Of ‘straying’ women and cultures that allowed it
A popular urban tale goes: a young Kikuyu man accidentally discovered his wife was cheating on him and as he was wont to do, he caused a ruckus about it, even threatening to kill himself. His constant question was, ‘how could she do this to me?’
His father called him aside and tried to calm him down. He hatched a plan to show his son how futile his theatrics were.
The young man should pretend he is so sick and almost dying, and the only thing that would save him from this imminent death was a glass of water from one of his father’s three wives (including his mum).
The only catch: whoever gives out the water should not have strayed from the marriage. Needless to say, no water was offered to the young man.
Although many would wonder how the old man lived with his wives even after discovering their infidelity, it was common practice for both men and women to stray without affecting their marriages, and culture allowed it.
“It is important to get a child out of wedlock, even if it is just one. You never know what curse might befall your husband’s family or what genetic disorder might run in the family.
Choose an outstanding man, get a child with them and let God and you be the only ones privy to your secret. Both your husband and the real father to your child should be none the wiser.”
These are the words of wisdom that many women in many Bantu communities passed down to their daughters of marriageable or child-bearing age.
Kuiya ciana (stealing a child) is what it is called,” Wanjiru, my vegetable vendor at Kangemi market tells me when I query her during my routine grocery shopping.
“These cultural things are real. All your kids can become paralysed if your husband has not paid ruracio (dowry).
That stolen one might be the one to hold the home together. If you also married into a dumb family, that one ‘stolen’ kid might be the one who studies, makes it and even helps the others grow into their own.
At times, they even help out their ‘stepfather’, who might even love him more than his own offspring,” she added.
Another way this was ‘allowed’ was through Itharia- a phenomenon where a married man sleeps with a married woman that is not his wife.
The githaria (the cheating married man) were known, especially after have been caught in the act one too many times.
Itharia means breaking something, and in this context, to break a marriage.
“In some cases, the homeowner would start singing, whistling or even exaggerate his drunkenness or shake the gates to make enough noise so that a githaria would discreetly leave and allow his wife to set herself straight before he entered the home,” says elder Muguro wa Gitau.
The premise, he says, is based on the notion that the husband did not want to ruin his marriage, so he allowed his wife some freedom.
In some cases, it was a ingenious way to get children, especially if the husband was infertile.
“These men would leave for the shopping centres or drinking dens to allow the githaria to visit his house.
The children from such unions would be considered his even when it is common knowledge they are not, and even when they look so much like the githaria,” explains Gitau.
However, not all men were like this. There were some who, upon catching the philanderer, punished him in various ways. There have been cases of beatings, bone breaking and even death.
In the Maasai community, the closest thing to this is the popular spear culture.
“Men from the same age set were free to plant their spears at their peer’s homesteads and have their way with the women,” one Maasai Radio station presenter informs me.
He adds a moran was only free to do this with the few people who they got circumcised together as they were akin to brothers.
Any children gotten from these escapades were not discriminated against as they were viewed as belonging to the community.
It is the only community that did not punish girls for having children before marriage. The girl was married off either to an old man or an age-appropriate man who would raise the child as his own.
For the Luo, a woman was allowed to cheat in specific cases such as long absence of the husband. However, she is only permitted to select lovers from the clan members so that children from such escapades are considered children of the clan, and the husband cannot treat them differently from his biological ones.