How fate conspired to make me a polygamous academic

Saturday July 6 2013

Prof Kamuti (back right) with some of his wives, children and grandchildren. PHOTO | FAMILY ALBUM

Prof Kamuti (back right) with some of his wives, children and grandchildren. PHOTO | FAMILY ALBUM 

By KITAVI MUTUA [email protected]

In the remote windswept Mathuki village in Kitui County, a 78-year-old man stands tall literally, academically and most spectacularly for his polygamous traditions that he has kept in a day and age when such practice is largely frowned upon.

Call it a quirk of fate but Kamuti Kiteme has been down the hallways of City University of New York – one of the largest universities in the US, but also kept a polygamous marriage that has seen his youngest children going to school together with some of his grandchildren.

Kamuti is a Professor Emeritus – a distinguished title of honour granted to retiring professors for their outstanding contribution to academic excellence in a university. He was bestowed with the honour in 1995 by the City University of New York, one of the leading universities in the world. And such is his high standing that he is entitled to an office and a full time secretary at the university until his death.

However, unlike many intellectuals of his standing and men of his generation who shunned polygamy and embraced monogamy as prescribed by Western colonial culture, Prof Kamuti is husband to five wives and boasts one of the largest families in modern Kenya.

The Prof’s love story cuts across two continents where in the last five decades he has married and simultaneously raised successful families in both Kenya and the United States.

Interestingly, his first-born son from the first wife, who was born in 1959, has grandchildren the same age as his last-born son from his youngest wife.

The first grandchild and his last-born from the sixth wife are in their teens and are both high school students.

What is more fascinating about the complex mosaic of his extended family is the fact that his wives, born of different races and diverse cultures, live in almost perfect harmony eating from the same pot and sharing everything.

His large family of 21 children and dozens of grandchildren, most living in the same compound, makes his home look like a village.

In most contemporary African societies, civilisation has transformed people’s cultures where such educated people like Prof Kamuti see it as fashionable to marry only one wife and raise a lean family of at most three children.

Two of his wives

When Lifestyle visited his home at the dusty Mathuki village of Mwingi East in Kitui County, we found the old professor whiling away time at the local shopping centre with two of his wives.

In an attention-grabbing sense of humour, Prof Kamuti narrates the unique circumstances that saw him end up with an intricate series of marriages.

It all began in 1959 when he fell in love with a young girl named Ndululu. He had just landed his first teaching job and was posted to Machakos High School soon after graduating from Kagumo Teachers’ College.

“I was young and naive, besides being among very few educated people in the region. I wasn’t keen on settling down so early but was looking for opportunities to advance my education,” he said.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “Ndululu became pregnant even before our relationship had crystalised into a serious love affair. Marriage wasn’t a priority for me as I was only 24 years then.”

The following year, an opportunity arose for him to leave the country for studies in the United States during the famous airlifts organised by the late Cabinet minister Tom Mboya.

Kamuti travelled to the US in the same season as other young Kenyan students such as Barack Obama Snr, the late father of US President Barack Obama, and the late Nobel Peace Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai. Barack snr had, however, gone to the US under different arrangements.

“I left the country in 1960 on the same flight with Obama Senior but we ended up in different universities. I was admitted to South Dakota University while Obama went to Hawaii University,” he said.

Leaving behind his girlfriend and child, his mother worried that her son may never return home and arranged to bring Ndululu and her grandson to live in her compound.

For 15 good years, Kamuti was out of touch with the happenings back home and, although he was busy with his studies, he had begun a fresh relationship in America.

During his stay in New York, Kamuti fell in love with a white American woman of Anglo-Saxon descent and decided to marry her.

Ms Barbara Fisher from Maryland became Kamuti’s second wife and they soon got a son named after him, Kamuti Kiteme.

Racial discrimination was still rampant in the US then and their marriage ran into problems in a short time after his wife was disowned by her parents for marrying a black African.

“My in-laws refused to recognise our marriage. Barbara was called a dog for agreeing to marry me and we were literally forced to divorce,” he recalled.

Just as Obama’s father was separating with his American wife Ann Dunham in Hawaii, Kamuti was experiencing similar problems with his wife in New York. Both Kenyan students had named their sons after themselves.

His heritage

In a telephone conversation from New York on Thursday last week, Prof Kamuti’s son, who is an IT expert, told Lifestyle that he was proud of his father and very grateful for the diversity of his heritage.

“I’m glad they gave me Kamba names and even though my parents are now divorced and I work in America, I consider myself a Kenyan first and my homeland is Kitui County,” Kamuti Kiteme Jnr said.

He added that he wished his estranged parents, who are still on talking terms, could reunite and settle in Kenya and that he really admired the way his father maintained a good personal relationship with each one of them despite their strenuous marriage.

After the divorce, Prof Kamuti quickly picked up his pieces, this time falling in love with another white American woman, Drusilla Davis, from Maine.

“Drusilla was madly in love with me and even her family accepted me unlike the previous marriage where I was called a dog. She is an apotheosis of a woman, the quintessential wife any man would dream of,” Prof Kamuti told Lifestyle.

Drusilla Davis, later renamed Mrs Kaveti Kamuti (Kamba for my wife), of whom the professor is full of praise for her outstanding character, officially became his wife after she agreed to his marriage proposal.

The couple established a home in New York where they both worked while pursuing their education. They were also planning their trip to Kenya to meet family members.
However, in mid-1970s during their first visit to their Kitui rural home, Prof Kamuti got the shock of his life. He found that not only was his first girlfriend, the girl from Machakos whom he impregnated before leaving for the US, living with his mother, but also that she had eight more children with other men.

In a twist of both fate and luck, he found himself having two wives and 10 children including the boy from his second estranged American wife.

“I protested that I would not accept the woman who had filled our home with other men’s children but my uncles demanded that I inherit them and still retain my American wife because I was the only son in the family,” he said.

It was very awkward for the professor to discover that the children, some of them enrolled in local schools, identified with him as their father and were longing for his return to afford them a better livelihood.

Inheritance laws

“I sought legal advice from my friend Prof Onesmus Mutungi, the former High Court judge who was then teaching law at the University of Nairobi. Sadly, I was told that under Kenyan inheritance laws, these children were legally deemed mine,” he said.

“I therefore agreed to undertake the huge responsibility of raising the family and educating the children even though they were not my biological children”.

His story would become more complicated upon return to the United States.

Back home, by circumstances which he describes as default rather than design, Prof Kamuti was set up for another marriage.

His mother married a “nominal wife”, Ann Mutongoi, for his late step-brother named according to a traditional Kamba practice that allowed a family to be raised in the deceased’s name.

Being the only son in the family and already facing the difficult prospect of raising children born in his absence, he faced the dilemma of watching as his family lineage got diluted if he allowed the wife to be kept by other men as would have been the case.

“I could not allow other men to invade our home and give our family children we are not related to by blood and with whom we would have problems relating to, so I agreed to keep my late brother’s nominal wife,” he said.

Upon the approval of Drusilla Kaveti, Ann Mutongoi became officially his fourth wife and he went ahead to have four children.

“Kaveti would make fun of my marital life and she even nicknamed me Mbendwa – Kamba for lover boy – but she was very supportive and indeed she encouraged me to accept the first family,” he said.

She told me: “Mbendwa if it pleases your heart, you have my full support, so go ahead and inherit your late brother’s wife. After all, what’s the point of having some other “bastard” children for your brother when you are available?” At the time, Drusilla was finding it hard to conceive.

Prof Kamuti says these were the circumstances which, to some extent, were beyond his control and not part of his initial dreams.

A house-help

Another spectacle would happen when the fourth wife recruited a house-help named Margaret Vaati from a neighbouring village.

While the professor was away in the US, his mother conspired with his fourth wife to marry the house-help as the nominal wife for another late brother and, therefore, Margaret Vaati became the fifth wife.

“In the spirit of family solidarity, all these wives agreed that I’ll be the father of their children to avoid having inheritance disputes,” he said, adding that Vaati has six children with him.

The first wife Ndululu has since died.

Two of his wives stay in Kenya managing the tasks of feeding and educating the large family where everything, including meals and responsibilities, is shared.

Ann Mutongoi and Margaret Vaati told Lifestyle that they were happier than most women in single marriages and do not regret embracing Prof Kamuti.

“I’m very happy to be part of this successful modern day African polygamy. We are truly one family, and there are no barriers in our lives,” said Margaret, adding that the family organises an annual get together party every December to celebrate their unity.

She explained that any wife can discipline all the children, notwithstanding who their mother is and that is the spirit that binds the family together.

“We have weekly duty roasters where one wife attends to the family’s string of retail businesses while the other is left at home taking charge of household chores,” said Ann.