Of polyandry and related matters...

By Mugambi Nandi

Polyandry, which is the practice of a woman taking two or more husbands at the same time, existed for many years, across all continents. In parts of India, polyandry is still practiced, albeit by a few tribes. In places where it was practised, it was justified by scarcity of resources, mainly land, and high male mortality and absenteeism, due to war and the search for food and pastures. It is common knowledge that among the Maasai, men of the same age group were free to share the hospitality of each other’s wives. The word hospitality here is used in its widest and most generous form, leaving nothing out that should be in.

 If a Maasai man wished to avail himself of the matrimonial benefits of his mate’s wife, all he needed to do was call on her while the husband was out, plant his spear outside her hut, and the woman would be his for the night as long as the spear stood its ground. If the husband happened to come home while the spear was still erect (no pun intended, but the English ought to broaden their vocabulary), he would understand and move on to another mate’s hut and “do likewise”. And so it went, or perhaps still goes. We would have confirmed this with Ferdinand Waitutu, who in his defence to the charge of hate speech against the Maasai, now claims to be one himself, but we do not have his number.

Perhaps we should look at last week’s news of two men in Mombasa who signed a peace, love and unity pact in relation to their mutual feelings of affection towards the same woman in this context. (We never knew we would use the Nyayo Philosophy one day). It was reported that the two men engaged in a physical fight when they discovered that for at least four years they unknowingly shared the society and service of the same woman. After the fight came the pact. The two men voluntarily agreed to share the woman, to harbour no jealousy towards each other in relation to her, and to respect an agreed weekly roster through which husbandly duties (and all the rights attached thereto) would be performed.

It was reported that the woman participated in reaching the pact, by giving her personal assurances that she loved both of them truly and equally, and that she would not, nay, could not, live without either of the two. It would seem these assurances were given in haste, without due reflection.

The woman is said to have kicked out one of the men a few days later. Had we been consulted, we would have suggested that the parties enter into a tripartite agreement, by having the woman append her signature to the pact as well. We were not. We understand that one of the men has cried out to Maendeleo ya Wanaume for help, having suffered the double jeopardy of being kicked out of the union and his employment as a butcher. The moral bar for a butcher is clearly higher than that for political office.

Forgetting their own little moral transgressions here and there, puritans have condemned the arrangement as immoral and “unAfrican”. Contrast this moral outrage with the general acceptance of polygamy. Polygamy is supported by at least one major religion and the laws of many countries. In our view, what is moral and socially acceptable is often what we are accustomed to. It is what we call culture. Yet culture is not static, and things that were previously frowned upon as anathema soon find their way into mainstream culture.

We do not know about its morality, but we know that the only unAfrican thing about the tripartite arrangement in Mombasa was that it was public, and in writing. The Maasai story, which we verily believe to be factual, confirms it. The reported rates of abortion by married women, sexually transmitted diseases, divorce on account of infidelity, and such other indicators, point to the clandestine but nonetheless widespread existence of, to use a “righteous” word, wanton debauchery. Let us continue burying our heads in the sand. It’s winter in Kenya.

This is a true story. The ink had not quite dried on our last article on the anatomy of a civil servant, before we encountered a quintessential one. We recently wrote an email to the Director of Environment of the Nairobi County, informing her that some people upstream had the habit of occasionally fouling River Kirichwa by dumping raw sewer in it. We gave her directions to the river. In response, she required us to attend her office to show her officers where the problem was. Presumably, River Kirichwa is not in the County map. To cut a long story short, the problem was not addressed, and when we sent a reminder, she empathetically wrote how sorry she was about our situation. We sent her a link to our said article. We don’t know whether she has read it, but the river still stinks.