Last week in Africa, I learned I had two wives, and I have to admit the news shocked me. No, this isn't an argument for polygamy. Like my Kenyan friend who offered this provocative assertion, I feel that one mother-in-law is enough.
Still, my friend's teasing got me thinking that globalization has done less to change the essential nature of human interactions than simply recast their scale and reach. In short, the global village is real, defined less by technology than by people's super-empowered desire to connect to others.
First, let me give you the genealogy of my Kenyan friend, Ngewa.
Ngewa likes to say that he has "but one wife," with whom he shares two daughters. His father had two wives, both of whom Ngewa considers to be his mothers, according to the tradition of his rural birthplace. His father's father took 48 women to be his brides, providing Ngewa with over 100 uncles and aunts, many of whom he's never met.
Ngewa's lineage is unremarkable for East Africa (see Barack Obama's Kenyan ancestors), reflecting the generational collapse of this ancient marrying tradition. While Ngewa's grandfather spent his entire life tending to his village-bound family, his much-accomplished grandson has traveled abroad repeatedly and soon sends his eldest child to Australia for college.
How did Ngewa's grandfather acquire so many wives?
"My grandfather was very rich," says Ngewa. "So he took as many wives as he could afford, to make sure no women or children in his village lacked husbands or fathers."
Back then, explained Ngewa, "a man's worth was measured in terms of the people he supported and the livestock he owned," so multiple marriages were viewed as success translated into communal duty. If you had more to share, you were expected to share it with more.
"But how did your grandfather decide whom to marry?" I asked.
"Simple," replied Ngewa. "His first wife chose his second, they in turn chose the third, and so on."
"Amazing," I replied, noting that such a thing would be inconceivable in modern America. Ngewa then asked me how many children I had.
I replied, "My wife and I have four children. We had three children together, and then we adopted a fourth child from China."
"Ah," said Ngewa. "How did you come to this decision?"
I explained that both my wife and I came from small rural villages where large families were common (Vonne was the third of four, while I was the eighth of nine), so it just seemed natural to keep adding kids, even after we couldn't have any more on our own. When pressed further by my friend, I readily admitted that Vonne was the driving force behind our choice and that it was quite possible we weren't done growing our family, in large part because she felt our relative wealth created such responsibility toward others.
"I think you will end up having as many children as your father did," Ngewa predicted. "Perhaps your children won't know all their uncles and aunts, there will be so many of them. I think that, if you don't stop, you will end up like my grandfather, with too many wives!"
"Amazing," I mumbled to myself, wondering exactly how many unknown relations are out there.
My Chinese daughter could easily have a biological sister and brother, in addition to - obviously - her two birth parents and all the relatives naturally attached to them.
When DNA testing becomes commonplace worldwide, my family could easily discover new members by the boatload.
In the end, our village may know no bounds.
In a world seemingly cleaved by antagonistic tribal identities, I think such extended kinship is good, and so does Ngewa, who made me promise to someday bring my family to Kenya.
"If you do," he winked, "I think we will end up as relatives!"
I'm sure we already are.