Kenyan families being ripped apart by ‘commuter’ marriages


The security guard, the high-flying banker, the professional soldier on an overseas peacekeeping mission and the traffic policeman have one thing in common: They haven’t seen their spouses in ages.

For such people who stay away from their spouses and children, it is a painfully emotional affair.

But many Kenyans are reacting to the realities of the harsh economy by selflessly making the ultimate sacrifice — forgoing personal comfort and family for employment to put food on the table.

In the days following independence, most Kenyan men left the comforts of their wives and villages for Nairobi — to seek employment.
Love was via the post office, same as the monthly cash remittance by postal order to add onto the negligible income the wife made by scratching around the vegetable garden.

Although this scenario still exists, in majority of cases, the woman of the house and the husband both hold jobs. But many such couples are increasingly living apart, with couples splitting up not because they no longer want to be married, but because their careers dictate so.

Indeed, many married couples may be engaging in what psychologists call “commuter marriages,” where one spouse lives in a different city, county or even country in order to access gainful employment and augment the family income.

Young wife

Jacob landed a job in the USA recently. He left behind a daughter barely in the teens, a baby boy and a young wife. That took courage. While it may be the ideal career choice, it can lead to trouble at home. The spouse who relocates feels like a stranger in the new country or city, while the one left behind with the children may feel as if he or she bears the greatest responsibility for raising the children and looking after the household.

Unlike the letter by post of our father’s generation, Jacob will make use of technologies such as skype, mobile phones and e-mail to make instant contact and help ease the emotional pains of his economic separation. He will make frequent visits to Kenya whenever opportunity and costs allow. But that cannot substitute for the emotional comforts of living with a spouse — nagging, domestic squabbles over money and all.

At the universities, for instance, commuter marriages are on a steady increase. Many tutorial fellows pursue studies abroad. A female lecturer who preferred to remain anonymous had this to say:

“My hubby was laid off by a leading University because he did not have a doctorate degree. When he successfully wrote a thesis proposal for doctorate studies in New Zealand, as a family, we initially considered a commuter-marriage arrangement, but couldn’t entertain the notion because our daughter was only 4 years old.

“Now we are expecting a second baby,” she continued, “he remains jobless. He is miserable and has started abusing alcohol. I would hate to be apart from my husband. But lately, I have begun to reconsider circumstances under which it might be necessary for him to go abroad for his studies. After all, in this economy, we don’t have the option of turning down opportunities.”

Supervise children

There are many other similar stories. Sunday Wangema lives in Mombasa while his wife lives and works in Saudi Arabia. On a typical weekday in the Wangema’s household, he has to supervise his three children eat all their meals. On some days, Reinson, Shally and Gladys give Wangema a hard time. The children typically dillydally over meals, putting their father in the unfamiliar role of pleading with them to eat.

But his efforts notwithstanding, Wangema’s neighbour’s and in–laws have given him a hard time. Sensing that Wangema may be receiving loads of money from his wife in Saudi Arabia, and probably driven by jealousy, some of his neighbours “consistently peddled lies, about my nonexistent infidelity to break my marriage,” he says. He has had to move house.

When I asked how often he communicates with his wife in Saudi Arabia, he said, “We talk in the morning and around dinner time.”

His life rotates around his When he is not at work, he is at home with his children, meaning he can hardly spend an evening out with friends over a drink like most men.

James Andanje, the Managing Director of Meros Group of Companies with interests that stretch the span of East Africa region, says people want jobs — period.

Second income

“In the previous decade, anyone who wanted a job would plead to be posted near their homes. Now they come in and say that they are ready to work anywhere and move, if necessary, to other countries without the families,” says Andanje.

“We send a lot of people to emerging markets. And if one spouse is working, who wants to give up the second income?” he adds.

Psychologists, however, warn that commuter marriages may not suit people who exhibit certain emotional traits such as delusional jealousy. Such spouses hold unfounded conviction that a spouse or lover is unfaithful. This often causes constant wrangles and can lead to divorce.


Not that fears of infidelity are unfounded. In a report released last year, a study showed that most men who live in cities take on concubines and spend a substantial amount of their income on them — often surpassing that which is remitted back home.

In many cases, such concubines slowly evolve into parallel families. While they may ease the man’s emotional and sexual void, they become a heavy financial burden and defeat the very purpose for which the commuter marriage was set up in the first place. With the wife at home neglected emotionally and financially, her vulnerability rises. It is, therefore, not uncommon for her to engage in an extra-marital affair with a
workmate or member of her church. In the circumstances, either partner could contract and pass on a sexually transmitted disease, or sire children out of wedlock, leading to divorce.

In worst case scenarios, the emotional bond grows cold and one spouse just vanishes into thin air. Stories abound of men who leave for far off countries in such of greener pastures. In the first year, they keep in touch and send money home. But slowly, the trail grows cold, and over time, they quietly fade off the face of the earth. There are women who have not seen their husbands for twenty years because they ‘got lost’ in the
United States.

Runaway husbands

Such women learn quickly and once the heartbreak is over, they take on “acting husbands” and move on with life. Locally, stories are told of rural women who travel to the city and dump dirty babies on the desks of runaway husbands.

Even men suffer similar fates, though. There are wives who have left for college or work, either in distant towns or countries, often with their husband’s financial support, only to pick up new husbands and lovers and dump their former mates. Freshly Mwamburi’s hit song Stella on the tribulations of a man whose wife came back from Japan with a baby and a Japanese husband comes to mind.

But perhaps the worst aspect of commuter marriages is when both husband and wife depart to different countries and leave the children with relatives or hired help.

Is the dollar really worth it?




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