Siprina Nyamani cannot remember the exact year her husband walked out on her. She however says she will never forget the circumstances that led to the collapse of the marriage. They had been together for two years, yet had not got a child.
Neighbours started whispering about barrenness, relatives were asking questions and her husband was getting restless and making demands.
“He would get irritable and beat me, asking why I was not giving him children yet he paid dowry for me,” says Siprina.
He finally left. Alone and desolate, Siprina knew the burden of continuing the lineage was squarely on her shoulders. In the Kuria culture, women are charged with the responsibility of ensuring a family lineage continues.
In 1998, she left her home to go to Kericho. Her plan: to work in tea plantations and buy cows that would pay dowry for a ‘wife’ to give birth on her behalf. She needed offspring of her lineage.
She wanted a nyumba mboke – an arrangement where she would take another woman into her home to assume the role of a wife.
In less than two years, she returned to her village in Nyangoge, Kuria West, Migori County, with enough money to buy 16 cows. She was ready to ‘marry’.
She had in mind what she wanted in a woman. Her family background had to be spotless; untainted by witchcraft, theft and malice. She was also looking for a beauty who could dig tirelessly in the farm, without whining. The greatest attribute she needed was ability to reproduce. When she identified her, she sent a delegation of men to go and negotiate for her.
“My father told me to prepare for new life. He said a woman wanted me to go and help her get children and do other wifely duties. Those days, you could not say no to your father,” says Susan Boke who ‘got married’ to Siprina. She was 15.
Boke knew her role: to bear as many children as possible. She also knew the children will never identify as her own; they would belong to the home she was getting married into.
On the onset, Boke’s biggest challenge was getting men to make her pregnant. Kuria traditions did not allow her to sire children with the man whose wife she was ‘getting married’ to.
Tradition does not even allow the man to return to that home once he leaves and his wife ‘marries’ another woman.
“One night, a man showed up and told me he wanted to stay the night. He kept coming until he made me pregnant. Then he disappeared,” Boke says, her gaze fixed shyly on the ground.
After the birth of her first child, who was named by Siprina, more men kept coming. Today, she has 13 children. Her ‘husband’ Siprina says it makes her happy to see her home getting full.
“They are my children. I don’t ask who made her pregnant. It is not in my place to know,” she says.
Ironically, Siprina’s glee is a big headache for health workers in Kuria. They earnestly push messages on use of contraceptives and prevention of HIV in the community but traditional norms block their efforts.
“Nyumba mbokes are all over Kuria. Women married in such circumstances are vulnerable but you cannot tell them to stop because they are married to procreate,” says Thomas Muniko, a community health worker in Kuria West.
He says some men take advantage of traditions to sire children without taking responsibility.
“The men know nobody will hold them accountable. It is a shame because many wait for mkamwanas (women married to women), get them pregnant and hop to another one,” he says.
Robi Marwa, who was born and raised in Kuria, says most times, the women who are chosen are often vulnerable and defenseless.
“They never have a choice, they also lack education to think beyond going to a home to give birth,” says Marwa.
Teresia Wegesa was born with a hearing disability. By the time she was 16, her parents started worrying over who would marry her. When Gitengo Matiko, a widow with an epileptic son, showed up with 20 cows at her home, asking to ‘marry’ Wegesa, her parents were elated.
“Who would have married me?” says Wegesa in sign language. “I had no value.”
Matiko wanted someone who would give birth to more children and immortalise her family name. Even though their life was defined by poverty, Wegesa had four children who she struggles to care for after Matiko died a few years ago.
“Such kind of cases make us discourage the practice. She keeps getting pregnant, yet she cannot afford to give the children food and education,” says Lillian Boke, a community health worker.
Fanuel Mwita, an elder in Nyangoge, differs with the idea that women who were married by other women did not have a choice. He said when he was a young man, getting a mkamwana was not as easy as people believe. It was an elaborate process where the ‘wife to be’ was thoroughly vetted and history of the family, including genealogy, was questioned.
“Nobody woke up and got a girl. It was a community initiative, just like marriage between a man and a woman,” says Mwita.
To him, there has never been a more sensible culture than that where a woman, unable to meet expectations of marriage, would ‘source’ for a helper to save the family name from disappearing in barrenness.
“We did it because we wanted the woman, even though unable to give birth, to always be remembered,” he says.
The culture continues to define sub families among the Kurias.
Debate on whether it should end is anchored on emergence of diseases like HIV, hard economic times and women empowerment movements that discourage the practice.
“We are already in it. Anyone who wants us to leave should be willing to return the cows our ‘husbands’ paid,” says Boke, with a chuckle.