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To be Talked About

Posted on 01/02/2016
By Commonwealth Foundation
Philomena
Philomena

I think of Singila, who brewed beer in a den my father frequented in the years of my childhood. In whispers, she was the tiny unmarried woman with seven daughters who—lacking a man of her own— knew how to lure men from their wives’ bedrooms. Those passing near her house would keep a safe distance as if afraid the place would contaminate them. She was a disease, a stain eating away into their sanctity, they said. Her only wrongdoing was the choice to marry another woman, an iweto.  Singila is one of many women in Ukambani Kenya who, for certain economic and social reasons marry other women; they are known as the maweto. The name—I am later to learn—is borrowed from the word kuwetwa, which in Kikamba means ‘to be talked about’; to be the subject of village gossip.

The impetus for Singila to marry a woman was her lack of sons, seen as important in preserving a family’s lifeline. This tradition has been in existence in Kenya among the Nandi, Keiyo, Kipsigis and Kamba people. It is also popular among some communities in West Africa. I find myself interested in this union as a way of being that flouts the binary patterns of life: one that allows human beings, and especially women, to devise an alternative for themselves, to better survive the restrictions of the world.

It is this curiosity that takes me to Kangundo, where there are still mawetos, but living under threat. Here, I meet Francisca Kivele.  When I tell her the conversation I am here to have, she is hesitant to talk to me. It is a past that she would rather not delve into. This hesitation seems informed by the stigma developing around the maweto today. In the absence of men, the maweto are seen as deficient: as witches, as promiscuous women, as anomalous. Those who ostracise them find it difficult to understand female relationships except in relation to men.

‘I am old now,’ she says. The questions of who, how or why she married seem inconsequential to her now. Seeing my camera, she asks if I am going to photograph her face.

‘Is it for television?’

I put away the camera and she asks me who my people are. Only when I mention my grandmother to her—whose name she recognises— does she warm up to the idea of speaking to me. I promise not to take photographs and she leads me far away from the homestead and deep into her coffee farm where we sit under a coffee bush.

‘I got married in 1984.’

The first thing Francisca clarifies is that it was not a lack of men which led her to the decision. Before she agreed to marry her partner, she had had two children from previous relationships with men. Men were in a rush to marry her, but she had made a commitment to her late father not to marry before her brother.

‘My brother was the only son, but he was unwell for a while.’ Her father—fearing that his son’s sickness meant the end of his bloodline, requested her to wait for her brother to get better, and so she turned down all the proposals that came her way. Unfortunately, her father died soon after.

‘I was getting old, but once someone dies and leaves instructions, you don’t get to go back and explain yourself.’

Years later, after her brother married, an old woman she knew approached Francisca, asking for her hand in marriage. The woman had only had one child, a daughter. Francisca had a daughter and a son at the time, and the presence of a son was an advantage. ‘My children would become hers and, because I was still young, she knew I could bear more children.’ The purpose of this union then was to perpetuate the other woman’s family name through Francisca’s son. The union was still accepted in the Kamba customary laws, and so the rituals of marriage were followed, for it to be solemnised. The woman who would marry Francisca took ten goats and two cows to Francisca’s remaining family.

‘She had a husband. He was old. They were both old.’ The arrangement was that the three of them, and their children, would live in the same house, cook together and eat together. Her son would become an heir of the family name and wealth and if she had more sons, the wealth would be divided among them. Francisca is also quick to clarify a common misconception, saying that the maweto union and polygamy are two different things. Even though she respected the man of the house as she would a husband of her own, she was not his wife. There was no sexual relationship between the two of them.  Nonetheless, the three were still a family.

She tells me that she was allowed to have relationships with men.  Later, she would have more children, some while the old couple was still alive and more after they had both died. Even though, in her case, she was free to be with men she chose, in other variations of this union, a particular man is chosen for the iweto by the other couple.

In most of the reading material I encounter, there seems to be a deliberate snubbing of this sexual question; the iweto is only seen as a procreator and not a sexual being. The interest is in the maweto union only as an alternative for the economic survival for women. But in considering Francisca’s case, one thinks of the sexual freedom this provided for the woman. Perhaps, it is this kind of freedom that is much abhorred, informing the developing stigma towards the practice; where the absence of a man to control the female body is frowned upon, as in the case of Singila. Her freedom becomes a threat to other families. This stigma also seems conflated with contemporary homophobia. So, the same intolerance shown to gay and lesbian relationships is extended to the mawetos.

The question of companionship between the two women in the maweto union also interests me, especially in the event of the death or absence of the patriarch. What is the direct relationship between these women? It has been established that the maweto union was not sexual. But there is indeed a relationship in which they co-parent, perhaps a relationship of mutual respect and then; of companionship.  In conversations with my grandmother, she informs me of women she knew who—both childless and feeling immaterial in a society that privileged childbirth—decided to marry and lived together for over twenty years until their death. My grandmother—herself a second wife in a polygamous family—remembers a time that was more tolerant of these relationships. To be a second wife, a third wife or to be married to another woman was never an event, she says.

When I ask Francisca how her family responded to her marrying a woman, she is quick to point out that even though the union was not frowned upon as it might be these days, it was her decision. ‘When a person decides to do this thing or that, what can you do to stop them? It is what they want. It does not matter what you think. It is their decision.’  She is aware of the whispers that escort her whenever she passes a group of people, or when she is attending events in the village like funerals. But she does not seem willing to engage with this question.  ‘I don’t know whether they like me or not, I don’t follow people’s stories. I don’t know whether it is less acceptable now.’

Popular narrative of the maweto often excludes younger women but, in another conversation, I learn that despite the increasing stigma, the practise is still widespread. Philomena Muli, 38, is a good example. In 2012, while running a chicken business in Nairobi, Philomena’s sister came to visit with news. She told her of an old woman whose husband had died. This woman did not have any children at the time of her husband’s death but she was the custodian of vast family wealth. She was at the edge of her years and was interested in marrying a woman who had a son, or could bear a son to preserve the family’s name in the event of her death. ‘When you are 80 years old, you can’t really call it marriage. It is like choosing someone on the street and offering them money.’

At the time, Philomena had met many men, but she was not interested in settling down with any of them. She, like Francisca, had children from previous relationships. What mattered, at the time her sister conveyed the proposition, was securing a livelihood for her children. There wasn’t much money in her chicken business, at least not enough to take her children to school. And so Philomena met the 80-year-old woman and moved in with her three children.  But as in any union between people, there were problems. After a few months, what Philomena had been promised in the arrangement changed. She became the breadwinner, taking care of the older woman and her children. Soon after, she discovered that most of the professed wealth was tied up in debt and family disputes. It no longer made sense for her to stay, so she packed and left.

Unlike Francisca, Philomena is not afraid of my camera, and she does not care much about this stigma. ‘This is my story anyway. I did what I did. All my friends know. My children know. I am not ashamed. It is the truth.’

One thing that is hard to ignore, after speaking to these two women and my grandmother, is how the rituals surrounding the maweto marriage replicate the power dynamics of heterosexual marriages, especially in the absence of a man. One of the women becomes the head of the family and the other one the procreator. An anthropological study by Regina Smith Oboler mentions that in the Nandi community in Kenya, in which this practise is also present, the woman who takes a bride is seen as culturally male thus allowed the social, economic and political privileges afforded to other males. However, I am struck by something said to me by Munuve Mutisya, a curator interested in preserving the maweto archive. While sharing with me the memories of his grandmother who was an iweto, he presents me a metaphor of the traditional Kamba house, with a kingpost at the centre that holds the house together and strengthens it. Without the kingpost, the house will fall in the event of rains or strong winds, he says. The iweto bride is to Mutisya this kingpost. She is the one who holds the family together. She continues the family’s name.

Mutisya currently runs the Akamba Peace Museum in Machakos. He is interested in preserving the collective memory of the Kamba community and one of the groups he hosts here is the Maweto Mothers of Ukambani, made up of 60 women between the ages of 25 and 80 from Machakos and Makueni, some of whom joined the group with their partners. The reason for creating this space, beyond honouring the memories of his own grandmother, is to advocate for the fundamental rights of the maweto women who are now ostracised. He says that the space provides them an opportunity to be at home, to be in a place where they are accepted, where they can find or form a community for themselves. He also informs me that even though a society that once welcomed mawetos is becoming more intolerant of them, younger women are still turning to this union as an option to survive another stigma; that of single motherhood.

Mutisya remembers his earlier days in school and the stigma that came with his grandmother’s name. At the time, even though the maweto marriage was still commonplace, the maweto were seen as dissidents. Their children would be ridiculed in school. Mutisya blames this on Christianity and the westernisation of African cultures, which have changed the way the family unit is viewed. He remembers a popular saying: stop beating me like the child of an iweto. And then another one: you do not even have a father.  Because of this stigma, most of these children did not want to disclose, to those who did not already know, that they were from such a family.

Most of the women I encountered during the trip to Kangundo spoke to me but did not want me to write about them. Others opted not to speak, saying that they were worried about their children. It is a conversation that people would rather not have. But Mutisya, who started the museum in 2001, finds it a necessary archive to preserve. He worries about the misremembering that surrounds conversations about mawetos, consequently denying them a place in the collective memory of the Kamba people. He adds that even though people want to avoid this conversation, the maweto unions are a reality of the Kamba women, and a part of the Kamba cultural archive which he hopes to preserve.

In my thinking about human relationships, I am particularly curious about the binaries and patterns that seem to inform ways of being, especially those surrounding human sexualities and intimacies. One is either seen as a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, homosexual or heterosexual, single or married. What exists outside the edges of these binaries is questioned and unwelcome. In my conversations with these women, what emerged was something deeper to the maweto union – beyond continuing a family’s lifeline – something about human relationships and their complexity.

Ndinda Kioko
Ndinda headshot

Ndinda Kioko is a Kenyan writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in several literary magazines and anthologies including Fresh Paint – Literary Vignettes by Kenyan Women, Jalada Africa and The trans-African. She has written and produced two television shows for M-net. Her recent short fiction was featured on BBC Radio 4 Shorts. Ndinda has been listed and published in the Africa39 project and is a 2014 Miles Morland scholar.

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