Elisha Koli has four wives. Two of them are biological sisters. The death of his first wife almost 20 years ago was what triggered his foray into polygamy, a social and political hot potato in Kenya. Koli’s wife left him with two children - a six-year-old daughter and a son, then only a year old.
The death of his wife made him reason that it would be better if he had many wives. “I decided to marry more wives because of the pain I experienced when my first wife died. I thought it would be better if I had more than two wives,” he said, adding that he married his second wife, Josephine, in 2000 and three months later, he married Mildred, his third wife.
Mildred’s sister, Evelyn, joined the new family as a house help and “I noticed that she behaved like her sister and I thought I could marry her,” explains Koli. He proposed to Mildred, who agreed to be his wife, as long as his family was okay with it.
Their parents and siblings had no issues and even the elders gave him the go-ahead. Koli then rented Evelyn a house near Mildred’s in Nairobi’s Kawangware area, where the other two wives also live 200 to 400 metres from each other. He also paid bride price for the sisters and says they all live together as one big happy family. In western Kenya, Luhya and Luo men are allowed to marry sisters.
Dr Alfred Akwala, a lecturer at the Technical University of Kenya, told The Nairobian that marrying sisters was a form of security for the first wife since marrying her sister in polygamous communities is unlikely to create bitter rivalry between co-wives.
In case the first wife was infertile or only gave birth to girls, the husband wooed her sister with the hope she might give birth to sons. If the first wife was of good character, then the sister was assumed to have similar traits, besides the security she provided if the first wife died. This minimised cases of lonely widowers. Equally, as a stepmother, she was unlikely to mistreat her late sister’s children since blood is thicker than water.
Some families gave out a sister as a gift to in-laws who had exhibited ‘good behaviour’ and as a means of maintaining inter-generational traits from the same seeds, ensuring family secrets were kept in the family. The realities of old age also saw some men marrying their wive’s younger sisters as security to take care of the man and his wife, her elder sister, in old age.
Marrying sisters is not exclusive to Kenya though. In neighbouring Uganda, Mohammad Ssemanda, 50, married three women, two of them blood sisters. The brides were Salmat Naluwugge, 48, and mother of his five children; Jameo Nakayiza, 27; and Mastulah Namwanje, her 24-year-old sister, all of whom were okay with his poor financial status.
Ssemanda explained that Muslim men are allowed to marry four wives and “my wives are not jealous of each other. Good enough, each has got a home and I promise to work harder and support them,” he said. “I thank our husband for marrying us all at once, a sign that he will not discriminate or sideline any of us,” said Salmat Naluwugge.
Even in the Bible, there were cases of men marrying sisters. Jacob fell in love with Rachel, the youngest daughter of Laban and worked for seven years to marry her. But Laban tricked him into marrying his older daughter Leah. Jacob agreed to work for another seven years to marry Rachel.
Unfortunately, Rachel could not bear children and she gave Jacob her servant Bilhah as a wife. Leah also gave her servant Zilpah to Jacob, who had children with her. Rachel was blessed with a son, Joseph, who became Jacob’s favourite child. Rachel then conceived a second son, but she died giving birth. She named her new son Ben Oni, meaning ‘son of my mourning,’ but Jacob renamed him, Benjamin. The four women bore 12 sons and one daughter, Dinah. Those sons became the founders of the 12 tribes of Israel.