(BLSB) - The Boy-Wives of the Azande of the Southern Sudan

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Zande men with shields, harp (circa July–August 1879). Photograph by Richard Buchta. Southern Sudan Project, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, Oxford.

From "Sexual Inversion among the Azande" by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, in American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 72, No. 6 (December 1970).

Note 1: Evans-Pritchard did his fieldwork in what is now South Sudan.[1]

Note 2: The following information relies on firsthand accounts by people who witnessed the practice in question before it was discontinued.

I have pointedly used the terms “wife,” “husband,” and “marriage,” for, as the texts will make clear, the relationship was, for so long as it lasted, a legal union on the model of a normal marriage. The warrior paid bridewealth (some five spears or more) to the parents of his boy and performed services for them as he would have done had he married their daughter; if he proved to be a good son-in-law they might later replace the son by a daughter. Also, if another man had relations with his boy he could, I was told, sue him at court for adultery.

The boys were “women”: “Ade nga ami,” they would say, “we are women.” A boy was addressed by his lover as diare ‘my wife,’ and the boy addressed him as kumbami ‘my husband.’ The boys used to eat out of sight of the warriors in the same way as women do not eat in the presence of their husbands. The boys performed many of the smaller services a woman performs daily for her husband, such as gathering leaves for his ablutions, gathering leaves for his bed, drawing water and breaking off firewood for him, helping him in hoeing his father’s cultivations, bearing messages for him, and bringing him cooked provisions from his home to court to supplement those provided by the prince; but he did not cook porridge for him. With regard to these services it should be borne in mind that a young man at court had no mother or sisters to look after him there. Also, the boy-wife carried his husband’s shield when on a journey. It should be understood that he performed these services lest it might be thought that the relationship was entirely of a sexual nature; it will be appreciated that it had an educational side to it. With regard to the sexual side, at night the boy slept with his lover, who had intercourse with him between his thighs (Azande expressed disgust at the suggestion of anal penetration). The boys got what pleasure they could by friction of their organs on the husband’s belly or groin. However, even though there was this side to the relationship, it was clear from Zande accounts that there was also the comfort of a nightly sharing of the bed with a companion.

The word “boy” (kumba gude) must, it would appear, be interpreted liberally, for as far as I could judge from what I was told the lads might have been anywhere between about twelve and twenty years of age. When they ceased to be boys they joined the companies of warriors to which their at-one-time husbands belonged and took boys to wife on their own account; so the period of marriage was also one of apprenticeship.

Portrait of a Zande boy (circa 1927–1930). Photograph by Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard. Southern Sudan Project, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, Oxford.


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