Recently I was in Malawi to train a team of field workers to conduct a large-scale survey on HIV prevention behavior. Before such an international trip, I often get a lot of questions regarding the landscape or local culture of my destination from people who are not familiar with my work or the part of the world I happen to be visiting. Most recently, an acquaintance asked me several questions about multiple sexual partnerships and polygamy in Malawi. “Are people really okay with having multiple partners? Even the women? Even married people?” So during my uneventful nights in a remote hotel on top of a mountain in Malawi’s southern region, I did some reading on local marriage customs. Almost as if thoughts were planted by my acquaintance, I came across a concept I was unfamiliar with—the “bonus wife” (mbirigha or nthena in Chichewa, the local language).
In several Malawian cultures, a man acquires a “bonus wife” when he marries the younger sister or niece of his current wife.