husband because of physical abuse, she brought shame to her family unless she was able to establish proof sufficient to constitute grounds for divorce. A woman who deserted her husband normally took refuge in her father’s compound or village until her reasons for leaving her husband were established. If there were not sufficient evidence to justify her action, the woman’s senior brothers or uncles immediately returned her to her husband’s family. At this point the husband had the choice of taking her back into his household or rejecting her and asking for his dowry back. He was especially likely to do the latter if he had reason to believe that her desertion was a result of infidelity.
Infidelity. If a married woman eloped with a lover, her action was severely stigmatized, and she was subject to serious sanctions that might include the loss of her marital status and any claim to her children. The man with whom she eloped was either exiled from the village or humiliated through public flogging. Married men rarely deserted their families unless they committed acts that brought shame and dishonor to their relatives. While it was not unusual for a man to keep other women outside his household, he was unlikely to leave his family for any of these women. It was more likely that he might bring a mistress into the household and confer on her the status of wife.
Divorce. Divorce was rare but was allowed in some situations. Grounds for divorce could include physical and mental abuse and male impotence. Where dowry and bridewealth were involved, the woman could divorce her husband on any of these grounds by returning the dowry or bridewealth. If the husband refused to take it back, she could deposit it with the oldest member of the clan (or a high chief), who in turn annulled the marriage according to established customs. In most African societies infidelity was rarely a reason for divorce because most adult males engaged in polygamous relationships.
George B. N. Ayittey, Indigenous African Institutions (Ardsley-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Transnational, 1991).
Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall, The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings (Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books, 1989).
F. Ivan Nye and Felix Berardo, The Family: Its Structure and Interactions (London: Macmillan, 1973).