Polygamy, Remixed: One Woman Marries Two Men In Kenya, Sparking National Controversy

   on August 29 2013 9:03 AM

An odd marriage arrangement in Kenya is turning the concept of polygamy on its head.

For years, two men in the east African country's Mombasa county had been fighting over a woman who refused to choose between them. Now the suitors, Sylvester Mwendwa and Elijah Kiman, have made peace by agreeing that they would both marry Joyce Wambui and help to raise her children. "She is like the central referee," said Mwendwa to the BBC when he first went public with the story. "She can say whether she wants me or my colleague."

The union isn't entirely set in stone; official recognition of the marriage would require proof that polyandry -- the term for a one-woman, multiple-man union -- is rooted in custom for the three participants.

At present, Kenya's laws on the matter are a bit hazy since the country is home to so many different ethnic groups and cultural mores. Polygamy as it typically occurs -- one man and multiple women -- is widely practiced in Kenya and condoned by the state, though not all unions are fully recognized in a legal sense.

Such is the case in many countries across Africa. Polygamy is more common in majority-Muslim areas, such as eastern Kenya, northern Nigeria, and some areas of North Africa. But plenty of other religions allow the practice as well, and polygamous unions can be found across the continent from Benin to Tanzania to South Africa, where President Jacob Zuma married his fourth wife last year.

"In several sub-Saharan countries, more than 10 percent of married women are in a polygamous union," according to a 2011 study from James Fenske, an economics professor at Oxford University. "Between Senegal and Tanzania stretches a 'polygamy belt' in which it is common to find that more than one-third of married women are polygamous."

Opponents of polygamy point out that it leads to poorer economic outcomes for families and higher incidences of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV. The practice also has bad implications for women's rights -- though in Wambui's case, the roles have been reversed. It's no wonder that the level of outside attention she and her husbands have received is unprecedented, and that some Kenyans were outraged by the union.

Indeed, things have not gone well for Mwendwa since the story was run by the BBC earlier this week. A follow-up article from Kenya's own Daily Nation newspaper revealed that Mwendwa was fired from his job and cast from his home after the news went public. "I cannot go back home because I do not feel safe; I know Wambui is hurt," he said.

He added that he still loves his shared wife as much as ever: “It’s not because she is a superwoman, but because she is a hard-worker and very beautiful."

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