Of the five recognized forms of marriage in Kenyan law, three are monogamous - Christian, civil, and Hindu marriages. Islamic marriages are potentially polygynous, and African customary marriages are polygynous. Although the precise word for marriages of single husband/multiple wives is “polygyny,” Africans use the broader term “polygamy,” and it will be so used here.
A man may take junior wives only if he is able to support them, which limits polygamy. Bride wealth alone inhibits polygamy, but the increasing cost of educating children is equally daunting. A man may take a second wife as a display of wealth or prominence, to provide an assistant in farm work for the first wife, or to begin another family. Each wife has to have living quarters for herself and her children. In practice, men arrange a small plot of land that the wife works to support the children.
A polygynous husband is expected to be sexually active with all his wives. In some groups, she is entitled to a visit between each menstrual period. More commonly in the rural areas, a man will sleep with his wives in rotation, several weeks at a time.
In contemporary society, the husband may take a job in the city, and visit his wife or wives from time to time. It is not uncommon today for a man to live apart from his legal wives for many years in this way.
In some cases, one or more wives may live on the shamba, or garden plot, while another stays in the city, caring for her husband. In addition, many men will take a “city wife,” a form of concubinage in which the man supports the woman in the city while not having a legal relationship with her. Many wives, living on the shamba, prefer this to another legal wife or the probability of her husband’s resorting to prostitutes. Children born to a “city wife” are the father’s, and are raised by his wife.
Polygamous marriages were never in the majority, and today ...