'You’ll marry this man, consent be damned!'

Locals at Milalulu village on the banks of River Tana in Tana River County. In this village, young people are not allowed to have private conversations or be in a room together in the absence of an adult, unless they are related.

Photo credit: Stephen Odour I Nation Media Group

It is a few minutes past midday and a pastor, some elders, a chief and two youths, a man and a woman, are seated outside a house.

There are also prayers being mumbled from a distance, with the two young-looking individuals at the centre.

A distance away, women approach with bags and utensils headed towards the group, but they stop to allow the gathering to finish its activities.

Fifteen minutes later, the ceremony ends and the young couple is escorted to a nearby home, which happens to be where the man comes from.

The women carrying the bags and utensils drop the items at the doorstep of the man's home and escort the bride to her new home.

The short ritual conducted at the village arena was a quick marriage ceremony for two young people caught engaging in a premarital act.

In Milalulu village, Tana River County, premarital relationships are forbidden and individuals caught engaging in them are wedded instantly.

"We disregard premarital relationships because they yield sin at the end of the day and children are born out of wedlock. Therefore, we prefer that before we get that far, individuals must be united so that they can do it the right way," says Ali Mohammed, an elder.

A majority of people in this village in Galole constituency are Muslims.

Sexual intercourse between unmarried couples is forbidden, hence the low number of teen pregnancies recorded.

Young people are not allowed to have private conversations or be in a room together in the absence of an adult, unless they are related.

"It is a matter of being cautious because it always starts with secret meetings before it graduates to escapades and at the end, one is heartbroken or left in a desperate situation," said Mohammed Komora, a cleric.

Sheikh Komora noted that the ceremony does not necessarily care about the consent of individuals once it is proven that they are in an open premarital relationship.

In most cases, the two must be wedded instantly, but sometimes the ceremony takes place at the home of the man in the presence of the parents.

The bride's parents can claim dowry later from the groom's family.

"If parents protest the ceremony, then the family loses respect in the village, since word will go around that the parents are raising a ‘prostitute’ in the village that people should be watchful of. No parent wants to walk with such shame," said the cleric.
This has forced parents in the village to be cautious about their children’s whereabouts so that they don't get into trouble.

Pregnancy out of wedlock is regarded as disgraceful, and the woman suffers trauma throughout the village as she is used in conversations as a bad example.

She is branded a prostitute and disallowed in women's gatherings, and nor can she be married to a family in the village except that of the man that made her pregnant.

"When it gets to you, it is hard to protest the union. You should go and suffer in it than being called a prostitute across the village because you lose respect from children and even your peers," said Mwanahamisi Jilo, who underwent the ceremony.

One would argue that partners united in such a way may be incompatible with each other in the long run, but in this village the argument is different.

"There is nothing like a complete and compatible partner. Every human has their own imperfections and that is why our religion allows marriage of up to four wives. Each woman is married to complement the other," said Asha Salim, an elder.

A 2020 Ministry of Health report on teenage pregnancies showed that Tana River County ranked second in the coastal region after Kilifi County.

But the report ranked Milalulu sub-location last in teen pregnancies after Wayu village.