Tag Archives: kenya

Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

10 Nov

I haven’t posted for ages – but wanted to come back to post the last blog entry I wrote for Times of Israel before we left Kenya earlier this year. This dates back to May this year when there was a big uproar in Kenya about a new polygamy bill of law that was introduced. Suffice it to say, the proud feminist that I am felt compelled to write in horrified response!


Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

Times of Israel, May 11, 2014

From the time I – white, Jewish, feminist, western woman – heard on the car radio a male DJ recommending his listeners to get a woman blind-drunk so as to be able ‘to bed her’ on a first date, I’ve been wondering about levels of equality between men and women in Kenyan society.

I received a confirmation to the negative recently when President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law a bill legalising polygamy, with a particularly hostile-to-women amendment:

The bill “brings civil law, where a man was only allowed one wife, into line with customary law, where some cultures allow multiple partners.

Controversy surrounded an amendment to the bill, supported by many male MPs, allowing men to take more wives without consulting existing spouses. [my emphasis]

Traditionally, first wives are supposed to give prior approval.”

(BBC News, 29th April 2014)

What left me particularly speechless was this amazingly demeaning-to-women amendment. Not only does an existing wife apparently have no say in her husband choosing to take more wives, but he isn’t even obliged to have the courtesy to inform her that he is planning to bring into their home a second/third/fourth wife.

The BBC quotes a couple of male MPs who justify this amendment:

“When a woman got married under customary law, she understood that the marriage was open to polygamy, so no consultation was necessary.” (MP Samuel Chepkong’a, who proposed the amendment)

“When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way and a third wife… this is Africa,” (MP Mohammed Junet).

Kenyan female MPs stormed out of parliament in protest, but as they are a minority, were unable to stop the passing of the bill.

I’ve spoken to a few Kenyan women about this bill and they are horrified – but at the same time, feel utterly powerless to do anything about it.

Some local newspaper reports I read justified the developments by stating that polygamy is an effective way to combat men’s propensity to stray from their wives. In other words, if a man is allowed by law to take as many wives as he likes, he will no longer feel the urge to cheat on his partner.

Great news for women, then.

A Facebook group I joined for Nairobi mums has also opened up my eyes. Frequented by, from what I can tell, mainly middle-class Kenyan mums as well as expat (aka white, foreign) mums living in the Kenyan capital, what has struck me most is how much the Kenyan mums discuss straying husbands and issues of adultery. On Valentine’s Day, one woman posted a depressingly twee little poem giving all a blessing that their husbands should stay faithful to them on this ‘day of romance’.

At the same time, a Kenyan woman I know showed me scars on her wrist where her husband had attacked her with a broken bottle when he returned home after a drunken spree. She said he gets blind-drunk on almost a daily basis these days. And Kenyan newspapers are full of reports of drunken husbands turning violent.

As a white, Jewish, feminist, western woman, I’ve been caught in an ongoing philosophical battle with myself for the last I don’t know how many years. The two sides of my brain argue as follows:

Me A: Yes, I need to shout out against this treatment of my fellow women.

There are universal standards of justice and equality that all societies should strive towards.

Me B: No, the constraints of cultural relativism demand that I butt out and accept that ‘this is Africa’ [substitute Middle East, ultra-orthodox Jewish society etc etc], it’s not up to me to change other people’s cultural norms.

Luckily for Me A, the fact that Kenyan women themselves are angry gives me permission to express my own distaste at this anti-woman trend that hits me in the new culture I’ve found myself living in these last nine months.

In the meantime, as the wife of a rabbi of an orthodox Jewish synagogue here in Nairobi, I haven’t even broached the subject of how my feminism plays itself out in this communal role.

That will have to wait for another blog.


On sounds of rioting, public holidays that creep up on me unawares and 49 other things I don’t understand about Kenya

14 Dec

The students at the University of Nairobi are rioting near where we live. I don’t know why. I’m still in the dark about so many things in this strange new land. I can hear the roar of the crowd, the chants, the police firing shots. I do hope the gentle Kenyan cops are firing tear gas as opposed to bullets.

Two days ago, Thursday 12th December 2013, Kenyans celebrated Jamhuri Day, marking 50 years of independence. I didn’t even know there was this hugely significant public holiday until someone who works with us said she was taking the day off. This is the fifth country I can call home and I’m getting tired of not being in the know about public/bank holidays! (I finally almost got to grips with the American ones – even started feeling quite festive around Thanksgiving Day after the second or third year of living there. But I never could remember when Labor Day was or what the one at the end of May was all about.)

So here I am in Kenya, and as the rioting goes on outside, I realise that I’m feeling baffled as to all these national norms that local people take for granted, which I have to learn once again.

So, in honour of 50 years of Kenya’s independence, I am compiling a list of 50 things that surprise  – in a good or bad way, baffle, confuse, delight, amuse or irritate me about Nairobi/Kenya and Kenyans/Nairobians since we moved here under four months ago:

1) Lost in translation – When I say ‘Hi’ to a Kenyan in English (as opposed to ‘Jambo’ in Swahili), they often mistakenly answer back, ‘Fine, thank you’. I desperately want to giggle and reply, ‘I didn’t ask how you are, but thanks for telling me’, but I keep quiet knowing that my little joke would be met with blank looks. Turns out – now that I speak about ten words of Swahili – that there is just one word that encapsulates ‘Hi, how are you?’ in Swahili – ‘Habari aku’, so when someone greets you, you are meant to reply ‘Fine, thank you’. So that explains that peculariarity of Swahinglish (Swahili-infused English!)

2) Ugali – simply don’t understand it. It’s a Kenyan staple food – maize meal that is cooked into a large, utterly tasteless lump and eaten with kale, otherwise known as ‘sukuma’ here. Love the sukuma but don’t get ugali.


3) ‘Karibu, muzungu!’ – As if I didn’t feel enough like a newcomer…it certainly doesn’t help that every time I walk down the street, there are cries of ‘Karibu muzungu’ – crudely translated as ‘Welcome, white person!’ – directed at my person. How can I ever hope to melt into the crowd?

4) Bovine crossings – Entertaining to drive down a Nairobi street and randomly meet a herd of cattle idly meandering along the way blocking the traffic. Also bizarre to see Kenyan market vendors pulling along hand carts with impossibly heavy loads and seemingly totally oblivious to the crazy traffic around them.

5) ‘Pole pole’ – On the one hand, I appreciate the fact that Kenyans are laid-back. Makes a change from the crazy fast-paced life of New York. But why oh why do things take sooooooooooooooooo long to happen? Why do jobs only get half-done? Why are people so accepting of things happening so slowwwly and why is ‘pole pole’ – Swahili for ‘slowly slowly’ – the ubiquitous response to anything not progressing as it should?

6) Kenyan drivers – I have just two words to say to all you Kenyan drivers out there: Roundabout Etiquette. Why does no one in this country seem to understand that if they would only give way to the right, then everyone could get to where they are going much more quickly, and we’d all be much happier and less stressed out people? Instead, every time I reach a roundabout, I have to manoeuvre straight into a major survival-of-the-fittest meltdown going on with cars almost colliding in all directions and everyone getting jammed.

7) Power cuts – The most recent one we experienced lasted four days. Kind of frustrating would be an understatement. Usually the long power cuts only last 24 hours or so – without even mentioning the short ones.

8) Vestimentary colour choices – Enjoying all the garish and wildly clashing colours of clothes that Kenyan women don. Not so sure about the mid-calf skirt length that seems to be the norm (probably still haunted by attending semi-ultra-orthodox Jewish schools in the past where this length skirt was required due to it’s adhering to modesty standards).

9) Even does this make sense? – Another quirk of Swahinglish: wild over-use and misuse (if you’ll pardon my Anglo-English snobbery) of the word ‘even’. Don’t know why but the word ‘even’ pops up in all kinds of weird contexts in spoken Kenyan English. Even I’ve found myself even adding it into my own spoken English even in weirder ways.

10) The police – Soon after arriving here, when we asked what the number for emergency services is, we were told that whatever we do, the police are the absolute last people you should contact in an emergency. Severe case of endemic corruption and so on (See my previous story on the subject of my own run-in with the men in uniform).

11) Dogs and buggies/strollers – missing? Took me a while to realise a couple of things that I take for granted as the norm on the streets of New York, London or Paris are missing as you walk down the street here in Nairobi. There’s not a dog in sight and all Nairobian babies seem to be carried snugly on their mums’ backs rather than in buggies. (Certainly no Kenyan, therefore, would ever dream of pushing a dog along in a stroller, unlike those funny Manhattanites I once blogged about).

12) Monkeys in the trees – Very happy about the fact that at one of the parks near where we live, it is the norm to see monkeys jumping from tree to tree, and especially gratifying to see baby monkeys clinging on underneath to their mums’ bellies as they gallivant through the tree tops.

Well, apparently this list is taking too long to compile. I’ve been at it for hours. I’m stopping at Number 12 for now. But hopefully to be continued in later posts.

Postscript: Since beginning this post earlier this evening, I discovered the reason the students are rioting. Apparently a University of Nairobi engineering student died in police custody and the students are rioting against police brutality. I refer you back to Number 10 on the list above.

Shots are still ringing out.

“Do you have a licence to carry livestock?”

24 Oct

A cautionary tale from my very first day of driving alone here in Nairobi:

Doing an illegal – I discovered – right-hand turn onto Valley Road, I was stopped by Legoman A.

Legoman A, who, incidentally, had a gargantuan and rather bulbous protusion sticking out of the middle of his face, aka his nose, declared my turn to have been illegal, and insisted that I accompany him to the Legomen’s Station to face the wrath of the law.

I pleaded innocent – it was my first day driving in this new country, I didn’t realise it was an illegal turn, a Kenyan had told me it was ok to turn right there, my husband was a man of God, I was a woman of God, I had an impeccable driving record to date…It all fell on dead ears. Big-Nose told me I must follow him in my car as he drove on his Beee-Bah Lego motorbike down to the Legomen’s Station. He insisted that if I came with him to the station, I would be ‘pardoned’.

Now bear in mind that since the first day we arrived in Nairobi, everyone had told us that the Kenyan Legomen were the summum of corruption, and that in an emergency, and I quote, Legomen are ‘the last people you should call’. But here it appears I was faced with little choice – I was compelled to be sucked into the dastardly den of corruption.

So off I sheepishly, gingerly and apprehensively drove, following Legoman A on his bee-bah bee-bah motorbike.

On arrival at K- Legomen’s Station – a pile of random shacks, assorted vehicles and all manner of dubious characters (the Legomen, that is, not the people they were hauling in) – I was taken straight to Shack A.

Corporal Legoman B was sat at a desk in Shack A waiting to receive me. Unctuous, charming and dripping with the oil of all those accumulated years of bribery and corruption, he sat there with a sleazy smile on his face while I did everything in my powers to convince him I was but an innocent, nice, sweet ‘girl’ who had made a harmless mistake, and could he, in his endless bounty, ‘pardon’ me.

As I warmed to my task, he casually mentioned how I would need to hand over a pile of filthy lucre (5000 Kenyan shillings) so as to receive my pardon. I flaggled* sycophantically like I had never flaggled sycophantically before (putting aside, of course, the urge to laugh or cry at the sheer Kafkaesque bizarreness of this scenario – I mean, imagine haggling with a law-enforcement Legoman over the price of  a driving offence down at Hendon Police Station?)

My flaggling prowess apparently reaped some rewards – Corporal Legoman B agreed to lower my penalty by 2000 bob to 3000 shillings. I was getting somewhere.

(*’flaggle’ – a neologism combining the words ‘flatter’ and ‘haggle’.)

With a little more than a soupçon of bitterness and resentment, I handed over the dosh, thinking that this would be the end of the sorry affair.

With more than a glint of malice in his beady eye, Corporal Legoman B handed me back my receipt and casually mentioned how this sum was ‘bail’ for my release and how, on the morrow, as this ‘receipt’ stated, I was to appear in court at 8 am prompt for my offence.

In a state of utter shock, this abject heroine, hailing as she does from the quiet vale of Golders Green, burst into floods of loud, undignified tears. With her nose a’streaming and her eyes a’gushing, she spluttered how he had hoodwinked her, that she was a good person, not a criminal, that she was scaaaaared to go to court, how she was new to this strange new land and how she just wanted to go home to her family and put this whole mess behind her.

Corporal Legoman B, said, as all awkward males say when faced with the awkward scene of a female in floods of tears in front of them: ‘Pull yourself together’.

I was whisked off to Shack C, where Grand High Comptroller (GHC) Legoman C was sat, attired, rather uncomfortably to my mind for a large man inhabiting such a small shack, head to foot in full military regalia. As my loud undignified sobs continued unabated, GHC Legoman C berated me and also told me to ‘pull myself together’.

Apparently my histrionics had the desired effect. GHC Legoman C instructed Corporal Legoman B to downgrade my 3000 shillings from the bail/court combo  back to the fine/warning combo.

I was a free woman! Albeit an abject, snivelling, snotty poor excuse of a woman.

I shuffled off to my offending four-wheeled vehicle – and drove home with no further incident.

The End

By Rebecca

PS If you are wondering about the title of this piece, I was told by a friend who has been living here for many years that the Kenyan Legomen will stop you for just about any half-baked reason. She has been stopped and asked, apparently in all seriousness: ‘Do you have a licence for your car radio?’ And driving with her dog one day, she was stopped and asked: ‘Do you have a licence to carry livestock?’

Kafka would have had a field day in this country.

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