Polygamy: Kenyans speak out


Originally Published: January 9, 2010

South African President Jacob Zuma, 68, recently attracted the ire of human rights activists and religious leaders with his decision to marry his fifth wife.

Mr Zuma’s critics see the president as promoting polygamy, a practice they consider abusive to women, unChristian and culturally outdated.

“His marriage to a woman he is reported to have already fathered three children with is a giant step back into the dark ages,” said the Reverend Theunis Botha, leader of South Africa’s Christian Democratic Party.

Mr Zuma’s one-line defence, couched in tradition, bears a striking resemblance to those of other polygamists.

In Kenya, where a proposed marriage law has recently ignited debate around polygamy, the South African president would find himself in good company among political leaders and other influential people in society.

The Draft Marriage Bill 2007 seeks to give couples the legal option of polygamy. It defines marriage as the voluntary union of a man or woman intended to last for their lifetime and states that the marriage could be monogamous or polygamous provided the two parties are in agreement.

Lugari MP Cyrus Jirongo, who has three wives, says there is nothing wrong with the practice so long as the man “can comfortably provide for each one of them (the wives)”.

“They are what define us as a nation and as a civilisation. I grew up in a society in which polygamy was the only way to go,” said Mr Jirongo, adding that polygamy has made him a better man, a better husband and a better father.

“In short, it has made me a complete family man. And I am proud of it because all my wives understand me and understand each other. I’d prefer men to be more honest in their dealings with the opposite sex. I better have three women at home instead of running around with other people’s wives every evening. Look what happened to Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods.”

The former US president was embroiled in a scandal during his years in office over an affair with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.

Lately, golfing legend Tiger Woods, who had a squeaky clean image, took a huge beating from a revelations by a string of women claiming he had slept with them. The sex scandal has badly affected Woods’ public image and sporting career.

Former Butere MP Martin Shikuku, 77, said many people opposed to polygamy were simply aping alien cultures.

“Those who say it is bad should look within themselves and decide which Western cultures to follow. Some of them like monogamy are a sham, and we should be brave enough to reject them,” said Mr Shikuku, who declares himself a proud and unapologetic polygamist.

“There are millions of people around the world married to one spouse but still feel hollow inside. I have no regrets, I’m a polygamist and a very happy one.”

Three of Mr Shikuku’s four wives have died.

Ironically, the former MP has himself come off as a cultural maverick in the past for showing his preferred burial site and even preparing a coffin.

Some villagers in his rural Bungoma home have accused him of breaching tradition.

Mr Shikuku’s and Mr Jirongo’s support for polygamy is significant given that although many influential Kenyan men are known to marry more than one wife and maintain several mistresses, they rarely talk about it in public.

The existence or allegations of such relationships tend to come to the surface when a man dies with various women engaging in legal battles for control or a share of his property.

One of the ongoing tussles in court is over the property of former intelligence chief James Kanyotu who died in 2008. A woman who said she was Kanyotu’s second wife went to court to claim a piece of his estate.

The death of former Embakasi MP Melitus Mugabe in 2008 resulted in a battle for his property as well. Three women, all claiming to be his widows, went to court to lay claim to his property.

The first suit was filed jointly by two of the said widows, Maria Palma and Agnes Wairimu, while the second was filed by Diphrose Matengo and Mr Were’s siblings.

Property battles

The two widows of former Moyale MP Guracha Galgalo, who died in the 2006 Marsabit plane crash, also fought it out over their husband’s property before agreeing to an out-of-court settlement two years later.

However, polygamy has yet to find acceptance among religious leaders and advocacy groups who associate it with human rights abuses.

“If a man has equal access to five sexual partners, and a woman is only entitled to one, where is the equality in that?” asks the Rev Timothy Njoya.

“Sex is a right that should be given in equal proportions to the couple.”

The retired Presbyterian cleric says accepting polygamy as a way of life would reverse the gains made in human rights because women in such a relationship will not have the same privileges as the man.

“Show me any man who would be comfortable getting married to a woman with several other husbands. If we were to condone polygamy, we should also put up a fight to allow polyandry in our society,” he said.

The subject of wives and mistresses among prominent Kenyans has always been a thorny issue. President Kibaki had to call an afternoon press conference last year to clarify his marital status.

Despite the fact that he evolved into the prototype of an African Big Man exercising absolute power over the country, former president Daniel Moi was never seen in public with the mother of his children.

But first president Jomo Kenyatta seemed at peace with his three known wives. Mr Kenyatta’s youngest wife, Mama Ngina, took up the duties of First Lady.

Experts argue that polygamy is not only about having many wives who pamper their man. It speaks of a deeper social issue.

“It is a commentary on the mentality, aspirations and personality of a nation,” said , Father Dominic Wamugunda, a ERoman Catholic priest.

He says he is surprised that in the 21st century where the world’s traditions seem to have evolved to fit into accepted global norms, some societies still condone polygamy; a fact traditionalists oppose.

Patricia Nyaundi, the executive director of FIDA-Kenya, says polygamy is not only outdated, but it has also lost its original meaning.

“What men are attempting to pass off as polygamy is just multiple marriages. The importance their forefathers had for polygamy has disappeared and what remains is men collecting women for their own selfish reasons,” she said.

Decades ago, Mrs Nyaundi said, polygamy was an accepted social practice in which the man respected himself and all of his wives and understood each one’s role in the larger family.

“What reasons would one have to be a polygamist in the modern day where even self respect among some men is hard to come by? Plus it would take a lot of hard work from the man and his wives to make such a relationship work in this day and age,” says Mrs Nyaundi.

But the former Butere MP is of another view: “I run my marriage like a government. Women see things differently so, within my government, I have opposition too but, at the end of the day, we all get along.”

Pamela Masakhwi, a psychiatrist, says clamour for attention among women in a polygamous marriage may cause the women to lose self-esteem.

“Every woman wants to feel secure and demands her share of attention. If the man’s energies are divided amongst the other women, one is bound to feel short-changed as life will become a contest among the wives,” Ms Masakhwi said.

“In these times of inflation and HIV/Aids, a monogamous union makes more sense.”

Outspoken activist Orie Rogo-Manduli sees nothing wrong with polygamy. “In fact, it is more natural for men to be polygamous than to be monogamous,” says Ms Rogo-Manduli.

“I know a lot of single women who knowingly date married men and, if they were to be given the choice of being the man’s second wife, they would gladly agree.”

She says the only women who are opposed to polygamy are the hugely successful ones who might feel getting into such a union would mean that they share their hard-earned respect and income with their co-wives.

“Life gets messy when people deny it. There would be less quarrels, less family feuds and life would sail along smoothly if we accepted polygamy as part of us,” she says.

Mr Jirongo says polygamy might solve some of the common social problems faced by society.

“If you want another woman in your life, make it official. You’d be surprised at how accommodating women are. Issues such as illegitimate children and family wrangles after the man dies will be a thing of the past since all the wives know each other and what assets the man had,” says the Lugari MP.

His advice for those with only one wife but are secretly thinking of getting another one?

“You first have to consult with the oldest among them and make your intentions clear and talk about the position she will occupy in the new family. This shows you respect her,” he said.

The Bible

Mr Shikuku describes people who say polygamy is unChristian and churches that preach against multiple marriages as dishonest, citing the several polygamists mentioned in the Bible.

“No one other than God should pass judgement on another. He alone should decide what a sin consists of. I am a Christian and a polygamist too,” says Mr Shikuku.

Ms Manduli says it’s better to be polygamous, legally, than to be promiscuous, an argument that doesn’t sit well with some.

“If we base your actions on the wrongs of the minority, what example are we setting for the generations to come?” asked Fr Wamugunda.

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