Traditionally, in the Maasai society and culture, polygamy served the demands of a pastoralist lifestyle. Cattle are a highly valued source of pride and a symbol of wealth. Maasai men spend most of their time collecting cows to add to their cattle herd, as it indicated a higher economic status.
To take care of and look after the increasing number of cattle, men married multiple wives, who would look after their households and cattle. Hence, the practice of polygamy became an integral part of their cultural norms.
According to the Maasai society, the first wife has an important role in the family. It is believed that she brings more blessings to a boma (home in Maa language), which is why she is considered the right hand of the Maasai man. This is the reason why the first wife will build her house on the right side of the main gate to his kraal (the fence that encircles the boma)
The co-wives generally share a bond of sisterhood with each other. They are expected to share everything, cooperate together, take care of each other, and find solutions to their problems together.
Jealousy among the Maasai women does not exist, but the man will always try to see that each of the women’s fundamental needs is met. The wife may go back to her parent’s house if her needs are not fulfilled.
Elikana, a Maasai elder shared, “It is very important for a Maasai man to equally divide gifts between all his wives and children.”
With changes in time, social mindset, and economic growth, this practice is receding. Many young Maasai from the tribe now prefer a monogamous relationship.
According to Jackson, a 28-year-old Maasai man, people earlier believed that in order to live a good life, one needs to marry multiple wives, as it also leads to a better standing in society. But he doesn’t believe it to be true. “You don’t need multiple wives to live a good life.”
The rapidly increasing water crisis has also led to a decrease in the economic status of the villagers, as many have lost cattle due to deforestation and drought. Agnes, the first wife to a Maasai man, feels that traditions like polygamy should be stopped. She feels that with just one husband and wife, life would be much easier and resources can be shared. With many wives, it becomes difficult. “I want my son to have only one wife,” Agnes shared.
Botoro, also a first wife, shared similar thoughts. “I will never let my boys marry more than once. You should be allowed to, only when you are economically sound.”