Massai wife sharing

I read Barefoot over the Serengeti a while back. In it David Read writes about his childhood in africa. He was born in 1922 in Nairobi and spent his early years in Tanzania. He spent most of his time with the Massai. He spoke their language as well as english. He knew not just their customs but about how their society operated. From the inside. Much of the book is spent transmitting that knowledge. A few examples:

  • He explains how society is stratified by age groups. Massai boys are placed in a cohort based on age. Those cohorts are around 5 years wide. The age gap between the youngest and oldest members of a cohort mean that often individuals will graduate to the next stage in life at different ages. Some boys may become morans (men, warriors) at 15. Others at 20.
  • He explains the significance of circumcision and all the strange steps in the ritual that surrounds it. If a boy flinches during it, he’s disgraced. While the man rests after the circumcision any woman may come and sleep with him as a punishment for past transgressions.
  • Most ceremonies or transitions are marked with sacrifices of meat and other valuable foods. These sacrificed foods are then consumed by the elders/men.
  • Wife sharing is normal and expected. It is expected that a man should give his wife to a friend of the same age group who visits him as normal form of hospitality.

The last norm is probably the strangest. In most cultures men are fiercely possessive of their women, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Letting someone else sleep with your wife means you risk spending your resources raising someone elses child. Evolution strongly selects against those who let that happen. Why then is it a thing in Massai society? My hypothesis is that it helps solve the most difficult problem any group of humans faces when trying to build functioning social organizations, in-group preference/nepotism. Naturally people form cliques based on familial relation. Brothers support brothers. Cousins support cousins. These kinds of cliques then go on to corrupt any larger organization as they divert resources (physical goods, positions of power, etc…) to their members. The massai use of wife sharing makes the father of any child uncertain, weakening male familial bonds. Their early grouping of men into age group bands which then form the primary form of social life also serve to to some extent replace normal familial bonds, especially when young men become warriors and live together in warrior camps for years.

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