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A childless woman . . . must contract a levirate marriage to provide the dead man with the heir she has failed to give him during his lifetime. If we use the term of levirate in the biblical sense, i.e., that the deceased’s brother takes the widow to himself to raise seed for him, we must qualify it by the difference that "brother" will have to be taken in the very wide sense the Bantu give to this word. The Bantu do not consider such a union as a marriage. Their conception of the "levirate" is exactly similar to that of the Nilotic Dinka so clearly stated by Captain O’Sullivan: "No widow may marry again. It is the duty of a widow to raise children to her dead husband’s name" by cohabiting with his brother. The Bantu widow is not considered the "brother’s" wife; she remains the dead man’s wife, and the "brother’s" role is similar to that which he would have assumed if the deceased had become impotent in his lifetime. "If a Yaka woman does not bear a child for some time after her marriage, her husband may arrange for his brother to visit her in secret." An impotent Chagga husband "lets his brother cohabit with his wife." It is not always stated that it is a brother who renders this service. . . . Among the Bechuana, in the case of the chief wife of a chief not bearing a son to her husband, but bearing one to another man some years after his death, this son is regarded as the rightful heir of the deceased chief. Even the illegitimate son of a Chagga widow receives the clan name of her deceased husband. Should the widow bear no son, she will pay earnest for a girl, who is then supposed to be the deceased’s junior wife attached to the widow’s house and as such will bear him and her an heir who may succeed to the chieftainship. It must be remembered that the desire for offspring is not limited to men; women too wish for someone who after their death will perform the necessary rites for them. For this reason, when an Ila woman dies the widower is entitled to one of her sisters, and should one be alive, although married and with children, she must take the dead woman’s place. Among the Bakongo a younger sister has to replace the deceased. In Useguha the husband has an absolute right to marry his deceased wife’s sister without any payment. In the cases mentioned above the reason for these unions is not stated, but there are others where it is made perfectly clear. They apply both to the living woman who is barren and the woman who dies childless. A sterile Ngala woman takes her sister to her husband that she may have children by her; a barren Zulu wife finds a substitute in a younger sister or niece. It is the woman herself who asks her people for such a girl "to be attached to her hut as a new rafter" in order that she may bear issue for her. The same procedure is followed in case of the death of a childless woman. Among the Ovaherero sterile women also get a girl to bear children for them and their husbands. A Chagga widower may take to himself a mkla o kjoren, i.e., a heritor woman, who will impersonate the deceased wife so that she may bear her a son who will inherit from her house.1

Captain O’Sullivan first pointed out the employment of the interesting legal fiction by which an heir is secured for a man who dies childless among the Dinka without near male relatives, leaving only widows beyond the age of childbearing. One of his widows or his daughter will "marry" a girl in his name, who as his "widow" will bear a child by any man whatever as his heir.2 Recently the Seligmans have confirmed this report, although the situation is, of course, a rare one.3

In another direction the family of a deceased wife may be obliged to promote the continuity of fertility in the surviving husband’s line. There is in some tribes a superstition placing a man in a tabu situation on the death of his wife. The condition among the Baholoholo is called makia, meaning "set down," and does not permit sex relations with anybody. In this case the mother-in-law of the man sends one of the dead wife’s sisters, even a married one, as an equivalent, to spend a night with him and thus lift the tabu. Even if the girl sent is an infant the sexual act is imitated. The man may then marry anyone except this girl.4

1Torday, E.n/an/an/an/an/a, "The Principles of Bantu Marriage," , 2: 285–287.

2 O’Sullivan, H., "Dinka Laws and Customs," Jour. Anth. Inst., 40: 173.

3 Seligman, C. G. and B. Z., Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan, 164–165.

4 Schmitz, R., Les Boholoholo, 227–228.


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Chicago: "Africa," Africa in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed February 23, 2024,

MLA: . "Africa." Africa, Vol. 2, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 23 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: , 'Africa' in Africa. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 February 2024, from