Nairobi, Kenya – Kenyan men have practiced polygamy, or plural marriage, as far back as they can remember. In fact, the country has produced Ancentus Akuku Ogwela, who married 130 wives, and, when he died at 92, left behind 210 children.
But a new marriage bill that gives men the liberty to marry as many wives as they want – and without any consultations with their partners – is, according to many, going too far.
“Those days of marrying dozens of wives are gone,” said Tom Akuku Ogwela, the polygamist’s son, and a polygamist himself. “Socially and economically, it’s difficult to have more than three-to-four wives.”
Why do you want to go against the constitution, and why women are always treated as second-class citizens?
Ogwela, a doctor who runs a small clinic in a village near Lake Victoria, said his father wouldn’t have married hundreds of wives if there were restrictions to stop him, noting that, “in those days what was needed was a lot of food, which my father had a plenty of as a farmer, and less cash, unlike right now”.
The bill, passed by parliament last month but still unsigned by the president, has split Kenyans into two main camps: Those who vehemently support it for religious or cultural reasons, and others who say it will create unnecessary divisions and hostilities in families in a country where many people still live in poverty. Some even say that unchecked polygamous marriages have the potential to dramatically increase the population of the country.
The head of the Catholic Church in Kenya, John Cardinal Njue, called the passage of the bill “a painful” move by a male-dominated parliament, and urged President Uhuru Kenyatta to reject it.
‘Shameful and retrogressive’
The local media has also attacked the bill, with the country’s largest newspaper, The Daily Nation, calling it “shameful” and “a retrogressive move that is simply taking us back into the dark ages, at a time when we should be strengthening family values”.
Some Kenyans have derisively suggested that lawmakers consider polyandry too, a practice that allows women to take multiple husbands. Others have speculated that lawmakers may also in the future legalize wife-beating.
“What exactly is the value of taking up extra wives without regard to the feelings of the first spouse?” asked The Standard, the second largest paper in the country in an editorial last month. “What would the male MPs have to say if their own wives suggested a situation where they would also wish to bring in an extra husband or two?”
Despite this clamor for rejecting the bill, though, there are no clear signs that President Kenyatta – who has so far kept quiet on the issue – will reject it. In the recent past, he signed a controversial media bill into law despite protests from the public and media.
The adoption of such a bill by well-informed lawmakers, however, underscores the cultural gap that still exists between Africans, who value polygamy as a part of their heritage, and Western countries that prohibit polygamy and instead treat monogamy and spousal equality as principles fundamental to their society.
“In Africa, polygamy is a way of life, and when you’re making a law you must go back to what the society wants,” said Nderitu Njoka, the chairman of Men’s Empowerment and Development in Kenya, an advocacy group established four year ago to counter focus on women and girls affairs “at the expense of men and boys”.
Njoka rejects the notion that polygamy is exploitative of women, saying that plural marriages are “very practical” unions that reduce prostitution, HIV/Aids, infidelity and cheating.
“It is now time people came out of their hypocrisy and accepted polygamy,” he said.
Samuel Chepkong’a, a Kenyan lawmaker who proposed the deletion of the sub-clauses that gave wives the right to either approve or disprove of another wife, told lawmakers last month that, “under all the customs of Kenya in all the 42 tribes, marriages are potentially polygamous” and that a Kenyan wife “potentially” expects another wife.
“So, any time a man comes with a woman, it would be assumed that, that is the second or third wife,” he said reminding his fellow lawmakers of the renowned polygamist, Ogwela, who is also known as Danger.
The National Council of Churches in Kenya (NCCK) lashed out at lawmakers for engaging in debates that were “extremely demeaning to the women of our country, and the bill itself does not respect the principle of equality of spouses in marriage especially with regard to polygamy”.
The marriage bill – which also recognises Islamic, Christian and Hindu marriages – contains some progressive portions, such as the setting of the minimum age of marriage at 18 and ordering all marriages to be registered, steps interpreted by many as welcome attempts to protect women’s right in customary marriages and to prevent early marriages.
Many African men and even their leaders have practiced polygamy for many years, most notably Mswati III, the current King of Swaziland, who last year took his 14th wife, a tradition he inherited from his father who is said to have married more than 125 wives.
Polygamy, which is also practiced by Mormon communities in North America, is popular in some Asian and Muslim countries.
‘Times have changed’
“The idea that men can marry as many wives as they wish does not sit well with the expectations of a modern society like ours,” said The Daily Nation newspaper, the largest paper in the country, in an editorial. “Women are no longer chattels that have no say in decisions that directly affect them.”
Women activists say the bill is a throwback to old days, when gender equality meant little to Kenyan men and husbands. They also say polygamy destabilises spousal relations, particularly when happens without consultations.
“We shouldn’t say this used to happen,” said Ruth Aura, the chairwoman of the Kenyan chapter of the Federation of Women Lawyers. “We should move with time. Things have changed.”
By allowing men to take more wives without the consent of their current wife or wives, Aura said, the bill violates the country’s constitution that speaks of equality in marriage.
“Why do you want to go against the constitution, and why women are always treated as second-class citizens,” she asked lawmakers who passed the measure.
Aura said women will go to courts if President Kenyatta signs the bill because, it “waters down the gains the country have made against inequality”.
In recent years, Kenyan women, who represent almost half of the country’s population of about 40 million, have registered major successes professionally, with six female ministers occupying crucial portfolios, such as defence, foreign affairs, land, and tourism ministries.
Although Kenyan men deny that they’re being driven by randiness in their support for polygamy, many poor men still marry more than one wife, raising serious questions about their children’s future.
In Kenya, polygamy is common and even some wives, especially childless ones, willingly urge their husbands to take another wife. So the current debate about the bill is strangely not focused on telling men to stick to only one wife, but on women’s right to know their husbands decisions that have a bearing on their lives and families.
Njoka, the chairman of Men’s Empowerment and Development, lauds Kenyan lawmakers’ decision to give a husband a free hand to take more wives and disregard partners’ consent, “because you can’t go and seek consent from a violent wife who does not respect you.”
“One should have as many children as he is capable of supporting them,” said Njoka, who advocates for the rights of men and admits having “several” wives.
While it is hard to find studies on the impact of polygamy on families in Kenya, internationally there are an increasing body of evidence showing that polygamy affects children and wives, economically, socially and psychologically.
In Ogwela’s case, for example, his son, Tom, Ogwela junior, says only three of his brothers have managed to attain university education, and now many children are “scrambling for very few resources.”
“The leaner the family, the better,” said Ogwela, adding that he himself is grappling with the effects of marrying three wives and supporting a brood of children.
Asked if he has any advice for those itching to take another wife, he said, “They should brace themselves for a lot of stress and financial frustrations.”