Most little girls dreaming about their weddings probably aren’t imagining a groom who’s already married, but judging by the trend of urban, educated, career women entering polygamous relationships, the old tradition is seeing an unexpected resurgence By Ritika Purang.
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Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, sits outside his home with his family. Kenyatta briefly wed Edna Clarke in 1942 and then Grace Wanjiku (who died in 1950) before marrying his most famous wife Mama Ngina, all the while still married to his first wife Grace Wahu, whom he’d tied the knot with in 1919.

James* and Martha* were in high school when they met and fell in love; that young love that promises so much, dreams so big and has the potential to conquer all.

Unlike many romances that start young and die off once the couple graduates and realises that there is more of life to discover, the two remained an item, their love only growing stronger through the years.

After university, James got on one knee and asked the love of his life for her hand in marriage, a proposal that Martha eagerly accepted.

They were both 25 years old when they walked down the aisle, their bliss cemented by the birth of their two children in the following years. The evening the fairy tale began to unravel was nothing like Martha had expected. The complexities of marriage – individual growth, career changes, financial qualms – that influence how a couple relates had not escaped their union. But as far as Martha was concerned, her family was happy and their marriage was strong. So when James came home and unexpectedly announced that he wanted to marry someone else, it felt as though he’d snatched her heart out and squeezed it tightly between his thick fingers.

“My first reaction was ‘what about our children? And how come you don’t love me anymore? Have I done something wrong? Why are you doing this?’” she tells me, recalling how confused and shocked she was. Martha was sure that James was abandoning them even though she couldn’t understand why. However, his intentions were far more tortuous than she’d imagined. He was not going to leave her or the kids; he wanted to marry the other woman as well – keeping both of them in his life. As incomprehension set in, Martha’s thoughts running wild, she tells me how surprised she was, thinking “Isn’t this something that used to happen in the days of my grandparents?”

Traditionally in Kenya, polygamy was a way of life, an accepted, encouraged and welcomed practise. This was how a man would show his wealth – the more wives he had the better off he was. But as cultures have evolved, these traditions have slowly been pushed aside. The idea of a man marrying more than one wife has, more often than not, been baulked at – though in some rural regions and among certain religions the practise is observed and continues. What’s interesting now, however, are the pockets of urban, young Kenyans reviving polygamy, where many cultured and well educated women are opting to be in these relationships, comfortably taking on the role of second, third or even fourth wife.

While Martha had not seen this coming – had never even entertained the thought of being a co-wife – the ultimatum from her husband pushed her to make a decision. “He told me that if I was not okay with it, he would not marry her, but he would never stop seeing her.” With her children being the primary concern, Martha stifled her shock and told her husband she needed time to think about it, surprisingly adding, “And I want to meet her too.”

She wanted to know what this woman could give her husband that she couldn’t. And what sort of woman would choose to be a second wife.

A Culture Revisited

Today’s reasons for polygamous relationships are different; the reasons for second and third wives rooted more in the woman’s search for companionship and stability than the man’s display of prominence. Whereas before fathers would be on the lookout for ideal suitors to marry their daughters – a man’s ability to provide for them mattering more than his age or the number of wives he already had – today, women are choosing this path for themselves.

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Miss Kenya Cecelia Mwangi, the second wife to politician Danson Mungatana.

And it’s understandable, considering that one thing that today’s urban second wives have in common with their compatriots of old is wife preference, the youngest of course getting the most attention – be it emotionally, conjugally or financially. Combine this special treatment with the fact that their husband isn’t always home and it’s easy to see why some of today’s young women are open to the notion of a polygamous relationship. They get to retain their freedom and still have love, devotion and financial stability from their husbands.

Even so, when Cecelia Mwangi – a former Miss Kenya pageant winner, now second wife to politician Danson Mungatana – and Linda Muthama – a well-known local musician who’s second wife to famed comedian Walter Mongare (Nyambane) – revealed publically that they each were in polygamous relationships, questions about a culture many had assumed was fading away surfaced. Was the tradition making a comeback? And why is it that these capable, intelligent, career women want to become co-wives? While their fathers have nothing to do with the process now, the motivation remains – becoming a second wife offers stability.

More than a mistress yet not solely responsible for the husband’s wants and needs, polygamous marriages can easily be looked at as the best of both worlds. But that’s a neat, cold calculation, a weighing of pros and cons that does nothing to take into account the storm of emotions stirred up in these relationships.

The Other Woman

When the proposed Marriage Bill 2012 was first announced, there was an instant reaction from the public. One part of the bill – couples living together for six months or more would be considered legally married – received a lot of complaints, but the resurgence of polygamy as a legal practise brought out mixed reactions. It would be permissible for a man to marry more than one woman as long as his first wife agreed to it, and people were coming down passionately on both sides of the issue.

While the practise was still accepted amongst Muslims and in traditional settings, in the cities of modern Kenya – where women fight for equality and people’s mental and emotional states are already steeped in a one-man-one-wife worldview – you’d expect that such a bill would generate outrage. Surprisingly, however, while there are those against the idea of polygamous relationships, quite a number of people are for them.

“It felt odd. It’s like I was interviewing someone else for my position,” she reveals, her voice strained with sadness still, even though it’s been four years since the initial introduction

It took a while for Martha to come to terms with her husband’s proposition, but in due time she was ready to come face to face with the other woman. That first meeting was strange, says the 32-year-old. “It felt odd. It’s like I was interviewing someone else for my position,” she reveals, her voice strained with sadness still, even though it’s been four years since the initial introduction. A light toned woman of medium height, Martha retains her composure as she expresses herself.

The other woman, Ruth*, is a tall, petite lady, and nothing like Martha expected. The differences between them are perhaps what drew James to her, though as Martha got to chatting with Ruth, she realised it was possible that this other woman’s genuine love for her husband might also have been a determining factor. “She loved my husband just as much as I did, maybe slightly more if I am to be fair.” Not wanting to be selfish and deny this obvious love a chance, Martha gave in to her husband’s request, “only on the condition that both families would have equal priorities.”

Looking at both women together, it’s easy to pick out their differences, Ruth being the more talkative one, and completely at peace with her position as a second wife. She has a 2-year-old boy with James and works part time as a consultant so that she can dedicate the rest of her time to raising their son. Martha admits that she and Ruth may not be best friends, but they get along just fine, helping each other along the way.

Even though it’s easy to detect the sadness emanating from Martha, it’s clear that she has accepted the situation as it is. Ruth, on the other hand, could not be happier now that she is a mother and second wife.

One Woman's Meat

Being in a polygamous relationship is certainly not the standard love story, but there is no shortage of women who actually dream of being part of such a union. Elizabeth* and Catherine* had one similar desire in life, to have a large family. “Having a big family was a dream of my husband. He wanted, like, 12 children and many wives. I know this may sound odd, but I always wanted a big family too.” 31-year-old Catherine soberly states. She doesn’t say it as a plea for understanding or a defiant justification; it’s just the self-confidence of a woman who knew exactly what she wanted. “We are three wives and each has three children.”

In her case, Elizabeth grew up as an only child. Now a bank accountant who can clearly hold her own, Elizabeth wanted a full house once she started her family. She was only 23 when she met Patrick, a co-worker and happily married man. Office hook-ups are not unheard of in today’s Kenya, and having a courtesan is so rampant that those who remain monogamously devoted to their partners are almost frowned upon.

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Being in a polygamous relationship is certainly not the standard love story, but there is no shortage of women who actually dream of being part of such a union.

Nevertheless, Patrick was not looking for a mistress; he wanted another wife. Elizabeth tells me how shocked she was, not only by Patrick proposing to her, but also by his wife’s readiness to receive her into the family. “I was very alarmed when Patrick told me he wanted to marry me and that his wife was ready to accept me as his second wife.” Had she ever considered becoming a second wife? No, but Patrick loved her, he was kind, honest and decent, not to mention that Ngina*, his first wife, welcomed her with open arms, which made the choice much easier.

“Ngina is a lovely person and I am glad I made the decision to marry Patrick. We are sister wives, the sister and best friend I had always longed for.”

Similar to Elizabeth’s marriage, which appears to be flourishing because both women get along easily, Catherine says hers is centred on good relations. “I think my marriage is based more on friendship. I am a good friend to my husband and his other wives and they with me. It may sound very unusual, but friendship is a wonderful arrangement.”

And that might be key for most polygamous relationships, but being a second wife is, in most cases, not always received with open arms. For the first wife, there is always that concern that she is not the love of her husband’s life. For the second wife, she will always be number two, regardless of how kind, loving, appreciative and present the husband is. But there are second wives who will live with this, grateful that they have found a man who loves them and wants to be with them.

Chepkorir* was 33 years old when she decided that she would give marriage another try. She’d already been married three times but each marriage had ended up in divorce. With two kids to raise on her own, she longed for a companion. So when she was introduced to 38-year-old Kevin* by a mutual friend, she was open to another shot at love. “When I met Kevin, I fell in love instantly for the fourth time. He courted me in the most romantic way possible and I was sure he was the man for me,” she says, a broad smile on her face. “But he had another family.”

This did little to deter Chepkorir, who calls Kevin her ‘Prince in Shining Armour’. “He said he loved me and he wouldn’t mind having two families and giving us both equal time. I couldn’t say no,” Chepkorir rationalises. She’s more than happy to be the second wife and cannot imagine things having worked out any differently. But not all arrangements end happily.

Another Woman's Poison

According to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey, 13 percent of married women – at least 1.8 million – are in polygamous relationships, compared to 7 percent, or 700,000, men in similar unions. That being said, and even considering that the heart wants what the heart wants, polygamous unions are perhaps best reserved for a select few – not all women can share their husbands.

“Oh, [these] kinds of marriages should not be accepted. It is the worst thing I ever went through,” says Njeri*, a part time social worker. She’s not one to mince her words and, as she retraces the path love has taken her on; her stern expression reveals her position on the matter. “Imagine the love of your life loving another woman, and he tells you that you have to accept it. It is horrible.” But she did, thinking that somehow it would work out since they didn’t have any children. “It was really tough to deal with the situation. I eventually asked him for a divorce.” What’s sad is that her ex never married another woman after the second wife he’d brought home, leaving Njeri to think, “He loved her more than he loved me.”

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Long distance runner Samuel Wanjiru, known for his numerous marathon wins, had three wives before he passed away in 2011.

According to a survey carried out in Malaysia in 2010, it seems that polygamous relationships cause more harm to all involved than good. The men are tasked with providing for a large family, which can be very demanding; the kids have a high likelihood of being emotionally damaged and the wives, more or less, are the sole parents to the children, not to mention the emotional toll the situation exacts.

When her parents arranged for her marriage, Mary* remembers how surprised she was. Young, scared and nothing like the 35-year-old confident woman who sits in front of me now, Mary wasn’t sure how things would pan out, but surprisingly they hit it off instantly.

Though short in stature, it’s her assertiveness and intensity that define Mary’s personality. “It was the perfect marriage,” she says, “until my husband told me that he had been seeing somebody else. It was like my world came crashing down. I was devastated, and confused too.” And just like Martha’s husband, Mary’s wanted to marry the other woman and make her a second wife. “I reluctantly agreed. I felt I had no choice but the second marriage was a huge adjustment and a very disturbing scenario.”

Unlike the old days where the wives lived in the same homestead, today a man can have two or three families living in different parts of a city or around the country. One thing that remains the same, however, is that they all have to share the man, physically, emotionally and temporally.

“I was slowly starting to lose it. I remember hitting rock bottom when my husband’s wife decided to move in with us as she had just given birth to a baby girl and needed a lot of help,” Mary’s eyes narrow as the memory engulfs her. “I started losing weight, had mood swings all the time.” A visit to the doctor saw her diagnosed with depression. She exhales and tells me that she was in a very dark phase in her life, and then amazingly reveals that after therapy, she feels much better about the relationship.

“I have accepted the situation completely and I am content in my marriage. But this arrangement is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially for a woman.”

Will the Cycle Continue?

It is no secret that the 21st century woman is more independent from the men in her life than ever before. She has a higher level of education and strives to make a name for herself. Fighting for equality at the workplace, she’s striving to take on larger roles, even as she looks to fulfil those that society deems important – becoming a wife and mother. When the stable, responsible men she meets are already tied down, what are her options? What happens when, based on love, compatibility and a genuine connection, she wants to make a commitment to a married man? Isn’t becoming a second wife better, more stable for her and any children she might have, than being a mistress?

As the past always finds ways of repeating itself, certain traditions returning and embedding themselves as part of modern society, could there be certain characteristics that lead one to embrace this culture?

In the past, a man was the king of the throne and didn’t necessarily have to split his possessions with his second or third wife. The new Bill, however, notes that all partners in a polygamous marriage get an equal share of all property.

* Names have been changed.