“Divorce is not a new thing, people have been getting divorces in this part of the world for centuries. The truth is that marriage was not necessarily about love, but wait this is not a bad thing, marriage was a contract in which both the husband and the wife would receive mutual benefits. In addition, women married families, not just the man. If the wife was not gaining her benefits, why should she stay in the marriage? Some of us are the grand- or great-grand daughters of women who divorced several times. It was not a taboo and was not treated as something shameful. Apparently no woman getting married believed that it would last a lifetime. Women left their husbands under various pretexts and returned to their parents’ home leaving children with the husband’s family, they would frequently return to continue playing a role in their children’s lives. Women could have several husbands in their lifetime not unlike men who married multiple women.”
–Cosmic Yoruba, “Would Your Ancestors be Shocked by Traditional Marriage?” on pre-colonial marriage practices among the Yoruba (She also posts about other West African tribes.) Bold mine.
“I have noted that the most popular women in Yoruba history who are still remembered today are thought to have never married or had children (starting with Efunsetan). When women divorced, sometimes they would leave their children with their husbands’ families, so blended families always existed too. And there were several reasons people did not marry, sometimes not by choice, for example certain priests/priestesses never married because they were already married to the dieties they worshipped.”
” I can’t speak authoritatively for every society, but in parts of Yorubaland this love of kids was not limited to ones biological children. It’s interesting that people would say Africans in the past loved kids, but would limit this to biological children. Have we all not heard of the “it takes a whole village to raise a child” thing? Marriage was never for procreation because children were seen as communal. I have learned that adoption was not uncommon among some Yoruba of the past (and in fact among other ethnic groups, remember King Ahebi’s most beloved son was adopted). Usually temporary unlike the Western adoption model today, it was normal for children to live away from their parents. My own parents did not grow up with their parents but with relatives. It was common back in the day to send children to a place where they could learn a trade and work as an apprentice. Basically everyone took care of children.”
“I think a lot of us tend to be ashamed of polygamy when referring to the past but look at it this way; the polygamy of the past existed because people needed to make a living. Again marriage was mutually beneficial. In places where land was usually owned by men, wives would work on land, farm and sell their produce in order to make money for themselves.”
The location of pre-colonial Yorubaland (from Wikipedia):
From Slavery Site: “Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with a population of 149,229,090. It is bordered on the coast by Benin to the west and Cameroon to the east. Lagos was originally settled by the Yorubas, and is now the largest city in Nigeria (8-10 million population) and one of the largest in Africa, second to Cairo in urban area population. Located on the Slave Coast, it was a major center of the slave trade from 1704 to 1851.”
From Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect: Trend and Issues (discussing the CA foster care system):
“Foster Care Population by Race/Ethnicity. As shown in Figure 10, African–American and Native American children make up a disproportionately high amount of the foster care population relative to their share of the total state population (for those ages 20 or younger). The rates of African–Americans in foster care are four times that of the rates of African–Americans in the state’s total population, [bold mine] and similar disproportionality exists for Native Americans. Conversely, there are lower rates of Whites, Latinos, and Asian/Pacific Islanders in the foster care population as there are in the state’s total population. Most notably, Asian/Pacific Islanders make up approximately 11 percent of the state population but only 2.5 percent of the foster care population. [Me: Even though a lot of these folks were Vietnamese refugees who’ve had it pretty damn hard in life.]
“Foster Care Outcomes by Race/Ethnicity. There are also differences in foster care outcomes when comparing one race/ethnicity to another, some of which are displayed in Figure 11. As shown in the figure, African–American and Native American children are significantly more likely to be the subject of a substantiated maltreatment report and enter foster care as compared to White, Latino, or Asian/Pacific Islander children. … African–American and Native American children are also less likely to reunify with their families than White, Latino, and Asian/Pacific Islander children. Further, African–American children have less stability in their foster care placements on average than children of all other races/ethnicities.”
ChildStats.gov states, “Seventy-four percent of White, non-Hispanic, 59 percent of Hispanic, and 33 percent of Black children lived with two married parents in 2012.” That leaves 77% of black kids living with one parent or no parents; 77-55= 22% of black kids living with no parents. A large% of those kids live with grandparents, aunts, or other relatives, but a lot are in foster care.
Black marriage rates:
Conservatives like to claim that if black people would just form two-parent families and raise their kids together, black poverty, incarceration, drug use, low SAT scores, etc., would all disappear.
While a bit of stability might help, (or might not, since males commit the vast majority of violence, so you might just trade neglect for physical abuse,) conservatives are probably on the wrong general track.
The quotes at the top of the post, about the Yoruba, are the sort of thing you might read in your anthropology class and come away with the idea that before evil white people showed up, the rest of the world was full of wonderful gender egalitarians who had lovely, enlightened views about childrearing. Even the title of presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s book, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child,” is supposed to come from an African proverb on child rearing. There’s some controversy over whether or not it is an actual proverb, or just loosely based on one of the many very similar African proverbs, eg, “A child does not grow up only in a single home,” and, “A child belongs not to one parent or home.” (from the Wikipedia page on the book.)
Various conservatives have responded, “No, it takes a family to raise a child,” just showing that no one involved understands tribal family structure, because a “village” in tribal society is an extended family.
But a village isn’t an extended family in the US, which makes the notion of trying to transfer the model to a population where outbreeding has been the norm for over a thousand years, tribalism is almost non-existent, and most people don’t live anywhere near their extended kin (and they are less closely related to their extended kin than people in a tribal society who’ve been marrying their first and second cousins for generations,) sound rather fraught with difficulties.
The rest of the post is meant to caution against seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Here we have descendants of that same population (plus others) with very similar marriage and child-rearing norms, but the general reaction is completely opposite. What is a sign of the wonderfulness of tribal Africans is considered a sign of degeneracy and/or dysfunction here at home. (It is, of course, a total mystery how the same group of people could come up with the same childrearing and marriage norms while living in totally different times, places, and dominant cultures. /sarcasm)
Here in the US, we can see for ourselves rates of child abuse, malnutrition and neglect (and we think of this as a problem.) Until someone invents a time machine, we’ll have a much more difficult time getting a first-hand view of the pre-colonial Yoruba. (Heck, the vast majority of us don’t even have a first-hand view of the current Yoruba.) I’m sure some colonialists wrote accounts of what they saw when they arrived in the area–but any colonialist account that paints pre-colonialized people in a negative light is generally assumed to be biased and tainted by racism, which makes such accounts not-so-useful for supporting arguments in polite discussion. We’d need some kind of data, and data is often hard to come by.
Here are my own suspicions, though:
The tribal/village structure of these west African communities probably provided enough kin support that families could move children around like this and still have many of them reach adulthood. The system may, in fact, have been superior to just having the kids home with mom. Similar to modern day care, the extended kin network could look after the kids while mom worked in the fields or traveled to other cities to trade or do other work.
This system has low incentives for marital fidelity or monogamy, leading to an excess of males, which helped catapult the slave trade in the first place, though that is beyond the scope of this post.
The tendency toward monogamy or non-monogamy is probably basically genetic, reflecting the environmental/cultural structure one’s ancestors lived in. Your particular moral norms on the subject most likely just reflect whatever was evolutionarily advantageous for your ancestors–anyone who did what wasn’t evolutionarily advantageous didn’t tend to become your ancestor.
However, rates of child abuse/neglect/abandonment/starvation/malnutrition were probably pretty high, just as they are in various communities today. These sorts of unpleasant details just don’t tend to show up in accounts that are trying to cast their subjects in a positive light, and frankly, horrible rates of infant mortality were so common in the past as to be unremarkable to many observers.
Here in the US, the system is less functional because, for starters, there are few African American men with large farms for their wives to raise crops on. People who would have been on the top of the social pile in Yorubaland, people who had all of the traits necessary to be a successful, thriving, happy member of Yoruba society may not have the traits necessary to out-compete, say, Taiwanese immigrants with their nose-to-the grindstone approach to getting their kids into medical school. Living in modern America is also much more expensive than living in a tribal village–the cost of housing, transportation (car), health care, etc., in the US will set you back many a small third world farm. Not to mention different policing standards.
Per capita GDP in modern Nigeria is $3,005.51. This is after tremendous growth; in 2000, it was only $377.50–I’m guessing oil is mostly responsible for the difference, because I recall hearing about a joint venture between the Russian gas company Gazprom and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, so I’d caution against assuming that a ton of that money went to ordinary citizens. Looking backwards, pre-colonial per capita GDP was probably also pretty darn low, with most people engaged in subsistence agriculture.
Our perceptions of “wealth” are entirely dependent on how the other citizens of a society lives–a guy with a fifty acre farm can be “wealthy” in a third-world agricultural society, while “desperately poor” by first world standards. How he sees himself probably has a lot to do with how he sees his neighbors–is he on top of his society, or at the bottom?