how many wives does it take to…

if ever you’re short on things to write about, hop in a bush taxi (or bush van, in this case).

yes, wednesday i made my usual trip to and from porto novo to teach an english class at the girls’ school there. on the way back, i was listening to my iPod shuffle, pretty much ignoring the conversation around me (mostly in local languages anyway), other than the obligatory “bon soir” accompanied by a smile each time a new passenger squeezed on board.

the men sitting next to me were speaking so loudly, and in french, that it became impossible to concentrate on whatever song was playing. i pressed pause and eaves dropped. basically, two muslim men were talking about the proper treatment of wives, using both the bible and koran to justify their points. now, i’ve yet to perfect my french, so i’m sure there were various meanings and phrases i missed or misunderstood. but i at least agreed with the man seated across from me, who insisted it was wrong to beat your wife. you tell ‘em mister!

but mister got tired of arguing, at which point his opponent turned to me to ask my opinion. granted, this was all in french. but the conversation went something like this.

“lady. tell me. what should a man do if (insert elaborate story about two men, a woman, and a village)… his wife is unfaithful?”

“well, i suppose the man should go to his religious leader to ask for advice.”

“of course!”

“personally, i am a Christian. i think that if the wife asks to be pardoned, she should be pardoned, as Christ has pardoned us.”

“yes, exactly!”

“if she does not want to be pardoned, i suppose the husband should let her go.”

“yes! yes!”

“but in all things, it is important for the husband to be respectful of the wife (ie: not beat her), and to set an example, since he is the leader in the relationship.”

“eh, heh!” (in africa, this translates to, “right on, sister!”)

at this point, i didn’t really understand what the argument was, since the man was eager to agree with every statement i made. he was also eager to touch my leg. not really sure what to do, i picked up is hand (which he had rested on the hem of my skirt at my knee) and placed it back on his own leg. sure, this kind of thing communicates a message pretty clearly when seated at a bar or someplace in the states, but how would it be received on a bush van? where personal space is non-existent? he seemed to ignore the gesture, but refrained from leg touching, settling for my arm instead.

the conversation continued…

“where do you live, in cotonou or porto novo?”


“where in cotonou?”


“me too! you should give me your number.”

“no, thanks.”

“yes, yes, you should. i will take care of you. you have needs, do you not?”

“i have no need of you, thank you.”

“but you need a man.”

(no response… getting extremely annoyed at this point.)

“you are a missionary. does not the bible say that a woman needs a man? that man and woman are made for each other?”

(ignoring still…)

“listen to me. what does the bible say about how many wives a man can have?”

“i believe a man should take one wife.”


“we agreed that the man is the head of the relationship, yes?”

“yes! yes!”

“and that he should set an example, yes?”


“then what kind of example does the man set if he has many wives? does that mean the woman should take many husbands?”

(he laughs…) “but here in africa, if the woman leaves to visit her village, what is the man to do while she is away? he must have relations or he will grow small.” (he says this while pointing between his legs…)

“this conversation is over.”

he continued to argue his point, but i just shook my head no, making clicking noises in the back of my throat to further express my dissent. i exited the van at the nearest stop and was relieved to jump on the back of a zemi home.

somewhere in the argument about being faithful, the man said, “now i understand why you moved my hand from your leg. you will be only with your husband. even if you travel away from him.” so i guess despite my feeble french, some points did get across, even if they didn’t sink in. oh well… what can you do?

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