It’s suppressed and condemned even as affairs wreck marriages
• Modernity has made monogamy mainstream in Africa, but rethink may be necessary
Image: STAR ILLUSTRATED
In modern times, most polygamous men got into it by accident. A secret love affair blossomed so much that the man had to bring the affair out into the open to continue living with his new catch.
Other times, it is the secret lover who insisted on formalising the relationship through marriage, even when the man was already married to someone else. In such circumstances, the man may opt for polygamy so that he gets to keep both women. In yet other cases, polygamy may be necessitated by a pregnancy.
With illicit love affairs among married men increasing in scope and frequency, there are growing suggestions that African society re-examines the traditional practice of polygamy. According to the Encyclopedia of Gerontology, polygamy, or plural marriage, is the practice of having more than one wife.
Almost two centuries of modern education have made polygamy rather unpopular across the world. The Pew Research Centre, a fact tank that informs the public about issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world, states that only 2 per cent of the global population lives in polygamous households.
Pew’s findings show that polygamy is most often found in sub-Saharan Africa, where 11 per cent of the population lives in arrangements that include more than one spouse. Of interest is that, though countries with a Muslim majority have legalised polygamy, less than one per cent of men live with more than one spouse in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Egypt.
At a global level, the United Nations has condemned polygamy as discrimination against women. A resolution of the UN Human Rights Committee adopted in the year 2000 states that polygamy does not offer men and women equal rights to marry. Polygamy, says the UN, violates the dignity of women.
Despite those official views, the practice on the ground is evolving differently as married spouses, especially men, take on additional lovers. Anecdotal evidence on radio call-in sessions, social media and everyday conversation shows that there is a growing tendency towards multiple relationships.
The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey released in January shows 35 per cent of men admitted to being romantically involved with a woman who was not their wife or regular partner over the preceding 12 months. The equivalent statistic for women was 19 per cent.
There has been a spate of incidents and crimes involving multiple relationships. On January 28, police in Kakamega county arrested a 43-year-old woman following a fight with her husband that led to the family home getting burnt. Media reports indicate there was a dispute regarding a second wife.
There’s the evolving tragedy of Titus Kiiru and Fridah Kamuyu, the couple who drowned in a dam in Kiambu county during an outing on January 18. The man, as it turns out, was married to another woman. Warau was not his wife.
Soon after the New Year festivities, a young woman in Homa Bay county confessed to stabbing her husband in a fight over the man’s decision to bring a second wife. The woman said she was defending herself from her husband’s beatings.
That’s just a sample of cases from January. Hopefully, 2023 will see fewer tragedies of such nature. 2022 was filled with many tragic cases of polygamy gone sour. One case that sticks out is that of Faith Nanzala, a mother of two in Kakamega, who died in a domestic squabble over a second wife.
The question that emerges is: can society be convinced to re-accept polygamy as was practiced in the pre-modern era? Too many people are dying because of the conflict between monogamy and polygamy. Lots of people are betraying their partners while pretending to be monogamous.
Accepting polygamy does not make it easy. There is an obvious financial penalty if a man has to support more than one wife and their children. If the wives live in separate homes, the man has to incur the expenses of running each of those households.
Pastor Ben Paul, a polygamous Christian cleric featured in the Star back in 2020, expresses regret for getting into polygamy. “Maintaining two families is very expensive and costly. It requires wisdom and patience. As a man, you also have to stand your ground and avoid being seen as if you are favouring one side,” he said.
Marriage.com, an online resource on relationships, lists the disadvantages of polygamous relationships. They include tension between married partners, jealousy and children not getting enough attention from their father. The famous love triangle involving folk musician Samidoh, his wife Eddy Nderitu and nominated Senator Karen Nyamu is a prime example of the woes afflicting polygamous relationships.
On December 16, the three were involved in an embarrassing public altercation in Dubai, where Samidoh had gone to perform his music. Commotion ensued as Karen sought Samidoh’s attention. Samidoh was subsequently rebuked for not properly managing relations between Eddy and Karen.
“Polygamy is not for boys,” Kakamega Senator Bonny Kwalwale said on social media in defence of Karen Nyamu, who is a fellow senator. Khalwale, a practising polygamist, blamed Samidoh for the altercation. “Here is a young woman [Karen] who loves her man but unfortunately, the guy has no idea how to manage his wives. He ought to apologise for his ineptitude on matters of family. He is to blame,” Khalwale said.
Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua also weighed in on the matter, publicly reprimanding Samidoh and telling him to take control of the situation. “Control your people and if you fail we shall ban you from travelling abroad,” the Deputy President ordered.
Stephen Letoo, a TV personality and strong advocate for polygamy, urges polygamous men to treat their wives equally. “Samidoh must treat both wives equally. No wife should be undermined. If he goes with wife A (Edday) to Dubai let him take Wife B (Karen) to Maldives, failing which the consequences should be better imagined than felt,” he said.
Letoo advises wives in polygamous relationships to know their place. “They were married differently. Every wife must, therefore, know her time to avoid embarrassment and public nuisance that exposes the polygamy fraternity in bad light,” Letoo says. On a separate occasion, Letoo criticised single women who condemn polygamy while dating married men.
If you are a man thinking of getting polygamous, consider the emotional toll your decision will place on your wife and children. Think of the financial consequences of supporting more than one wife. Think of the legal consequences on family property. Polygamy is not merely about getting more romantic partners; it is about taking on additional responsibilities.
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