Mr and Mrs Gitau, farmers from Nyahururu, simply captivated me.
As soon as they sat in front of me and started talking, I was fascinated by their rustic background, their unsophisticated charming gestures and the guileless expression on their faces.
“My wife Wairimu has been complaining of pain in her knee for some time,” Mr Gitau spoke on behalf of his wife, a situation I often encounter in older couples, especially those who come from upcountry.
The wife, as it turns out later, is articulate but is initially either shy or reticent and the husband helps her out.
However, if I address the woman directly and persistently, I eventually establish a direct channel with my patient.
In the case of Mrs Gitau, this usual trend continued until I asked her “How many children?”
She looked at her husband, silently beseeching him to take over again.
“She has no children of her own,” Mr Gitau explained. “She could not conceive, so I took a second wife and we now have five children.”
I searched for any resentment on Mrs Gitau’s face at her husband’s disclosure but saw none.
After history taking, examination and an X-ray, I reached a diagnosis of osteo-arthritis in Mrs Gitau’s knee.
It is an age related condition where, after a certain age, the joints, especially the weight bearing ones like the knee and hip, start hurting because of their long use.
I used my standard spiel for such cases. “Osteo-arthritis is wear and tear of the joints,” I said. “Like the tyres of a car, which get worn out after running for over 25,000 kilometres, our knees, after carrying a weight of 70 kilos for 50-plus years, also buckle under.
“Taking the simile further, the joints need retreading or replacement.” I saw the couple absorbed in my motoring metaphor. “But before we take these radical measures, we first try oiling and greasing.”
I was now referring to injection of Cortisone into these joints to see if we can avoid major surgery.
I did the necessary and told the couple to report after six months so that I could see how much relief my treatment had given.
As they left my office, I could see their utter faith in me visible in their eyes.
My curiosity was also aroused about a man so happily married to one wife taking another and how the first wife views somebody who I would consider an intruder.
I hoped that, at some point in the future when Wairimu was more communicative, I would be able to satisfy my inquiring mind on a subject so alien to me.
The opportunity came sooner than I expected. Before the six months were up, Mrs Gitau was admitted under my care with gall stones.
“How is your knee after the injection?” This time I went on the direct line between Mrs Gitau and myself.
“Big help,” she replied. “I have no pain and was planning to come back for greasing and oiling again when I developed severe pain in my tummy. The doctor in Nyahururu suspected gall stones and decided that I could not wait.”
I was very happy to note that Mrs Gitau was now more communicative.
I had an ulterior motive and decided that, after removing her gall bladder, while she was recuperating, I would have the chance to understand a custom so widely prevalent in Wairimu’s and other allied communities.
Luckily for me, there arose an opportunity to start the topic and study it further.
It so happened that Wairimu’s co-wife arrived to be with her after she underwent surgery. Wairimu introduced her to me.
“This is Nyokabi, Mzee’s other wife,” she said. “She is here to look after me.”
“Where is Mzee?” I asked. He had accompanied Wairimu when she was admitted and I knew that he was waiting outside the operating theatre while I was operating on her.
“How did it go?” He asked when I momentarily popped my head out of the operation theatre door.
“Fine,” I said, “everything has gone very well and I expect an uneventful recovery.”
“Can I see the stones?” Gitau asked the standard question which patients and relatives ask after a surgeon has removed gall bladder or kidney stones.
“They are going to the ward with Mrs Gitau,” I said and went back to continue with my operation list.
That evening when I went to see Wairimu and other operated patients before I drove home, I met Gitau again.
Holding the bottle carrying the oval dark purple stones, he said, “I didn’t realise that Wairimu was growing Tanzanites inside her belly. If I knew I would have let them grow to a larger size before asking you to remove them.”
He was obviously relieved at the happy outcome and this light-hearted comment was an expression of his relief. I had not seen him since.
“Mzee has gone back to the farm,” Wairimu replied, “this is our harvesting season and his presence is required there. He is not worried about me because Nyokabi is here.”
Nyokabi was youthful, carefree and bursting with vitality. Judging by her dress, shoes and handbag, I surmised that she was up with the fashion of the day.
She was looking at Wairimu as a younger sister would look at her elder – with deference, love and with some measure of empathy because of her recent surgery.
This happy relationship between two women sharing one man’s affection and attention sharpened my desire to find out more about it.
So next day, when I found Wairimu alone, I tackled her on the subject.
“As you can gather, the whole concept is foreign to me,” I told her. “As a surgeon I want to know about your infertility and as an author I am keen to learn about how you live so harmoniously with your co-wife.”
There was a grin on Wairimu’s face as she briefed me on both topics.
What follows is a paraphrased version without in any way affecting the core of her feelings.
“For three years after my marriage, I longed to hold my own baby. I visited so many witch doctors and herbalists.
They prescribed for me barks and roots of trees. I ate raw herbs and cooked herbs, I avoided salt and milk. Some herbs were as bitter as quinine and some made me sick but I persisted. Nothing worked.
“Ultimately we decided to consult a doctor who sent us to a specialist in Nairobi. She examined Gitau and me, put us through various tests and told us the truth.”
There was sadness on Wairimu’s face as she continued with her saga: “The lady specialist sat us together and said, ‘I am afraid Wairimu cannot conceive because her womb has not grown to an adult size. In our language, we call it infantile uterus, a womb that remains the size of a thimble.’ Having gently prepared us for the whole truth she announced, ‘Wairimu will never be able to conceive.’”
I could see tears glistening in Wairimu’s eyes but she surprised me by what she said next.
“I asked the specialist, ‘Is Gitau alright? Can he sire a child?’ She said yes and that was all I wanted to know.”
There was a pause as the nurse came to check on Wairimu’s pulse and blood pressure.
“I wanted Gitau to take another wife but he wouldn’t listen,” Wairimu went on. “I could see his face wilt when news came of his friends becoming fathers not once, but a few times. He would laugh and say: ‘There were many boys who wanted to marry you but they couldn’t because your father had set the bride price too high. I saw you, fell for you and worked hard until I had saved enough money to buy 10 cows and one bull. I want some return on my investment.’”
There was another lull in the conversation when Nyokabi popped in to see that Wairimu was alright.
She brought a basket of fruits and, sensing that we were busy in a confidential conversation, tactfully left us. Wairimu picked up the thread.
“I wasn’t going to let Mzee go without any children. So on my 40th birthday, I said to him: ‘My husband, don’t you think it is wise for you to look for a companion for me? Also someone who can bear children and carry the family’s name? As you know, our farm is getting bigger and you need some help.’
‘I had already done my research and as Gitau was thinking I said: ‘What do you think of Gathoni’s daughter Nyokabi? She is beautiful and hard-working and her family is very much interested in our homestead. So try and win her love. Remember the Gikuyu saying – the flowing waters of the river do not wait for a thirsty man.’ ”
Wairimu took a sip of water. “After my persistent badgering, Mzee took my advice and married Nyokabi and, over the years, we were blessed with five children.”
I had learnt something which no history book or literature on our indigenous culture could have taught me.
Two thoughts whirled in my head. First, Wairimu’s yearning for children and love for her husband.
Here was a remarkable woman, who had made a huge personal sacrifice by insisting that her husband take another wife so that they could have children, notwithstanding that they were not borne by her.
Second, could it be that old traditions, derided now with new thinking, were adopted by our forefathers for reasons which might still be valid under exceptional circumstances?