One woman, several husbands: The family tides are changing

ILLUSTRATION | Hassan Ibrahim Mwera.

What you need to know:

  • In July this year, Google ranked polyandry as one of the most searched words on the Internet, which shows the magnitude of people’s interest in the subject
  • Many Darwinian-minded observers of human mating customs have long contended that serial monogamy is really just a socially sanctioned version of harem-building

When Sylvester Mwendwa and Elijah Kimani discovered two weeks ago that they were having a relationship with the same woman, they decided to sign an agreement that set boundaries and kept the peace, ensuring that none of the two men would benefit more from the relationship than the other.

The woman, who has turned down several requests for interviews, was to be what Mwendwa referred to as “the central referee”, meaning only she would have the authority to choose whom she wanted to be with between the two men whenever she desired company.

Naturally, Kenyans reacted with shock, arguing that it was not just reprehensible and illegal, but also a cultural abomination.

That two men, a species known for the sexual jealousy with which they view their women, would reach a synonymous agreement to share one was outright appalling. Furthermore, polyandry, a form of polygamy where two or more men agree to marry one wife, is not only unheard of in Kenya, but also viewed by many as a display of sexual perversion.


Little wonder, then, that being the patrilineal society that Kenya is and the fact that men give identity to their families, most people rubbished this Mombasa union, saying it would not last the test of time and that the men were a disgrace to their gender.

Others even hinted at the possibility of the woman having cast a spell on the two that they would remain so loyal to her even after discovering she had been playing them.

But Dr Charles Muga, a behavioural scientist based in Kisumu, says the society should not drop its jaws because this type of a relationship, though quite rare, is not new in Kenya and has a deep human history. And it is also enigmatic, if not enchanting.

That is why, in July this year, Google ranked polyandry as one of the most searched words on the Internet, which shows the magnitude of people’s interest in the subject.

So, what could have happened in the period between the patriachal rule of man and the rise of the towering female? Dr James Mwaura, a pyschologist based in Nakuru, wagers that this could be an indication of changing moralities, or even a glimpse into the improper way in which children are being socialised.

“When a male child is not socialised to interact with the opposite sex properly, he is likely to become hopelessly obsessed with a woman later in life because that woman becomes a huge source of mystery to him. He would do anything... anything to have and be around her,” Dr Mwaura says. “You must probe the forces of nature and nurture to explain this.”

In short, what the psychologist is saying is that a male child’s “significant others” — anyone whose opinion matters to that child such as parents, pastors and guardians — should not bastardise the opposite sex if they expect that child to understand it.


And while Dr Muga and Dr Mwaura appreciate that there are societies in the world that have openly practised polyandry, both argue that the Kenyan society has no plausible justification for practising such.

“For the Asian communities that have legitimised polyandry, there is an evolutionary debate around that,” he says. “But in Kenya this is a socio-cultural ghost that we shall be forced to confront. Maybe wife swapping, open marriages and women having extramarital affairs are examples of emerging trends of polyandry that will ultimately drive us to accept what the two men in Mombasa have done.”

The Asian communities Dr Muga is talking about are predominantly found in India, the Himalayan Ranges in Tibet and China, where polyandry plays the major role of balancing the ratio of men to women in a region where the rate of foeticide against girls is quite high. Also, researchers have reported that polyandry in these land-owning communities, coupled with other measures, helps keep population in check, especially in cases where brothers share a spouse.


And while researchers have concentrated on these Asian regions in their quest to understand this phenomenon, a study by Washington University revealed that there are 53 other communities globally, including a number of African societies, that practise polyandry. The difference between these nations and the Kenyan scenario, however, is that they seem to have sound reasons that would not strip the man of his sense of masculinity or brand the woman promiscuous.

For instance, an Eskimo man, faced with the threat of imminent extinction and reduced aggregate fertility, is very protective of his wife and chooses a man to “look after her” whenever he travels. And in the Bari clan of Venezuela, two men married to one woman do not believe in the one-egg-meets-one sperm theory as both fathers claim parentage of the offspring.

There are other explanations as well. In the United States and much of the Western world, when a couple divorces, the average income of the woman and her dependent children often plunges by 20 per cent or more, while that of her now unfettered ex, who had been the family’s primary breadwinner but who rarely ends up paying in child support what he had contributed to the household till, climbs accordingly. The born-again bachelor is therefore perfectly positioned to attract a new, younger wife and begin building another family.

Small wonder that many Darwinian-minded observers of human mating customs have long contended that serial monogamy is really just a socially sanctioned version of harem-building.

By this conventional evolutionary psychology script, the man who skips from one nubile spouse to another over time is, like the sultan who hoards the local maidenry in a single convenient location, simply seeking to “maximise his reproductive fitness”, to sire as many children as possible with as many wives as possible.

Women, by contrast, are not thought to be natural serialisers. Sure, a girl might date around when young, but once she starts a family, she is assumed to crave stability. After all, she can bear only so many children in her lifetime, and divorce raises her risk of poverty. Unless forced to because some bounder has abandoned her, why would any sane woman choose another trot down the aisle?

Yet in a report published in Human Nature, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder of the University of California, Davis, presents compelling evidence that at least in some non-Western cultures where conditions are harsh and mothers must fight to keep their children alive, serial monogamy is by no means a man’s game, finessed by him and foisted on her.


To the contrary, Borgerhoff Mulder says, among the Pimbwe people of Tanzania, whose lives and loves she has been following for about 15 years, serial monogamy looks less like polygyny than like a strategic beast that some evolutionary psychologists dismiss as quasi-fantastical: polyandry, one woman making the most of multiple mates.

In her analysis, Borgerhoff Mulder found that although Pimbwe men were somewhat more likely than their female counterparts to marry multiple times, women held their own and even outshone men in the game, by up to five consecutive spouses and counting.

Provocatively, the character sketches of the male versus female serialists proved to be inversely related. Among the women, those with the greatest number of spouses were themselves considered high-quality mates, the hardest working, the most reliable, with scant taste for the strong maize beer the Pimbwe famously brew. Among the men, by contrast, the higher the nuptial count, the lower the customer ranking, and the likelier the men were to be layabout drunks.

“We’re so wedded to the model that men will benefit from multiple marriages and women won’t, that women are victims of the game,” Borgerhoff Mulder said. “But what my data suggest is that Pimbwe women are strategically choosing men, abandoning men and remarrying men as their economic situation goes up and down.”

The analysis, though preliminary, is derived from one of the more comprehensive and painstaking data sets yet gathered of marriage and reproduction patterns in a non-Western culture. The results underscore the importance of avoiding the breezy generalities of what might be called Evolution Lite, an enterprise too often devoted to proclaiming universal truths about deep human nature based on how college students respond to their professors’ questionnaires.

Throughout history and cross-culturally, Borgerhoff Mulder said, “there has been fantastic variability in women’s reproductive strategies.”

Geoffrey F Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, agreed. “Evolutionary psychology and anthropology really need to take women’s perspective seriously in all its dimensions,” Miller said. “You can construe sequential relationships as being driven by male choice, in which case you’d call it polygyny, or by female choice, in which case you’d call it polyandry, but the capacity of women across cultures to dissolve relationships that aren’t working has been much underestimated.”

The evolutionary theorist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy proposes that one reason the offspring of much-marrying Pimbwe women do comparatively well is that the children end up with a widened circle of caretakers.

“The women are lining up more protection, more investment, more social relationships for their children to exploit,” she said. “A lot of what some people would call promiscuous I would call being assiduously maternal.”

The goose, like the gander, may find it tempting to wander if it means that her goslings will fly.

But Dr Muga sees no reason why, in Kenya today, two men would defy social pressure and agree to share one woman, describing the Kenyan society as “a balanced one” but whose “levels of permissiveness” are on the rise. He lists wife swapping and “special concubinage” — where a married woman looks for a younger man to meet her emotional and sexual needs when her husband is away or emotionally distant — as proof of that growing permissiveness.

In the consumerist society that Kenya has become, then, getting a new sexual experience with a new partner is easy than repairing the boring issues of intimacy in a monogamous marriage, and the young and old alike have found convenient ways that are essentially polyandrous to satisfy their needs.

— Additional reporting by the New York Times Syndicate