The Marcanda

by Sandra Bornand

Originally published in French in (no.7) in April 2005
translated by Dico Fraters


In the Zarma area of the Niger, a woman whose husband gets married organizes a ceremony in which she asks married women of the village to come and spend the day at her home. At nightfall, just before the newly-wed couple arrives, all the women form a half-circle : those who were taken as first wives start to insult those who were taken as second wives and vice-versa. This paper, which takes part in an upcoming research, is the first stage of a complete description of this ceremony. It offers a both ethno-linguistic and pragmatic approach of the first ten insults which mark the opening of the ceremony. It shows that the latter is a ritual made of fictive insults which aim to channel the conflicts so that they are socially acceptable. The context of communication and the form of insults indeed create a « symbolic distance [which] serves to insulate this exchange from further consequences » (Labov 1972 : 352).






Description of the Marcanda

Situation of stating of the ritual insults of the Marcanda

Analysis of the insults

Contents of the insults

Distribution of the word

Form of the insults (in prep.)

Functions of the insults

Native’s (emic) representations of the Marcanda






The « Marcanda » is a ceremony which a woman organizes with the money of her husband, when this latter takes a concubine. It takes place each time that a new woman arrives in the household and is intended for her who loses a privilege (the first, when he marries a second woman, the latter when he marries a third, etc). During this ceremony, she invites the married women of the village to spend the day near her and, at nightfall, just before the newly-wed couple arrives, the women form a half-circle and those married in first weddings insult those married thereafter. She who speaks advances into the centre, while the others clap their hands. The setting is therefore particularly studied and highlights the dispute character of these songs. After the final insults the women sings together, then they advise their hostess so that she accepts her new situation. Contrary to the ceremony which proceeds on the side of the husband and where the storytellers sing the praise of him, his family, his friends and more generally the social harmony, the Marcanda is thus the occasion for the women to express the problems related to the polygamous marriage. This (latent) inner conflict is expressed through insults, which form the majority of the discursive part of the Marcanda. However the insults break with the « conversational propriety » dictated by the Zarma society: the emotions are not contained any more but declared openly, and the word is abundant and sometimes very direct.


Description of the Marcanda

The public of the Marcanda only consists of married women and is characterized by the absence of the husband and his new wife, and the silence of the woman of which the husband marries. The husband spends the day with a friend, while the new wife is still with her parents where another ceremony proceeds, which is also composed of songs (1). This public, only female, gives the women the possibility to give up their reticence which thwarts them in the presence of the men. Because the Marcanda seems, on many points, cut across the rules of propriety of the Zarma community.

The discursive part of the Marcanda always proceeds in an identical way. The women provoke each other by addressing insults. The creation of distance between the three principal protagonists of the marriage by the dispute creates a dramatic effect: the guests express themselves in the place of the women concerned, while they replay their own life as concubine. The individual impulses of the women concerned thus are staged and are interpreted by other women who experience the polygamous marriage.

In certain cases, it happens that concubines of the same household insult each other. However, the framework maintains the dramatic effect: yes, they can criticize each other, but they do not have the right to call each other name. Thus, they can make a general criticism of an individual criticism, in particular by using metaphors and avoiding names: only the group is indicated by the evocation of the status of the speakers in their household. The dispute can however get out of hand, if the formulation is too direct. It is this way that the arguments took place which certain informants mentioned to me.

Thereafter, one of the first women sings a song where she expresses her grief as a consequence of the arrival of a concubine in her family: « I already said it that I am possessed and that I do not want a concubine ». Anyhow, she concludes her song by simulating tears. In chorus the other women repeat the refrain. A song describing the arrival of the second wife at the first, whereas the latter is pregnant, closes the discursive sequence. As soon as the bride has arrived, the participants advise both concubines, so that they respect each other and live in harmony.



Situation of stating of the ritual insults of the Marcanda

The insults studied here were recorded [extracted sound, mp3, 1,6 Mo ] in the Zarma village of Boko Tchilli (canton of Kouré, Niger) on February 19, 1999 [ see the whole transcription and its translation ]. Their recording took place on the initiative of the woman of the village chief. Given my interest for the oral tradition (2), she proposed to me to organize a meeting of insults and songs such as it takes place during a marcanda. I accepted by curiosity, without knowing what I would do thereafter.

A first recording attempt took place in the night of February 18, 1999. Unfortunately, the audio document could not be transcribed nor translated because of the poor sound quality of the recording. As the rumour had spread that a marcanda would take place in the court of the old woman, all the villagers were present except for the married men and the old men (3). The cries of the children and the reactions of the audience covered the debate. Moreover, I could not pass the microphone from one woman to the other because I was stuck in the crowd. We thus organised again a meeting the following day: it took place, this time, privately in one of the houses of the village chief. Only the married women who took part in the marcanda could enter here. This time, the recording was of good quality.

Three weeks later I returned in the village to question the women concerning these insults, in order to make a brief disposition of it within the framework of my thesis. Unfortunately, I did not put, at that time, certain questions now essential within the framework of my new research. In particular it would have been necessary to specify the family bonds between the women, and thus to see whether two concubines from one household had been insulting each other during the marcanda. This omission, which follows from - let us point it out - the context in which the marcanda was recorded, weakens the pragmatic dimension of my analysis. A thorough research including the explanations of the insults by the speakers and their description of what occurred that day will later complete the results presented on here.


Analyses of the insults

When one attends a marcanda, one is at the same time struck by the violence of the remarks and the spirit in which they are uttered (4). Indeed, while at the same time the stake is delicate - it is never with one’s heart in it that one sees arriving a concubine - the women appear relaxed, even laugh, and when some describe this ceremony, they underline the pleasure which it gives. These insults thus belong indeed to the dispute, where the combat is playful, and where the witty remark is strength and silence weakness.

If the socio-cultural context - polygamy - highlights the inner conflict, the informing context shows that it acts of a play: on the one hand, those who experience the situation emotionally are debarred from the dispute (absence of the new wife, silence of the first). In addition, when they are insulting each other, the women have fun and sometimes laugh. Finally, the insults are stated in a picturesque form (5) and are often learned at other marcanda. Like Cécile Leguy (2001: 159) says it « in the proverb, [... ], the metaphor is not really any longer a « living metaphor », and yet with each new use it is adapted and actualised ». One says then without saying.


Contents of the insults

If the analysis of the form highlights the construction of a « symbolic distance », the thematic analysis shows which are the topics broached and how the women express at the same time their pain and their anger.

The first speaker, which represents the woman for whom the marcanda is organized, explains her situation while speaking disparagingly about her news concubine: « the father of my son / brought me the share of the tooth », i.e. « a woman who arouses derision ». Then she develops her attack by showing the stupidity of her concubine: « she does not know the evil / She does not know the good / The layabout! » (v.3). She finishes her insult while making fun of her rivals: « Hiye! hiye! the share of the tooth / Hiye! hiye! The layabout » (v.3) (6).

One of the second women answers her by denying the criticism of the first: « Are the women with the large heads insane? ». This question is put following their hostile behaviour with regard to the seconds; what is, according to it, completely unjustified, the first not being higher than the second: « you were brought one brought it [ that ] is not worth the sorrow to praise oneself » (v.5).She thus highlights here the conflict aspect of polygamy and the characteristics of the two protagonists. One can distinguish a double hierarchy, social on the one hand and emotional on the other hand. Indeed, if the first woman has authority over the second because of her age and of her anteriority in the household, her rival has the advantage of being the last arrival in the household and to be, thanks to her youth, the favourite of the husband.

Vis-à-vis the superiority shown by the first women, she counter-attacks by showing their foolishness and their dirtiness: they behave in a deviating way (to wash their selves on the pot with the calabash of their husband) to acquire, by the magic (on the councils of a zima (7)) the favours of their husband: « all that to have his heart » (v.9). With this attack, she says implicitly that the second women are naturally the favourite ones. One of the first women retorts the criticism which is passed on her by rejecting: she accuse the second of boastfulness. For her, « being small and to have a small head means that one is an unlucky person » (v.12).

Coming back to the preceding argument, one of the second wives reverses the reasoning and, that way, the premise: if the little wife is boastful, then « the little wife is not worth anything ». But if the man often comes to visit her during the night (« Feet felt the dew », v.14) so often that the first women are jealous of it (« some had the colic / others could not sleep », vv.14), this means that the little wife is not boastful. With this counter-argument, it returns the insult to her who addressed it to her: the boaster isn't it that the one who lies?

One of the second wives takes up this insult by proving once again that they are the favourites of the husband:

The little wife has the middle of the head behind the bed.

The marriage of the little wife is transitory, feet felt the dew.

This periphrasis is explained as follows: traditionally, before being led definitively to her husband by her classifying mothers and her friends, the bride lets braid her hair. As a consequence of the intensity of love-play, her braids of hair, which are spurious, fell behind the bed, which shows the passion of the husband for his young wife. This interpretation is supported by the reiteration of the periphrasis brought up before: « Feet felt the dew » (v.17). Benefiting from the advantage that they took on the first wives, the second wives continue by qualifying the first as « cow dung » (v.18), a qualifier that one of them reformulates in the line which follows: « It is a large heap which is not good » (v.19).

In front of the violence of these remarks, one of the first wives can only resume the topic of the bragging developed previously: « do not say that it is your head which brought that » (v.21), but she becomes also more violent: the second wives are not any more boastful, but lying: « You lie, you did not bring that » (v.20). One of the second wives takes the responsibility for the preceding insult by reformulating it: « the little wife is the last » (v.22). But at once afterwards, she creates the surprise by showing that « if the little wife is the last », the first wives are still worse: “The big wife is cow dung / A large heap which is not good » (vv.23-24). The speaker builds here an impregnable opposition between the little wife and the big one, by reformulating on the one hand a criticism which is addressed to her likes and on the other hand while repeating, almost word for word, the criticism addressed to the first wives by a preceding speaker (vv.19-20).

In front of this very direct insult and forces, one of the first women reacts also violently by calling her rivals layabouts and attacking the children of her concubine, those being often the heart of the conflicts between concubines:

You say that it is your head which brought Nafi.

Nafi does not have a human head.

She brought Gayka and Nafi.

Nafi does not have a human head.

Who brought that?

It is your husband who brought you a layabout.

It is your husband who brought you this one. (vv.25-29)

Like the child that her concubine put on the world « Nafi » (diminutive of Nafissa) does not have human head, the latter did not bring anything good in the household. One of the second wives resumes this last criticism by take the edge off it in three stages:

  1. « the little wives are not layabouts » (v.30);
  2. « They brought Gayka they brought Nafi » (v.30);
  3. « the hut became two cob houses the storehouse multiplied by four » (v.30).

They thus brought a descent and abundance in the hearth; what proves their value.

From this presentation, one can extract several topics: the value, the foolishness, the madness and dirtiness, the bragging, the appearance, the misfortune opposed to abundance. Most of the time, these topics are introduced by the first wives. The second wives generally only defend themselves:

  1. it is not they who are insane, but their rivals,
  2. the boasters are the first which tell lies,
  3. they are not without value, contrary to their rivals who are « cow dung ».

With this last metaphor, the second wives, by assimilating their rivals to excrements of animals, propose a violent insult. In the fourth insult, they choose another strategy: they show that they do not carry misfortune, but bring the richness in the household and offer a descent to their husband. With the name of Gayka (name given to a girl who one wished a long time in vain), they implicitly accuse the first wives of sterility, a crucial topic in zarma region.


Distribution of the word

The distribution of the word is clearly defined. A woman belonging to the group of the first wives opens the hostilities. This is explained by the fact that she represents the injured woman and that she occupies a higher rank in the family hierarchy because of her age and of her anteriority in the household. For that matter, one calls respectively the first married wives (and second in a household with four women) « wande beeri » (literally: big wife) and last married wives (and third in the households with four women) (9) « wande kayna » (little wife) (8). This image is included in the insults themselves, these last call the first « wives with the large heads » and those the seconds « wives to the small heads ».

As from that moment, the insults follow one another. In total, in this first « song », one counts ten, more or less alternated: A-B-A-B-B-B-A-B-A-B. The « song » is brought to a close by a woman belonging to the group of the second wives. But this close is only provisional, since a second « song » begins immediately generally introduced by a formula (« kasambarce went »), a kind of refrain meaning « that God preserves us ».


The form of the insults

In preparation.


Functions of the insults

The contents of the insults show the tensions and conflicts which exist in a polygamous context. The remarks are violent, and express the anger of those on who one imposes a concubine. However, in a society where reserve, the self-control and the feeling of shame prevail, where the collective interests are more important than the individual values, all these words appear subversive, the women express there what the society rejects. The insults of the marcanda thus have an outlet function; a function limited by a elucidatory framework which appears in the style and the rhythm of the insults. At the end of these disputes, collective morals intervenes again by advices given by the married women to she who must receive a concubine. The dispute thus make it possible for the women to mourn over their situation (they lose their status of sole wife) by expressing their aggressiveness. This function is clearly indicated by the informants:

You know that to have to share your man with another is difficult to admit. So, to support her in these difficult moments, her comrades organize a feast for her. They settle all the day at her place and prepare dishes which they try. The nightfall, they sing and address proverbs (i ga care yaasay: they / aspect / together / to speak in proverb, by evocative formulation) the first wives to the seconds and vice versa [... ] that allows them to make the situation less dramatic. (Hawa Adama, Kayan)

The marcanda, as a whole, underlines the various stages of mourning: anger initially (see insults), sadness (when the woman sings her pain), resignation (when the song describes the arrival of the concubine), then acceptance and perhaps (as the advices underline it which are given afterwards) peace and the harmony. Each stage then corresponds with a acceptance stage of mourning. Thus in the course of the marcanda the insults convert to the advices, anger to the rational and adult relation.

The women convey their feelings and their frustration there, without endangering the harmony of the society. A harmony which rests on the pre-eminence of the men over the women and the existence of polygamy. More generally,

if the man has, officially, the control of the social life, the woman knows well, since she is the agent, that it is on her that, secretly, rests the perpetuation of the social life; doesn't she assume the leading role in the baptism and the marriage? The unformulated conscience that the woman has of this imbalance between appearance and reality is for her a continuous source of distortion; the man regulates them, easily, by denying them: “ the woman has only the words, one should not waste her time to listen ». On her side, the woman, with whom indeed only the words remain, regulates them by a continual invention of songs and proverbs which are the metaphorical answers to the problems with which she is confronted. The conditions of this invention obliged it to mask the contents by working out a language whose significance is very difficult to seize. (Bisilliat & Bush-hammered 1992: 175).


Native’s (emic) representations of the Marcanda

Face to the diversity of the functions of the marcanda, the emic representations diverge, even if the majority of the informants agree on the fact that this ritual is positive. This agreement proves in practice, since the ceremony is paid by the one who introduces a new wife into the household.

Nevertheless, certain informants, masculine only, criticize the practice of the marcanda, by putting forward its abusive and provocative aspect:

It is not good, because the wives benefit from it to insult each other with proverbs. Once, I saw the women in battle array during a marcanda. Two concubines contended with each other. Each woman had taken the party of its equals [the first with the first, the second with the second]. (Abdou Hamani, Hamdallaye)

Others underline the problems arising from this ritual, which - they say - arouses the jealousy and breaks the family harmony:

It is a business of Satan, because it is an occasion to arouse the jealousies which a polygamous man tries to control. And he will be all the more afflicted by the marcanda because his wives surely will take part in it and will not miss the occasion to address fatal proverbs; what will create tensions. (Hassane Hamidou, Kayan)

Female informants, on the contrary, highlights the alleviating function of this ceremony for the woman of who the husband marries. By preparing the concubines to live together, the marcanda thus fits in the polygamous context and plays a central part there. However this benefit is never evoked by the male informants; at most they underline the distracting aspect of it.

This divergence from point of view is explained by a difference in experience. On the contrary men for whom polygamy is a choice, the women undergo it. When Kadija Souley from Hamdallaye speaks about the Marcanda, she underlines the suffering which such a situation brings about:

You know, the first wife can do the irrevocable one, if her comrades do not come to comfort her and make look ridiculous the arrival of her husbands new concubine which she regards as the enemy one which comes to mess up her way of life.

The Marcanda thus assist the women to accept the change in their household and it is as such as they define it, even when they do not deny the festive side of it:

We think that it is a good thing and that is all the more true as all the women have fun and are merry, because it is also an occasion to eat and to drink. (Aissa Abdou and Mariama Saley, Hamdallaye)

Reconsidering the reactions of certain men, these two (female) informants underlines the fear which this ritual arouses by the latter:

Rather fanatic men want to prohibit this festival under the pretext that, at the time of the Marcanda, the women say abusive proverbs. These men hide their fear not to be able to make their various wives cohabit in peace. Conversely real men contribute largely to the expenditures anticipated for this festival.

Thus, whereas certain men describe the effects of the utterances during Marcanda on the behaviour, beliefs and feelings of the listeners for then criticizing it, the women, by evoking the inherent difficulties of polygamy, rather underline the functions of this ceremony and show the importance of it.



But can the women say all during a marcanda, no matter to who and how? Yes, it appears that two concubines from the same household may insult each other, they cannot however aim directly at their rival. The indirect way is in order, by the form of the insults but also by the absence of someone specific called to account: the rival is named « first woman » or « second woman » (15), but no name is truly pronounced and, if the second person singular is sometimes used, it has here rather the function of a « generic you », that refers to all the women of the same group. The conflict situation of the arrival of a concubine in a household is then put in scene during the Marcanda by representatives of the big and little wives: those speak in the name of the two principal persons concerned who, both, remain quiet. The insults stated during a Marcanda thus have an outlet function where the mourning, which the wife whose husband marries, is taken care of by the group.



(1) The songs of marriage are made on the one hand by the friends of married woman and on the other hand by the classifying mothers of the latter. These songs evoke her previous life, separation from her family and prepare her for her new role. [Return to text]

(2) Within the framework of a research on a story of the jasare (storyteller of historical and genealogical stories) who spoke about the ancestor of the village. [Return to text]

(3) If, in their discourses, women and men underline the absence of the latter during a Marcanda, it actually seems that only the married men and the old men do not assist to it at all. It happens indeed that children of the two sexes as well as young men attend the scene, by curiosity, as was the case during a Marcanda which took place in Tonkobangou (canton of Liboré) in February 2004. Rather than a strict interdict, the absence of the married men results rather from the separation of the masculine and feminine worlds. [Return to text]

(4) This conclusion is drawn from direct observations at the time of a « real » ceremony, as well as testimonies of women and observations at the time of the meeting of songs organized for recording. [Return to text]

(5) The verbo-nominal yaasay, employed by the informants, is commonly translated by « speaking in proverbs » / « proverb », but also means « to speak in images » / « image ». In the analysis, I preferred to use the term « insults », which can be implied by the yaasay term; I thus stress, in my analysis, the function rather than on the form. In the translations, I readily on the other hand use the term « proverb » in order to avoid inelegant periphrases. [Return to text]

(6) At the moment I cannot explain this metaphor. [Return to text]

(7) « Priest » of the regional religions. [Return to text]

(8) One finds such a phenomenon in the names of elder and junior. The elder one or the big brother says « beere » (the big one) and the junior « kayna » (the little one). [Return to text]

(9) When a husband has three wives, the second wife can choose her « camp ». [Return to text]

(10) The absence of the men within this framework facilitates the expression of intimacy.

(11) One passes from a direct address to an indirect address: the first woman is there, and it is for her that the Marcanda is organized, the second, on the other hand, is absent. An absence which seems to mean this third person singular. Another possible interpretation is that it « nor » (you) employed by the speaker is « you generic ».

(12) « Resumption, at the beginning of a syntactic unit, element placed at the end of the preceding unit » (Bonhomme 1998: 45)

(13) « Repetition of the same element at the end of several syntactic units » (Bonhomme 1998: 45).

(14) In order to be the favourite.

(15) The use of the indefinite singular shows that the women are regarded as a group.
[Return to text]



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CAMARA Sory, 1992. Gens de la parole. Essai sur la condition et le rôle des griots dans la société malinké. Paris, Karthala.

LABOV William, 1972. Language in the inner city : studies in the black English vernacular. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

LABOV William, 1978. Le parler ordinaire. La langue dans les ghettos noirs des Etats-Unis. Paris, Les Editions de Minuit.

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OLIVIER DE SARDAN Jean-Pierre, 1998. “ Emique” . L’Homme (147) : 151-166.

s.n, 1999. Marcanda, enregistré, transcrit et traduit par Sandra Bornand, Hamma Djibo et Fatchima Guida (manuscrit).





Last updated: 26 december 2009