“If I am yet to properly manage your mother 40 years (later), how do you think you will make it at your age, with today’s challenges?”This was the response Geoffrey Kariuki’s father made when he learnt that he (Kariuki) had a second wife.
Kariuki is 38 years old, a businessman in the beer industry in Nairobi, and holder of a degree holder in Food Science. He first got married in 2002 to Susanna, a career teacher at a private school in Nairobi.
Susanna became his wife under Kikuyu customary law, with traditional rites taking place at her home in Gatundu.
Seven years later in 2009, he decided to take another wife, Abigael. According to Kariuki, he found it “inadequate” to have one wife.
Although he does not fully elaborate on the ‘inadequacy’ of his monogamous arrangement, Kariuki opted to officially get a second wife in what he calls “broad day light. I did not want a mistress. I still love my first wife. I had to pay dowry for the second wife,” says Kariuki.
"I have two children with Susanna and one with Abby. I will need another child with Abby later.”
Susanna lives in Kileleshwa. She says she has a cordial relationship with Abigael, who works at a local micro-finance institution.
Although Kariuki declined to have his picture taken together with his wives, he freely summoned each of them separately for this interview at his second home in Hurlingham.
“For the sake of their privacy and jobs, let us leave their images out,” he pleaded.
You would imagine that having two wives is a preserve of the older, traditionalist politician or the village medicine man whose only show of being a man is to have a string of women and several children to his name.
South African president and Zulu traditionalist Jacob Zuma recently married his sixth wife, Bongi Ngema, at his home in Kwa Zulu-Natal.
The wedding has ignited debate about African men and polygamy, with certain quarters terming the president’s behaviour as “archaic.”
In Kenya, however, it is no longer fashionable to have more than one wife. To wit, a few years ago, President Mwai Kibaki categorically stated he had “only one wife.”
The statement served as a warning to whoever would want to insinuate that he had more than one wife. The bigger message was that he was a family man and that “family men have only one wife.”
Some young, modern Kenyans have gone against the grain, though. Re-known comedian Walter Mong’are aka Nyambane (who initially agreed to this interview but was unavailable due to overseas travel) has publicly declared that he has two wives.
The second wife, Linda Muthama, a musician, recently had a child by him. In an earlier interview, Linda said she was well aware of the situation long before she moved in and that she had “a warm relationship” with her co-wife.
When Kariuki, who is another such example, speaks about his wives and the way each responds to any query about the other, it becomes clear that modern-day polygamy is alive – and workable.
Forget the mistress or the mpango wakando phenomenon; it is two women accepting their co-wife status.
A delicate balancing act has characterised his management of the relationships, which Kariuki says are unique. "Both my wives have stable jobs, so there no one is really dying for support where basic needs are concerned,” he says.
He is financially stable and rents decent houses for each of the wives. Where does he spend the majority of his time?
“I actually cannot say whom I live with. I can pop into any house provided I tell the other one before it is late. That is rule number one,” he says.
Both Susanna and Abby describe the unwritten rules that govern their marriage.
“I cook food for both of us, whether he has said he is coming home or not,” says Susanna. Abigael has learnt “not to disturb” her husband when she knows he is with Susanna.
“I do not call him. I only SMS and wish him a good night.”
Both women have learnt to give each other space although they meet every month for a Sunday afternoon outing.
“Although my child is three, Kariuki insists we go out together for lunch every first Sunday of the month,” says Abigael. When together, they discuss family issues. ”
"I think we try to accept that perhaps our being together like this is our strength,” notes Abigael.
All three of them have their own cars, although they car pool almost every day.
“We drive into one compound depending on the direction we are going and leave our cars. We pick them later in the evening,” Kariuki says.
At first, Susanna was depressed by the fact that her man was bringing another woman in his life barely 10 years into their marriage.
"The fact that he was doing it openly only made things worse. I felt he had nothing left for me in his heart,” says the teacher.
However Kariuki, she says, convinced her she would get all his commitment on family matters and that if she cared for his happiness, then she should also listen to his needs, which he had an option of hiding from her.
“I would be less happy if I did not know who he is giving time to. Now that I know, I (do not feel) the insecurity that I would feel,” she says.
Now, she has, “very little to complain about. He provides well and his presence is felt appreciably."
It was not only a challenge on the personal level, but the two women faced social pressure from friends and relatives. Abigael, in particular, was branded “a husband snatcher” and rejected by Kariuki’s siblings until they got tired of talking their brother out of polygamy.
A sister we reached on the mobile phone said: “At one point he challenged us, asking who between us and his wife should be complaining. (So) we have accepted the way he decided to handle the situation.”
Although the family has tried to consolidate several things such as accounts for utilities and rent, there are things he has left each woman to do her way.
"I allow them to invest in whatever they think can work for them,” says Kariuki.
On her part, Abigael, who will be turning 30 next month says sometimes women mistake the intentions of their husbands.
“The fact that I came in with full disclosure of the situation on my mind has made things a lot easier,” she says.
Jaramogi Obondo Mumbo is just a successful oil businessman and farmer by the local standards of Ongalo village, Kisumu County. But the 44-year-old stands out among the men in Kisumu County for another reason: He has six wives. The man has weathered harsh economic times and taken care of the six women and their children.
At 19, in 1987, he was already a husband to wife number one, Nyakajulu.
“In the first marriage, I had six girls. I had to get the second wife, as I felt it was a curse to get children of one gender,” says Jaramogi, adding, “According to Luo tradition, a man is allowed to take a second wife especially if he is looking for male children.”
Male children in most African cultures are valued compared to their female counterparts as they are believed to protect the father’s legacy when he dies.
Jaramogi took Martha Apiyo, a Tanzanian, in 1997, as his second wife so that he could heal what he called “the first wife illness of not conceiving male children. Our traditions say a second wife will cleanse the home and heal the first wife’s illness,” he says.
He killed a white cock which he fed to his in-laws and also performed other rites to ensure the cleansing worked.
Apiyo gave birth to four boys before the first wife finally rode her luck and gave birth to three male children.
"I knew the cleansing had worked,” says Jaramogi.
Not satisfied with the two wives and the many male children, Jaramogi moved on to marry three more wives before the year 2000 to bring the count to six. The wives have given him about 30 children and many grandchildren are also on the offing.
Jaramogi married most of his wives at tender ages with the eldest in her late 30s and the youngest just turning 26.
“If you want to marry many wives, get them young,” he says. "They are strong and have the ability to work for their children’s needs.”
Jaramogi is happy and contented with his large family that he fondly refers to as a ‘super family’:
“I love them equally and do not favour any one particular (wife),” he says. “They will ensure my name and legacy will live forever.”
He has built each one of his wives a home in different parts of Nyanza Province, from K’ogello to Sakwa, and visits each occasionally.
This, he says, has helped to avoid conflicts that would exist if all the wives lived under one roof. ”I need peace and harmony in my life and providing for each wife was the only way to ensure this.”
To him, polygamy has merits that have made his life “more fulfilling,(although) you need to work hard so that they do not miss the basic needs.” Jaramogi, however, observes a polygamous marriage works better in a rural area compared to towns due to cost of living.
According to his second wife, Apiyo, 32, polygamy is a good thing as long as the husband is loving and provides equally for each one of his spouses. She however reveals that there exists competition among the wives to impress the husband.
“We try to outwit each other. If my co-wife has cooked a nice meal, I will make one that is twice as sumptuous.”
She describes Jaramogi as loving, caring, fair and a great leader.
“Not many people can have six wives and many children and be able to get the respect of all,” she says.