Once upon a time in Kenya a child born out of wedlock was a sure way to have a woman ‘excommunicated.’ Fathers in the village lost their marbles and mothers died a slow death when their Form Two daughters started acting funny in the morning. An unexpected pregnancy, consigned many teenage mothers to bad marriages, prostitution and destitution, just to escape the wrath of furious fathers.
Nowadays, on average, every family has a single mother or one has been married into the family. But attitudes against single mothers have changed significantly in the last decade or so. The Nairobian conducted a survey, that though not scientific, revealed interesting findings. An interesting revelation was that Kenyan men have thawed their attitudes towards marrying single mothers.
Whether it is the ubiquity of single mothers, or men coming to their senses, increasingly, the single mother today stands a better chance of getting married than a single mother of 20 years ago. Peter Onyach* who lives in Kwale, married a local woman with a son. They have lived together for seven years and have been blessed with two more sons. Why did he opt for a single mother? “It wasn’t an issue of opting for a single mother. My eldest sister was a single mother, so in our family, we never had a problem with single mothers,” explains the 35-year-old nurse. He adds that, “I never saw anything wrong with it. She was upfront with it.”
Onyach says he treats his children equally and for the seven years he has been married, he has not had a problem in the marriage because his wife was a single mother. Onyach formalised his marriage with a wedding ceremony last year and says, “Society has to realise that kids are not the problem. The mother determines how the marriage will go,” he says, noting that we all come with some baggage into a relationships and it is how we deal with it that matters. He believes that everything happens for a reason. He says that his wife getting a child at a young age was not intentional, unlike the case of a woman who is, say, over 30 years old. His observation is that women sometimes can be unnecessarily harsh to the children they came to the marriage with, maybe to appease the man.
To some men, single mothers make better wives. Paul Opondo, an anthropologist, says that with many men having sired children out of wedlock and abdicated their responsibilities, “they would not be judgmental when marrying another woman in the future. It is a bargaining chip. They know a single mother will be ready to accept his child since they are both compromised (in a sense).” Sociologist Gordon Olala of Kisii University (Migori Campus), says that modernity has softened cultural bias against single women, since “we live in a society where single mothers are so many that it has become hard to ignore them and hence, men seeking marriage are most likely to get a woman with a child.” He notes that many girls get children in high school and college and by the time they are ready to settle, they are already single mothers. He adds that some are divorcees who have walked out of marriages, as women are increasingly becoming empowered and self-aware of themselves. “But single mothers appeal to men because they are perceived as hard-working and have already proven their fertility,” Olala says.
Hesborn Mwau, a 30-year-old accountant in Nairobi, is a father, but not married to the woman with whom he had the child. He says he can marry a single mother on one condition: “I don’t harbour reservation towards a single mother, as long as it is only one child, and it should be a girl not a boy.” Boaz Kivanda from Vihiga also says that he can only marry a single mother who has a girl because his family would not be comfortable with one with a son “and in any case, it would be difficult to tame the boy once he knows you are not his biological father. He might even become rebellious and beat me up.” In Central Kenya, things are a tad bit less complicated from other communities. The region is known to have a neutral perception of children regardless of sex, with no major pressure culturally set on male children. “In our community, the children belong to the mother and no one will force you to know who their father is,” Njoki Mwangi, a high school teacher says.
Anthropologist Opondo notes that the aversion to boys has to do with land and family property. “Illegitimate children are a problem during inheritance, especially in patriarchal communities even though a lot has changed with couples marrying when much older and older men are much more accommodating to single mothers,” he explains. Such is the case of Ben Otieno who lost his expectant wife 10 years ago. Otieno who lives in California, USA, has been seeing a single mother whom he plans to wed. “Look, I’m old now. I am not picky at all and I have no problem with a child whatsoever. I just need one more and we’ll live happily,” said the man now bending his 40s.