From marrying ghosts to female husbands: Kenyans strange cultural practices


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  • Many would-be spouses have gone their separate ways due to weird cultural practices dictated by their partners.
  • Tales are told of urbane couples who rarely or never set foot in each other’s rural homes due to strange cultural norms enforced there.

Take, for instance, a woman named Stacy Natasha* who confesses having been to her husband’s rural home only six times for the entire eight years they have been married. Her reason: “I hate their culture. He is from Western and they have many strange and unnecessary cultures. His people banned me from setting foot in their home, after I refused to take our second born child for what they termed the mandatory shaving of his first hair.

Shaving all hair at funerals

She adds, “To me that was good riddance to bad rubbish because they saved me the trouble of being subjected to weird cultural practices like shaving off all my hair when attending funerals.“ Stacy’s case is not an exception. A woman, who requested anonymity, told this writer how she landed in trouble with her in-laws for disobedience. She has since been reduced to playing hide and seek with them.

“I have never been there (Western) for close to four years. This was after I took my teenage boys for circumcision in a hospital (in Nairobi), yet his people wanted them taken for a traditional ceremony back in the village. I live with the kids, and he works for an NGO in North Eastern. So when he came back, he was shocked and reported me to his people. They summoned me for cleansing rituals, which I ignored. Ever since, I avoid them by not visiting,” she giggles.

Elsewhere, strange as it may sound, there are Kenyan women married to fellow women in partnership arrangements. Although similarly classified as same sex relationships, it is not labelled as lesbianism since no intimacy is involved. Although in decline and highly shrouded in secrecy, these marriages involving same sex partnerships still exist.

Female husbands’

A number of barren Kenyan women, stigmatised and sent away by their husbands resort to this kind of arrangements. Get this: these ‘female husbands’ read from the heterosexual script by wooing beautiful women who tickle their fancy — and then taking control of them. They pay dowry, get married and sometimes even hire or seek out agreeable men to secretly donate sperm to their wives. The ‘female husband’ then masquerades as the social and legal father to the resulting children.

It is this kind of arrangement that had local tongues wagging in Kapsundei, Uasin Gishu County after it emerged that an elderly woman in the area was not just married to another woman but to four of them. Differently put, she is a ‘polygamist’, giving men a run for their women! Would you believe that?

Well, one Elizabeth Chemasunde, 92 had been married to a man in Kilgoris, Narok County. Unfortunately, for ten years the marriage failed to bear any children. Chemasunde was accused of barrenness and consequently stigmatised. She couldn’t handle the dishonour and ridicule from locals.

After she was sent packing, a heart broken Chemasunde moved to Nandi County where she got married to four women, thanks to Nandi culture which allows barren women to ‘marry’ fellow women to bear children on their behalf.

In an interview with a KTN reporter, Chemasunde said competition with men is so tough that some have run off with two of her wives. Currently, she lives with the other two in Kapsundei. She said she paid six cows and four goats in bride price for her first wife, Diana who bore her a son and daughter. Unfortunately, Diana eloped.

The setback did little to dampen her spirit; she ‘tuned’ and married a second wife, Leonidah Chepkosgei, who birthed her two boys and two girls. That she had paid dowry for her did little to keep her around. She too ran off with one man who had been hovering around, masquerading as a sperm donor.

“When I see a young woman I like, I talk to her. And if she gives in, I just marry, like men. I go for beautiful ones, but most men whom I enter deals with to sire children for me, short change me, and run off with my wives,” the tough-talking ‘polygamist’ said.

“I don’t know why men are doing this to me. I don’t know whether they run off with my wives just because I am a woman,” wondered the proud ‘husband’, adding that she plans to take legal action to reign in their wayward wives, seeing as they have never refunded her dowry.

That fate seemed against her endeavours did not deter her from remarrying. She now has two other wives — Eunice Tapkili and Esther Cherop — who she lives with. She has managed to do what nature had denied her; have children. In total, Chemasunde has eight children and when men are called to attend a baraza, she attends and represents her family as a man.

Interestingly, as the man of the house, Chemasunde takes care of all her wives and treats them equally. She has even bought them land. Our sources reveal that this marriage arrangement is very normal among the Nandi community, although not openly practiced or talked about.

Among the Nandi, the female husband is required to renounce her female roles and takes up male duties. She enjoys social privileges accorded to men like attending all-men barazas and private male circumcision ceremonies.

“Me? No! I don’t, for instance, carry things on my head, wash utensils, cook or do such like chores. Those are women’s duties, they have absolutely nothing to do with me. Since I became a man, I have no business doing such work; I left them for women,” a female husband would sneer when asked about household chores, says our source.

In yet another case, reported by KTN, Magdalene Manyei, 95, in Uasin Gishu County is also married to two wives.

Interestingly, this arrangement is not unique to Nandis. Such same sex arrangements have also been recorded in other Kenyan communities such as the Kamba, Kikuyu and Kisii. A source reported that among some of these communities, these arrangements are made irrespective of whether the husbands of the women are dead or alive.

“In case the husband is alive, the woman married by the female husband is allowed to sleep with the male husband in the home for childbearing reasons — only. The offspring are always regarded as the children of the barren woman. And in case the husband is dead, she must chose a relative from the deceased’s family or let the new wife select whom she would like to have children with. This type of marriage is practiced by some Kisiis, Kikuyus, Taitas and Kurias,” says Father James Etiyat, a catholic priest in Kericho Town, and a Sociology student who has written a thesis titled ‘Woman to Woman Marriage Among the Kipsisgis Community.’

In some cases, the priest tells us, couples with children of only one gender, especially girls, opt for this arrangement to help them get sons.

“Africans value not just many children, but also boys, to be specific. When a woman can’t get boys, many couples agree for the woman to get her husband a woman of her choice to try help him sire boys. Or when she is past childbearing age, such an arrangement comes in handy. Interestingly, the female husband has greater say on the resulting children than the male husband and the new wife,” says the priest, adding: “The culture is slowly dying off because of, among others, fear of diseases such as HIV. Most of the husbands hired to sire children with these wives are not well known, seeing as they render this services at night.

Kiriro wa Njogu, a 76-year-old elder from the Kikuyu community says, among the Kikuyu, women marry each other, “To increase their social status (by making them feel like men), when they are barren or widowed. We also have rich women who accumulate wives to gain prestige, just the same way men do through polygamy.”

There are many other shocking cultural practices by Kenyans in as far as marriage is concerned. For instance, Njogu tells this writer that among the Maasai, who he says, share a lot in common with Kikuyus, younger women married to aging men were allowed to — get this — have boyfriends so long as they didn’t get pregnant! If they did, they reaped wrath of the old man and council of elders.

Maasai’s borrowed children

“The Maasai never had childless couples. Couples with many children always ‘donated’ some to barren relatives. In the event the couple without children got one, they always returned the ‘borrowed’ ones. Njogu says back in the day, Kikuyu women secretly had one or two children from other men outside their marriage.

“Kikuyu women used to sire at least one child outside wedlock especially in cases where their husbands’ families were known to have genetic problems or when their men happened to be cursed by their fathers or creditors over land disputes. Once such a curse was in effect, it was unwise to have all your children by the same man,“ he says.

Ken Okoth, an anthropologist based in Kakamega County, says that among his Luo people, boys born outside wedlock were believed to have a bad omen that suppressed their stepmother’s intelligence. “Among my people, boys born before marriage posed a serious threat to the intelligence of their stepmums. To save her from this tragedy, the boy was always given to his grandmother to raise him,” says Okoth, adding that such a child was believed to bring bad luck. “If he stayed with the woman, the stepfather’s relatives plotted and killed him.”

Married to ghosts

Further afield, among the Kamba, women got married to ghosts! Just imagine! Sammy Muthini, who hails from the community, says some women used to get married to ‘men’ who died in early childhood. “Although such a woman never met her husband, she was made to believe he existed but died a teenager. But since the family of the deceased was determined to have him remembered, an aunt was assigned the responsibility of looking around for a pretty woman, and seducing her on the deceased’s behalf.

‘‘Dowry was paid and a man hired to secretly sire children who were named after the dead boy. The woman had a right to inherit property like land meant for her ‘ghost husband’, who was believed to exist as a spirit,” says Muthini.

In a nutshell, Kenya is a strange place with many crazy cultures some of which Nairobians may find funny or even incredible but in rural areas, people still dance to the drumbeat of an old way of life.


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