(Adapted from the Spanish Original)
September 28th, 2007
The Scream of the African Woman
Choga Regina Egbeme had just finished giving birth in a Lagos hospital, Nigeria, in 1995 when she was told that
both she and her baby were infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. Choga was a teenager who had
just fled from a forced marriage with a polygamist thrice her age, who regularly raped and beat her. She had
never heard about this disease.
When the extent of her tragedy dawned on her, Choga screamed and cried until exhaustion. The sad stories of
Choga and so many other African women reach us through their louder and louder screams of rebellion, thanks
to a series of bestsellers published in recent years.
Choga was born in a harem. Her father was a rich man: he married 48 women and left behind nearly a hundred
children. The boys studied in boarding schools, whereas the girls remained prisoners in the harem until the
patriarch decided to marry them, with another polygamist of course. His daughters and wives had neither
access to education, nor to money of their own, and could not leave the house without permission, much less
make decisions about their own destiny.
Polygamy is an ancestral custom still common in Africa -- mainly in western Africa. It is practiced by adherents
to all religions, but specially by followers of traditional beliefs and Muslims. In Islam, a man can take a maximum
of four wives, all of whom he must support and treat equally; whereas in the African tradition wives work for
free in the fields and as maids of their husband and must obey his first wife’s commands.
Polygamy, combined with very young fiancées, produces elevated fertility levels. It makes sense as as survival
strategy in agrarian societies that need a lot of manual labor and which suffer from very high mortality rates.
Africa’s increasing modernization and westernization of its values favor a vision of women as independent
human beings and no longer as family property. But even so more than 40% of women between 15 and 49 years
of age in Senegal live in polygamous unions.
Choga Regina Egbeme left us written testimony of her anger before succumbing to AIDS in 2003, when she was
only 27. A shocking fact in her biography is that her mother was not an African, but a German expat who
abandoned her first family to seek refuge of her chronic depressions in the solidarity of the harem’s female
world. A harem that AIDS would eventually turn into a garden of death.
Choga’s mother was born free and chose submission, but she did not give this option to a daughter who would
have needed the rights and protections granted by a European citizenship.
Unfortunately no books of Choga’s have been translated into English yet. (She first published her books in
Germany, helped by her German half-sister). But other personal pleas are available, such as that of Somali
author Nura Abdi ("Desert Tears") against feminine genital mutilation; of Mende Nazer of Sudan ("Slave") against
slavery; and of course the brave memoirs of the famous Dutch politician of Somali origin Ayaan Hirsi Ali ("My
Life, my Freedom"), who also underwent genital mutilation and escaped the fate of a forced marriage.
While I write this, the European Union is failing to fulfill its commitment to contribute to peacekeeping forces
in Darfur, Sudan, where a genocide against hundreds of thousands of civilians is taking place and where
defenseless women are raped and attacked as part of a strategy of terror.
To our leaders, human rights in Africa are a distant thought indeed.