Is a polygamous marriage ever peaceful and happy for all the wives, or is jealousy and competition a given?
In a country where polygamy is now legal, many women are entering the institution of marriage as second, third or even fourth wives.
Are all of them desperate for a man, even a married one?
Are they happy? Fulfilled? Longing to get out? We talk to four women in polygamous unions who give us the lowdown.
Mary, 38 years old
“It was never my plan to get married into a polygamous union, let alone get married again after my marriage of six years ended in divorce.
“But when I met Mark, I didn’t hesitate to say yes when he proposed that I become his second wife. I was in love, felt cared for and he offered the security of official marriage recognition.
“Oddly enough, I knew the first wife because we worked together. I had known her before I started dating her husband. There was never a confrontation with her, only a silent understanding of what was happening. And when Mark took the step to marry me under customary law, she did not present a problem.
“It is easy to assume that the second wife has it rosier because of being the youngest, but that is contrary to my experience. I have invested time and money in my husband’s construction business. I am helping him build our business and our home.
“My co-wife and I live in separate homes in different parts of Nairobi, both catered for by the husband. I live with my two children, who I had in my previous marriage, while the other wife also lives with her own kids. Our husband has also built two homes for us in our rural area; those are in proximity to each other.
“Although we live separately, I have had my fair share of drama, mostly stemming from jealousy and competitiveness. This revolves around how our homes are built and furnished, where the children school, and the vacations we take; these are always up for discussion.
“However, the drama is minimal since we do not socialise with each other, which has affected our children’s relationship, which is non-existent. That said, I don’t regret my six years so far, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other thing.”
“I was over the moon when I got became Rashid’s second wife. I knew he was very much in love with me because, apart from his evident adoration of me, he was always pointing out to the ways I complemented him as opposed to his first wife.
“The first wife was not amused; she was unhappy to have a new, younger woman taking away her husband’s affection.
“I was not bothered by the older woman’s resentment. I was in my early 20s and life was exciting. My husband’s first marriage was still childless when I got in. However, she conceived a child during my first year of marriage. This unsettled me. I worked towards getting a child of my own as well, to also please my husband.
“This marked the beginning of rivalry between me and his first wife. Even though we both lived in our own houses in Mombasa, we always struggled to outdo each other – to be the better wife.
“Being the younger wife, I was favoured. My husband spent most of his nights at my house and gave me so much love and affection, I even forgot that I was in a polygamous marriage. Regrettably, it is true what they say; all good things come to an end. My husband surprised me with a new, younger wife.
“The shock of a third wife brought conflict and unhappiness. I had been made to believe that I was his only love, that I was perfect after the first wife fell short. I always felt special and superior to the older wife.
“The anger, resentment and pain drove me to flee from my marriage; I packed my suitcases and left for Germany. For a month I stewed in that anguish before I got round to accepting the situation. Once I came to terms with my new situation, I came back to Kenya, to my husband.
“Although we are all legally married to Rashid under Islamic law, we have not accepted each other. We do not get along and are always trying to outdo each other. We each have two kids now and are always competing for his love and attention.
“When my husband gets too preoccupied with the other two, I seek attention from other men, flirting around in order to still feel beautiful and wanted.
“I was sad when my children met the other kids for the first time last year. My youngest, who is five years old, called his father a liar after finding out that he had younger siblings because he had thought he was the youngest. We are now trying to teach the children to relate well with each other.
“When my husband’s IT and branding company started making losses, even bigger cracks started forming in our marriage. All of us wives are unemployed, and it became harder for Rashid to provide for us. Each of us was trying to grab the little that he had left.
“That was the wake-up call that prompted me to seek employment. I, the first wife, our children and Rashid moved to Nairobi to seek greener pastures. As we both settled in different homes, I found work and sought more education to create an alternative source of money to supplement my family.”
“Love fooled me into a marriage that has tried me to my very limits. I was in my mid-20s when I met Abdi, who wooed me with lavish presents such as the latest phones in the market, shopping sprees, exotic vacations and generous pocket money.
“Although I was an independent woman pursuing a career in law, everything took a back seat to this dazzling man.
“I was met with an outpouring of love from his family and even his first wife. I was warmly welcomed into his family and made to feel part of it.
“My Islamic wedding was nothing short of perfection; even the first wife was highly involved and came bearing extravagant presents. I was an honoured second wife.
“But the honeymoon came and went away with all the good in the relationship. I was introduced to ‘the second wife’, although I was legally the second wife.
“Abdi already had a second wife that his family and friends knew of, who had his children, but she was not officially recognised. Turns out I was effectively the third wife. Additionally, my husband changed. He stopped giving me presents and treating me to anything nice.
“Things got worse subsequently as I took a year to study at the Kenya Law School to became an advocate. Although it was something that we agreed prior to the formalisation of our union, it was not well received.
“Abdi started abusing me verbally and withholding financial support. I struggled to study through the snickering and disapproval from my parents-in-law and the first wife. Ultimately, I failed some of my units and with the pressure to return to Mombasa to my husband mounting, I abandoned my studies.
“My relationship with my husband deteriorated even further when I got back home. He began physically assaulting and starving me. It was a struggle to get him to pay rent.
“As my marriage fell apart, the first wife and my mother-in-law added insult to injury by inciting him against me. They all attacked me for not having a child. It got to a point where my mother-in-law started pushing Abdi to marry another woman as they labelled me barren.
“After living in that torment for two years, I had a baby boy. Things took a positive shift. Abdi started treating me with respect and buying me gifts, but things never got back to how they were in the beginning, at least not for me. I stay in this marriage for the sake of my child, but I hope to escape and rebuild my career.”
“I was married to Otieno 23 years ago as the fourth and youngest wife. He used to work in Mombasa as a hotel manager, where we met. I was introduced to my co-wives who accepted me, and was married traditionally.
“Usually, when the man is well off, he has the advantage of making the decision to marry so he didn’t consult the others about letting me in. Since my husband was rich, all he did was introduce me to the others.
“I started living with the second and third wives and their children, all under one roof in Mombasa. The first wife took care of the rural home in Kisumu.
“Since the first wife didn’t have any children, she took the role of caring for the children when they went upcountry. All the children went to high school in Kisumu and were thus cared for by the first mother. The second wife has five kids, the third wife has four, and I also have four.
“On the surface it all seems peaceful but of course, jealousy and rivalry is also rife in our communal marriage. Gossip and suspicion of foul play like bewitching each other’s kids and seeking favour from the husband to get more inheritance is rampant between us.
“But we have managed to co-habit peacefully even in the face of all the challenges. Our husband builds homes for each of us and gives us land and we respect each other.”