She could not believe how lucky she was when a rich, albeit married man, showed an interest in her and showered her with all the things that money can buy. That was nine years ago. Today Christabel Atieno cautions young girls against falling into this trap
She was only 20 years old when she married a 55-year-old man. As a second wife.
Christabel Atieno is now 29, and if you asked her, she would gladly tell you that there is nothing prestigious about being a second wife.
“I was humiliated and called a husband-snatcher. I was insulted and eventually, this man who had promised me heaven began to bring other women into our home,” she says.
“Get an education, get a job, and become self-reliant,” is her advice to young women who believe that an older rich man is the solution to all their problems.
Now much wiser, here is her story. “I had gone to visit an uncle who was based at the Moi Air base in Eastleigh when I met this man. I had just left my job as a house help and my uncle was the only relative I knew in Nairobi. Instead of my uncle, however, an elderly man turned up at the security gate where I was waiting. It turned out that he and my uncle had similar last names. He was a pleasant man and offered to help me trace my relative. I accompanied him to his house in the military base, where he lived with his family. My uncle was away, but the man offered to house me until he returned, which was three days later.
A few days after I moved to my uncle’s house, this man started visiting me. My uncle was not happy about the visits, but he was afraid of telling him off since he was his senior. Soon, we began to go out. He showered me with money and bought me expensive clothes and shoes. He would even take me to top entertainment joints in the city and drive me around in a big car. For a girl who had known poverty all her life, my new life was unbelievable, a dream come true. I could not believe just how lucky I was.
My parents separated when I was just seven years old. My mother left us to look for work and shortly afterwards, my father left as well. Being the only girl, I was expected to take care of my two brothers. To survive, I did menial jobs such as doing laundry for families around the area.
One of my uncles, touched by how much we were struggling, took me and my younger brother to live with him and his family, and even took us to school. He was a good man, and treated us as he would his own children.
I did not perform well in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary School Education examination (KCSE), which I sat for in 2002. I scored D. Convinced that my life would not amount to much, I decided to leave home and look for work as a house help in Nairobi. These are the ircumstances that led to my meeting this man.
Anyway, by December 2003, I was already pregnant, and when this man invited me to his rural home in Kagak Village, Nyakach, to introduce me to his family, I was relieved that he had no intention of abandoning me. Of course, his wife, a primary school teacher, did not take the news well. In fact, she left for Nairobi the next m o r n -ing, leaving me at their rural home. I was anxious, but he assured me that he had not been on good terms with his wife for a long time, therefore I was not to blame for the disharmony in their marriage. I believed him, and from then on, I saw myself as the existing wife, not the second one, a belief that planted itself deeper when he started to construct a house for me in his rural home. A few months later, he took me to his house within Moi Air Base, in Eastleigh, where his wife lived with their children. It was not the ideal situation, even though I slept in the store, which I converted into a tiny bedroom. His children, who were older than me, openly called me a husband-snatcher. Their mother told me that I was her maid and that my duty was to serve her. Whenever he spent the night with me, I would be in for a beating the next day when he left.
This would always lead to a fight between the two of them, since I would tell him about the beating. My constant pleas to rent me a house fell on deaf ears. Eventually, the first wife moved out and rented a house, leaving the children. My mother, who was yet to meet this man, visited me. Word had gone round the village that I was married to a wealthy man. She was treated well by this man, such that when I informed her about the fights I had with his wife, she brushed my concerns aside and urged me to hang on to the marriage.
In May 2004, I gave birth. A few months later, my daughter’s father took us back to his rural home. That was when he started bringing other women into our home. He would even order me out of the bedroom and I would sleep on the couch. He began to ridicule and abuse me in the presence of his friends. Since my child and I depended on him for everything, I kept silent and swallowed the hurt.
We rarely spent time together and when we did, he ignored me. Eventually,he began to spend more time with his first wife. For the first time, food became a problem. He rarely shopped and many are the times I had to do with one meal a day. His argument was that since I did not work, I was not supposed to eat. Afraid that my child would die of hunger, I decided to look for work in surrounding farms. It was back-breaking work, but at least my daughter and I had food to eat. I knew that I could not live this way forever. That was when I began to toy with the idea of going back to school.
I had performed poorly in the KCSE examination. I felt sure that if I scored a better grade, I had a better chance of giving me and my daughter a better life. I told my husband about my decision to go back to school, but he just laughed. However, I was so determined to do better for myself that I left my daughter, then a year old with her father and my co-wife and took the next bus to Nairobi, where I got a job as a house help. Leaving my daughter was the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life and more than once, I regretted it, but I had to do it.
In January 2006, I went back to my former school, Nyakach Girls’ Secondary School, and begged the headmistress to give me a second chance. She did and I was admitted to Form Three. Using money I had saved, I bought school uniform and a few other necessities and reported to school two weeks later without any school fees. I assured her that no matter how long it took, I would pay the money. Luckily, the area chief, who knew my family’s history, paid part of the fees while my father paid the rest in instalments. My waking thoughts were filled with my daughter and how she was doing. Once when I went to visit her, I found her admitted to hospital with pneumonia. It was only my strong resolve to get an education that made me go back to school after staying a few days with her in hospital. When I finished my KCSE exams in 2007, I immediately went for her, marking the end of my “marriage”.
I scored C. I had hoped to perform better, but it was much better than the D I had scored the first time. A lot has since changed in my life and that of my daughter, who is now nine years old. I am no longer a second wife, if I could have called myself that, and I have a diploma in community health assistance, which I studied at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital.
I also have a decent job now and I can offer my daughter all the things I lacked as a child. I am a radio show host at Mayienga FM, a Dholuo vernacular station. It is interesting how I got this job.
After getting my diploma, I began to volunteer in high schools, where I would share my life story and what I had learnt.
My core message, especially to girls, was that if they did not work hard in school, they had only three options — become miserable second wives of old men, become prostitutes, or work as house helps. I have been two of these and I want to tell every young woman without a vision that it is a difficult life. Do not agree to become a second wife — you will have no voice and in everyone’s eyes, you will always be a home wrecker.
Also, do not lie to yourself that you are more special than your co-wife. If he cheated on her with you, he will also cheat on you with someone else. In addition, you will subject your children to a lifetime of discrimination and they will always be viewed as second-class citizens.
I still give motivational talks in schools all over the country and I can tell you for sure that many girls are going through a difficult time. I always give them my phone number and many text me for advice. Some are hooked on drugs or are in relationships with older men. Others are HIV-positive and neither their parents nor teachers know about it. It is a crisis out there — these girls need a lot of motivation and guidance.
It is at one of these forums that someone invited me to share my story with listeners at Ramogi FM. My story must have impressed many because they asked that I be brought back on air.
I became a regular on radio and eventually, was invited to host a radio programme on women issues at the station. I am now a radio show host at Mayienga FM, where I tell children’s stories.
I am also studying for a diploma in counselling psychology at the Kenya Institute of Professional Studies. If my experience can help just one girl to take a different path, the right path, then I will be satisfied.
The best time to motivate children to make the right decisions is when they are still in school since this way, they have the time to make well-informed choices.