What makes Abisi cultural history so special is the way they have used marriage to boost their social organization. Abisi marriages will be described in detail later on but a preliminary outlook is necessary before going on.
We can imagine the first «sitting friends» discussing how to hold together these different sections. It does take a lot of sociological imagination to succeed with a sustainable project that will last for many generations. It had to be workable, ecologically , culturally and politically.
The first problem we see is how to produce enough food for everybody? Agricultural knowledge was available but since all production relied only on manpower, the question was how to organize work?
They devised a variety of means to do this: dividing work between men and women and between ages, young and old, but also between Abisi and neighbors with whom they exchanged products.
They also relied on bride services of young men to hoe the fields.
But the main question of such a self-sustainable social project is demographic: how to maintain the population?
In other words, how to organize relations between men and women and their children? It’s by establishing marriage rules that these relations can be organized in a stable way.
Polygamy, Polygyny, and Polyandry
There are many solutions to this question.
Some would prefer monogamy, the creation of a family by one man and one woman in an exclusive relation or polygamy which is sometimes understood as polygenic, the marriage of a man with multiple wives.
In fact, the word polygamy also refers to situations where both men and women are married to multiple spouses. In the women’s case, it is called polyandry.
Some societies have chosen one or the other of these marriage rules.
The Abisi, like many other people of the plateau preferred to choose a system of rules which permitted multiple marriages for both men and women.
This is sometimes called the «secondary marriage system» which describes the possibility for a woman to have a second husband without divorcing the first one she married.
The Use of Abisi Marriage System
But it is important to understand the part played by marriages in making of Abisi society. By using such marriage rules, Abisi solved many social organization problems. The impacts of such a secondary marriage system were beneficial in many ways.
First, all five main sections could be related permanently, there is no divorce, thru the marriages of a single woman. Since there are five basic sections, a woman could, at least in Abisi theory, take a husband in each of the other four sections.
Thus, all of Abisi could be united by a complex web of family relations. Each time there was a marriage, people became in-laws, cousins and also, co-husbands.
This marriage system has played a major role in uniting Abisi families of all section and in unifying their language into a single idiom.
Another major impact of marriage was on agricultural work organization. Each of these marriages has different bride services, some mobilizing large groups of young men in the fields of in-laws, men, and women.
Multiplying women marriages has the same impact as if they were much more numerous than men, giving to everyone the possibility to have many wives, to be polygynous but, at a cost!
Young men had to work more than the individual subsistence needs of their household and produce surpluses.
One of the uses of these crops was to pay for their freedom.We can imagine the economic stress put on all Abisi by slavery and predation of dominant groups who could pressure them to pay high amounts of goods to be left in peace.
This protection system necessitated producing a large surplus to meet its demands. Giving women many husbands helped achieve this goal by making young men work hard to get them.
We can already see the ingenuity of this social engineering project but also, as we shall discuss later, the fundamental role that women played in the history of abisi and culture.
Let us remember that Abisi people were all strangers at the beginning and unifying them into one unit was fundamental to their survival. These first settlers were transformed by their ancestor’s cultural imagination and social engineering into a unique cultural community.
This historic “ethnogenesis” (the making of a people) to which their unique language is a blatant witness is not to be confused with a migration process where people of different origins live side by side under the same administration.
Making one out of many was attained by women’s plural marriages.