Whereas men give authority and structure to Margi society, women give it life and joy. The anxiety about the future that plagues men has never been their concern. Although in outward appearances they affect a modest style, rarely looking a man in the eye, in fact, they were and they are irreverent, audacious, and above all independent. These are not subservient drudges trapped in polygynous marriages; these are co-wives who frequently conspire to outwit their husbands. Nor are they without options; more than three quarters of all divorces--and in 1960 the Margi divorce rate was ten times the US rate--are initiated by women. Although their lot is a hard one--maternal mortality rates are high and infant mortality is their curse--they are nonetheless the life of a village. No sound is so characteristic of village life as the sound of women's laughter, no gossip so frequent as the stories of wives who have eloped with lovers, and no puzzlement so common as men's bewilderment at their seemingly perfidious wives.
This cheerful picture so typifies for me Margi women; hard workers, they nevertheless find time to laugh and tease one another as well as passing anthropologists.
Nkwapinsu, one of Ptil's seven wives in 1974, is here pictured on the day that she first publicly showed her newborn daughter. She is freshly covered in yinsidu, a custom which has sometimes led Margi and other Mandara women to be called "the red women of Nigeria." A child is not publicly shown for seven days, after which it is then named and reckoned as a person. Should it die during the preceding days it will not be counted as having been born, except in the heart of its mother. (I had the honor of naming this child, and I named her "Susie" after my daughter who was very popular among the women and children in our village.)
Ularamai, wife of Mjigumtu, was also a near neighbor. Despite my assertion about women being cheerful, Ularamai always seemed to have a worried look. I think of this photograph as "Worried Madonna." Her husband was one of the most handsome men in Kirngu.
Ulubaryu, 37, was the senior wife of Fayamu Simnda, one of the wealthiest and most prestigious men in the area. She was, however, fiercely independent, and when her husband converted to Islam she refused to follow and left him to live as a malabjagu (see below). The child in her lap, Abba, graduated from Ahmadu Bello University and after a stint as a banker made a career in the Nigerian foreign service. He is one of my closest correspondents.
When this photograph was taken I only knew this young Humbili woman as a bold and flirtatious beauty. She was a wife of Utsiawa, the brother of and eventual successor to Milamasha, the head of the ingkyagu. Over the years, after her husband succeeded his brother, I came to know her very well indeed.
She was the most ribald Margi woman I ever met. She also proved to be Humbili's best potter. She made several pots for me, including my personal shrines. In 1981 she made what can only be called a pornographic pot and entered it in a regional fair. She was incensed that it was rejected by the pious Muslim judges.
This young wife, a daughter of Ijerafu and a sister of Nggeramu, had grown up in Kirngu but had moved to her husband's village upon their marriage. I saw her only on the single occasion of a visit to her parent's compound. She is one of the few persons in this exhibition whom I did not know personally, but she was so strikingly beautiful that I could not resist including her in this collection.
When women pass menopause, which seems to occur on average in their early 50s, they assume an entirely different status called malabjagu. They leave their conjugal households and move into their own compounds, which are provided by their husbands. Often they will take their youngest child--particularly a daughter--to assist them. They have their own farms also provided by their former husbands. They are released from the constraints of younger women, and in most instances become even bolder and more carefree than they had been. They constitute one of the most interesting, knowledgeable, and enjoyable segments of society. (When they become infirm they are likely to move in with a son, which was the case of Suduyu, previously shown, and this woman, the mother of the head of the ingkyagu. Occasionally an infirm malabjagu moves back with a caring husband.)