In the late 1940s, Damaris Awiti visited her sister, Priscah Obumba, who had just delivered a child in Aora Chuodho, Ndhiwa District, Nyanza Province.
She stayed on, and soon started envying her sister over her male ‘catch’, although Priscah was the ninth wife of serial polygamist Asentus Akuku ‘Danger’.
Him being the ‘dangerous’ man that he was, Akuku did not take long before he found himself on a bended knee, declaring his eternal love for the comely Damaris.
Already smitten by Akuku Danger’s lifestyle — and looks — Damaris did not beat about the bush, and accepted the proposal for marriage. Immediately, her brother-in-law-turned-husband called her family and, for the second time, dowry negotiations began in Damaris’ home.
“He was a tall and very handsome man. The tone of his voice was very soothing. I found him irresistible. Furthermore, he had enough wealth, which was every woman’s dream at the time,” Damaris told us at the expansive Akuku Danger home last Saturday.
A dancer of no mean repute in his heyday, Akuku Danger died 10 days ago. He is said to have married over 100 wives, and with them he begat about 300 children.
“About 300” because nobody has come up with the exact figure yet. Establishing the number of this man’s grand- and great-grandchildren would be something of a mini census. Akuku will be buried on December 4, by which date the family will have had enough time to round them up since, in the words of his son Dr Tom Akuku, “ they are spread all over the world”.
Aoro Chuodho market is literally Akuku’s empire. Half of the shops and residential buildings are his and his family members. Most of the buildings have names like Akuku Danger Plaza, Akuku Tailoring shop, Akuku Shop, P Akuku Complex ... Akuku This and Akuku That.
Naturally, business is at a standstill as most shops run by his family are closed. Old men talk in hushed tones while the few young men around wait in turns to show directions to Akuku’s place.
When she got married to Akuku in 1952, Damaris joined the league of other women who were enjoying the comfort of a rich and famous fellow in the whole of Ndhiwa, the head of an expansive family comfortably settled at Aora Chudho and Mirogi.
“He was a very caring man who would make you feel like the luckiest woman on earth. I loved him very much, and he, too, loved us,” recalls Damaris.
Maintaining order in Akuku’s marital empire required a deft and firm administrative hand.
“When I joined the family, I was taught how to live and what roles I would play in the home,”
Every woman, Mrs Damaris said, had her turn to cook, iron clothes, feed the children and perform other chores.
“One wife, for example, would be assigned the duty of cooking for our husband for a given period. Another would iron his clothes... and so on,” explains Damaris. “That way, we avoided chaos.”
Wives without special duties, Damaris said, would accompany the other family members to the farm, where they would till until evening.
After farming, Damaris said every woman would go back to her house with her children and cook for them. Akuku would spend the evening the wife whose responsibility was to cook for him during that period.
After Damaris’ marriage, several other women were added to the family. Some made the cut and stayed while others were ‘not good enough’ and were shown the door.
“Mzee did not like lazy, proud and arrogant women. He would warn a woman over a misdemeanour and, if she repeated the same mistake, chase her away. All her children sired by Akuku would remain in the family.”
When a woman had been divorced, says Damaris, Akuku would decide which one of his many wives would take care of the children of the expelled wife.
“He would visit the children frequently to know how they were doing and ask them if they were comfortable staying in that home. After some time, the children would be taken to another home for a period of time again,” she recalls.
“I managed to stay as Akuku’s wife because I obeyed every order he made. I had developed trust and confidence in him because he was forthright. Why would I dispute anything that he said when he was organised and upheld integrity?”
When Damaris delivered her second child, one of her other sisters came to their home to help her take care of the baby.
“Two years later, she was Mrs Akuku,” she says laughing.
“My beautiful sister was dating another man, but when Akuku proposed to her, she agreed to be Mzee’s 17th wife.”
A set of another four sisters would find themselves answering to the title ‘Mrs Akuku.”
“Our husband wanted each of his wives to be clean, just like him. He wanted us to be presentable before the eyes of the villagers,” says Damaris, who recalls that Akuku was fond of showing off his wives.
Every time there was a new person in town, she said, Akuku would summon his wives from Aora Chuodho to meet the visitor and boast about their beauty and intelligence.
“He was a person of nyathi (high class). He would wake up in the morning, bathe and put on clean shorts, a long-sleeved shirt and a scarf, even when he was headed to the farms.”
Damaris recalls Akuku bought clothes for all his wives and provided them with everything.
“He would say he wanted us to look like queens.”
According to Damaris, at least 10 of her co-wives were assigned the duty of distributing ready-made clothes to clients. All the wives would bring the money to their husband.
“He was determined in his businesses. He travelled across villages to buy cattle, sheep and goats, which he resold at handsome profits. He would then deposit the money in the bank. He paid fees for our children and bought everything we needed.”
Damaris confirmed a statement by one of Akuku’s long-term friends, Mzee Justus Opiyo, that the polygamist’s secret lay in treating all his wives equally.
“There is no day we heard of his wives quarrelling or fighting. They all loved him and cared for each other.”
Through his organised management of resources, Akuku educated all his children, who also did him proud.
“Our family has doctors, lawyers, politicians and engineers. Some of our children work in the United Kingdom while others are in India,” says Damaris proudly.
“All the young children are assured of finishing school without problems, because there is some money in Mzee’s account. There is a committee handling the accounts and we will continue doing business the way he taught us.”
Akuku’s business associate from 1950s, Mzee Opole Obilo, 71, says despite from his propensity for marriage, Akuku Danger was a hard-working and shrewd businessman.
Land, Damaris said, was allocated to every wife. He would show every woman where she would build and farm. However, the land he set aside for his burial was communal and was not entitled to anyone.
“That is why there are no burial disputes in the family now,” says Damaris.
When we revisited the small matter of administration, Damaris told us that errant wives would be brought in front of a family gathering, informed of their mistakes and corrected accordingly.
“If the offence was serious, he would call us to a secret place and instill sense into us,” she said. “Some disciplinary methods were too painful…. You would think twice before repeating the same mistake.”
Family spokesman, Dr Tom Akuku, says his father was not hard on them, but instilled strict discipline and hard work among his many children.
“He was very democratic. He managed the large family through dialogue and regular meetings during which we talked freely and bonded with one another,” says Dr Akuku.
Michael Akuku, 21, said his father’s discipline was passed to his wives, and all the children followed suit because they were surrounded by discipline, while Damaris said ‘Danger’ was very generous, both to the people of Aura Chuodho and Mirogi.
“Poor people would come to the home and Mr Akuku would tell us to donate grains to them. That’s the reason God blessed him with wealth.” Akuku donated part of his land and helped put up Kogore Primary School in 1965 to accommodate his offspring.
“Many of his children have gone through the school, including my late son, magistrate Olima Akuku who died in 2004, Ochieng Akuku and Okelo Akuku, who are both teachers,” says Damaris.
In Kogore Primary School, 72 out of 312 pupils are his grandchildren, according to the head teacher Charles Ojalla.
Akuku also built the Aora Chuodho Catholic church to cater for the spiritual needs of his family and avoid congestion in the local church.
The church has since attracted believers from the neighbourhood.
Surprising his women was one of Akuku’s tactics of sustaining and upholding their love for him. According to Damaris, he would not tell any of his wives that he would spend the night in her home.
“Although he had many of us, there was no feeling that he favoured any of us. He would knock on the door in the middle of the night and, because he rarely visited, one would feel very happy. If he spent the night in your house, you would know automatically that you would prepare breakfast for him and you would not go to the farm!”
Akuku ate anything that he was served... as long as it was a low-fat diet, and had no favourite meal.
The youngest wife to the flute-player, Justina Auma (32), was married in 1997 when she was only 19. During our visit to the home, she was cuddling Akuku’s youngest son, Lawrence, who is only three months old.
“We are so many that even if the neighbours do not attend the funeral, we will be a sizeable crowd. We are our own neighbours,” jokes Michael Akuku.
Additional reporting by Paul Ogemba