Would you like to marry another woman? Be a ‘ghost wife’? Be a co-wife? In Kenya there are many different and tolerated marriage customs.


Come-we-stay and polygamy

Women have few rights, although things are changing, particularly with the push to educate girls. They do not inherit their father’s property since once they marry they belong to their new family. Often the wife has to have her husband’s permission to visit her own parents, who are not always overjoyed to have her come to stay.


What we would call ‘common law’ is known as a  “come- we- stay” relationship. Such unions can be recognised by the tribe if the parents have agreed and the bride price paid, without benefit of civil or religious ceremonies.


Girls are sources of wealth. They are the ones who do all the domestic work, including milking, fetching water and firewood, and when they are of marriageable age, they can command a hefty price. Hence the reluctance of many rural families to educate their girls and to marry them off very young. Laws exist which make it a criminal offence to keep a girl from school and marry her off below the age of eighteen, but it is still very frequent. Girls as young as eight or ten are married to old men, particularly in the areas which practice female genital mutilation (more of this in another article.)


Polygamy is very common. Even the president has a ‘second wife’ who never appears in public with him and the “First Lady.” She has children whom he recognizes and some kind of political appointment. At one time polygamy was a necessity for women with no other source of support if the husband died, but nowadays, in my opinion, it is just a pleasant option for a man. He builds a hut for each  wife and chooses which one will receive his favors. The wives must get along together as best they can, sharing household duties and child raising, although the first wife is usually considered the chief and can make life every unpleasant for the new, younger wives. It is not uncommon to find a man with three wives and sixteen children, none of whom he can afford to send to school or even feed adequately.


Women who are widowed or abandoned do still take the step of becoming a second wife, but in most cases the children by a former marriage are not welcomed and are sent to live with grandparents. If the husband dies there are often disputes among the wives claiming the right to bury him on her ground, which means she becomes the executor of his estate. One poor fellow here has been in cold storage for a year while his two wives fight it out in court.


You may have heard that Kenya has the dubious distinction of ranking among the top twenty most corrupt nations in the world. One of the offshoots of the "War on Corruption" of the present government is to make every civil servant, no matter how lowly his or her job, file a statement listing their assets. Interestingly enough, many men have listed their wives and children as property along with cars, furniture etc. This only underlines the grave injustice done to women here. They cannot inherit property and while they can buy their own car, or even a house, if they are married the property will most often be listed in the husband's name.


Since only men or boys can inherit land, it has led to some interesting customs amongst some tribes to ensure the property stays in the 'family,' provide heirs and carry on the family name.


Wife inheritance


The origins of this practice lie in the belief that marriage surpasses a binding contract between two people–it includes the families to which they belong. A prevalent custom is for a brother of a dead man to inherit his wife. The new husband must consummate the marriage in order for the first husband’s property to come to him. In the past women had little choice in this, this becoming a second or even third wife. These days one hears more often of women refusing to be ‘inherited.’ There are two interesting and well known cases. The Vice-President died in office a couple of years ago and it is generally accepted that he was HIV positive. He had married a young wife not long before and his brother claimed her as his inheritance. She steadfastly refused, without ever giving the reason that she might be infected, but now she works for an HIV/AIDS organization. A few years ago another woman, who knew she was HIV positive, refused to be inherited, claiming publicly that she had no wish to infect another man and his other wives. She also speaks publicly for an HIV/AIDS organization


Women who ‘marry’ women and sex outside marriage


One tribe allows a woman who has no sons to 'marry' another woman. This is usually after widowhood, but can be during the husband's lifetime. The 'bride' works for and looks after the elderly woman she has 'married' but is free to choose male partners as she pleases. After all, the purpose is to have sons. Any children born belong to the family group, and the sons will

inherit the property. In one case, a woman had 'married' two other women, who between them had produced seven or eight children. The woman's married daughters approved because they could not inherit anyway.


Amongst the Maasai a woman is allowed to have a boyfriend outside marriage as long as she does not get pregnant. A seventy year old man who has married a twelve-year-old girl (yes, it happens) could allow her to have male ‘friends,’ but if she conceives she will reap the husband's wrath. (I'm

not sure why they consider a man of seventy impotent.) If the man has a forgiving nature, he could allow her to keep the child, but would have nothing to do with it. While distributing his farm and cattle, the child would be left out. The child might also become a full time herds boy as

the man's biological children go to school.


There are no childless Maasai couples. If a woman has not borne children, a woman who has several children is expected to give away at least two of her children as a permanent gift to her childless sister, with the consent of her husband. If the childless woman has no sisters, any member of the community could donate their child.


If two women are married to brothers, whichever family has children first will loan their second born to the other family. If the other family then has a child, they will return the 'borrowed' child. If they remain childless, the 'borrowed' child becomes theirs permanently.


In another tribe, the Kamba, a woman was encouraged to have at least one child outside of marriage in any case where the family was known to have a history of mental illness or genetic disorders. Or in case a curse had been put on the father's family. If a man was cursed by his father, there was a possibility that the curse could result in the death of the entire family. So it was necessary to have a child from a different man so there would be at least one survivor.

A man could also be cursed by his creditor or over a land dispute. Once such a curse was in effect it was unwise to have all your children by the same man. A jealous neighbor could visit a witch doctor to ensure the family went into decline. The children could suffer incurable diseases or go mad. (It should be noted that the belief in witch doctors and curses still exists among many people, although not as strongly as in the past.)


The Kikuyu also encouraged their women to have at least one child, especially the last born, outside of marriage in case of mental or genetic problems. The agenda had to be specific and it was meant to be strictly one child, and nothing after.


Amongst the Luo, who live around Lake Victoria, a male child born before marriage was believed to possess a spirit that suppressed the intelligence of his stepbrothers once his mother married. Allowing such a child into the marriage automatically destroyed the family as the child usurped all the luck meant for the others. Such a child was usually left under the care of his grandmother, or killed before the age of five by his stepfather's people, if the mother intended to take him to the new home.


There was a survey asking what modern Kenyans would do if they found their wife had a "secret" child. Here are some answers:


- The woman would have to go, together with all her children, even my biological ones.


- I would treat the child like my other children...The child is innocent..


- the father would have to take financial responsibility for the child, especially school fees..


- A person who chases away an innocent child is cursed


- if you throw away such a child, you throw away your own luck.. Any child acquired within my house is my property and belongs to me..


- if the child is a boy I will send him away immediately. If it's a girl, I will keep her because she will get married anyway (note-thinking house  help & bride price here, probably) I will then chase away the woman, but stay with my blood children. If their mother wants to see them, she must do

so as a visitor, not a wife.


Ghost wives


Another interesting custom in the Ukambani area is that of ‘ghost wives.’


A woman called Mulewa is married to a husband who died about 30 years ago in early childhood. Mulewa is a ‘ghost wife.” And although she never met her ‘husband’ she knows he once lived and continues to live as a spirit. Her mother-in-law told her she was to marry her son and bear children for him. Mulewa has five children, fathered by different men, who all bear her dead husband’s name.


In 1967 C. W .Hobley wrote in “Bantu Beliefs and Magic” : There is a curious custom in Ukambani... If a young unmarried man is killed away from his village, his Imu or spirit will return there and speak to the people through the medium of an old woman in a dance and say: “I am so-and-so speaking, and I want a wife.” The youth’s father will then make arrangements to buy a girl from another village and bring her to his, and she will be mentioned as the wife of the deceased, speaking of him by name...”


Nowadays the practice has undergone some refinement and accommodates the spirits of male children who died in infancy. All the bereaved mother has to do is count the years until the dead baby would have reached marriageable age, then she can find him a bride.


Ghost wives are distinguished from those who marry other women. In most cases there must be evidence that the intended ‘ghost wife’ has already produced a son. The continuation of the dead man’s lineage and that of his father is of prime importance. Daughters, even if they remain at home and produce children, are not perceived as continuing the line of their maternal grandfather because kinship in this tribe is patrilineal and the children of daughters would not belong to the same clan as their grandfather. The biological link is unimportant. It is the mystical link in the chain of life which is supreme.


A ghost wife is accorded the privileges of a normal wife and her right of inheritance is protected. She receives what her dead husband would have received from his parents. Parents whose sons have died will have received substantial ‘bride price’ from the marriages of their daughters and can use this money to pay the bride price for the ghost wife.


In addition, changes to the law make it possible for a ghost wife to also claim maintenance from any man who has fathered a child with her. But in reality ghost wives rarely reveal the names of the fathers of their children in order to maintain the fiction that any child belongs to the dead husband.


It is not sexual intercourse that constitutes marriage. Marriage is a social arrangement by which a child is given legitimate position in the society, determined by parenthood in the social sense.



Finding a bride


Among the people of the Bunyore tribe, close to where I live and work,  the aunt played an important role in the traditional approach to find a wife. A young man wanting to marry would approach his aunt and ask her to look around for a suitable girl. The aunt would then invite a group of chosen girls to her home and make sure the young man called in. He would take his pick from this group of young girls and let his aunt know of his choice.


The aunt would inform the girl that she had been chosen. This would start an official courtship and marriage negotiations between the two families.


There were ways of making sure the young men and women were ready for marriage.  Young girls of marriageable age were housed together in a kind of dormitory. The dorm was supervised by an elderly woman ,who forged a bond with the girls. She would act as go- between for the girls and boys.


Young men seeking brides were welcome to spend the night with the girls, with the approval of the supervisor. However, during this stay sex was strictly forbidden (Do you believe that?)


In this community women who committed adultery were frowned upon, whereas men who did the same were applauded. (This is still true in most places) At a recent meeting, when a woman voiced her disapproval of this attitude, she was told “Men are foxes and cannot be tamed.”



Kenya is a fascinating mixture of traditional tribal customs and a new, modern society. The examples I have given are still active in rural areas. Probably the university educated business man in Nairobi would laugh at the idea of ghost wives and curses. But he might still have two or three wives.