Society expects an adult to live forever and ever with one partner. However, as Tony Mochama and Elvis Ondieki found out, long-term monogamy could be one highly flawed concept.
At a tastefully decorated church or garden this weekend, one scene is sure to play out: A certain man and woman will exchange rings in front of a cheering crowd as a poker-faced church minister looks on.
The vows they will proclaim will have a hackneyed line that is often uttered without giving it the thought it deserves — “till death do us part.”
On paper, that vow means that the elated suit-clad groom and his glittering bride have promised to stay bound to one partner for life. All their fantasies, infatuations, quirks and sexual needs are, henceforth, supposed to be addressed by the person they have chosen.
However, as the street saying goes, things are different on the ground. Society will expect the two to be faithful to each other till they depart the earth, but the way the human body is wired could push that expectation far beyond the limit of elasticity.
And questions arise: What if monogamy is a concept that humans force on themselves? What if humans were let to follow their mating instincts like other animals do?
Earlier this year, a report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics caused a frenzied discussion online. According to the findings, the average number of sexual partners among Kenyan men was 7.4 while amongst women it was found to be 2.3.
Further, the report showed that 19 percent of women had admitted to having sex with a person who neither was their husband nor lived with them. Among men, that figure stood at 37 percent. The numbers revealed an interesting aspect of Kenya’s social dynamic – a lot of Kenyans are involved in multi-layered sexual or social arrangements.
So, are we forcing monogamy?
The Saturday Magazine’s exploration of this matter took us to people arguing for and against monogamy, historians, scholars, and religious leaders among others.
Dr Kenneth Ombongi, a senior history lecturer at the University of Nairobi, notes that it has been less than 1,000 years since men started sticking to a single partner.
“From ancient times, humans, just like many other animal species, were polygamous. And in historical terms, monogamy is one of the most recent developments in human society,” he said in an interview that is also available on the Nation.Africa podcast section.
“Monogamy is hardly 1,000 years old, which is a very short period, historically speaking. The issues around monogamy came to the fore of human development because human beings in their natural state will want to mate with as many female species as they can. Then selfishness crept in,” adds Dr Ombongi.
Nairobi-based businesswoman Kemunto Nyakundi is never ashamed of posting about her life on social media, often admitting that she is not the type that sticks to one man.
“To hell with monogamy!” she proclaimed when we contacted her on the subject.
“Modern women are throwing monogamy out of the window. I think monogamy was placed on women in a bid to tame them, more so in the African society where monogamy is the ideal way of keeping a woman in a relationship.”
Kemunto foresees a time when the stigma associated with women having multiple partners simultaneously will fade away.
“Imagine getting love from different partners. Bliss! Because fresh meat spices things up. It’s time men and women got open about it and allowed open relationships. That may even strengthen the relationships,” she argues.
“However, for polyamory to succeed, [polyamory is the practice of engaging in multiple romantic and typically sexual relationships] we have to move past insecurity and jealousy. Because it’s absurd for men to imagine that their women never get hit on by other men; and that if they get hit on, they should be strong and not allow emotions to take over yet on the other side, the men are hitting on several women, having gathered several side chicks,” adds Kemunto who sells used books and second-hand clothes in Nairobi.
In the historical scholar’s view, Dr Ombongi says Christianity has a lot to do with the entrenchment of monogamy. “With the introduction of modern Christianity, the so-called New Testament teaching, monogamy became a norm in Christendom or Western world, what we now call the global north. And it spread to the rest of the world, including Africa, through the Christian missions and Christian missionaries who criminalised, literally, African practices,” he says.
There is also an argument that a polygamous man earns respect, and is considered a leader.
“Because of how they manage the family, they are considered to be leaders; always consulted to give advice on matters affecting society. Also, it gives the man the peace of mind that he needs. You may get one wife having funny attitudes. So, as a man, you avoid her attitude by moving to the next wife. By the time you come back, she’ll be missing you,” argues Samuel Kabora, who is unapologetically polygamous and often posts online to encourage men to have more than one spouse.
Jacob Aliet, the author of ‘Unplugged – Truths Our Fathers Did Not Tell Us,’ says that “Many of our fathers were advised that the way to deal with a difficult wife is to marry another wife,” and that, “Bringing another woman into the hitherto monogamous union is [a sign] that another woman thinks that you are valuable.”
The counter-argument from women against the notion that polygamy helps a man assert his power is that it would only be “fair” if women are also allowed to freely enter multiple relationships like men are.
“In the modern world, looking at how Gen Zs are handling relationships and marriages, women are free mentally, emotionally, and sexually to explore whatever desires they have. It’s becoming an open world where people are willing to explore other types of relationships like throuple, or a triad, where you’re having maybe three people in a relationship,” says Josephine Njoroge. “The modern-day woman has become more self-aware.”
But in reality, despite the sexual liberalisation of younger women, Kemunto argues that only men are still allowed to have multiple partners, publicly.
“Maybe, rigid exclusivity is not supposed to be a woman's nature. Perhaps it was just a myth we grew up with. And why should the part be played by women alone when society allows men to have as many women? That’s why a woman is always shamed more than a man when caught cheating,” she says. “Women are now beating men in their own game. And they (men) are angry about it.”
But it is not a game on who is doing it best, male or female.
Studies have found polygamy was common in many societies. According to the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, 84.9 percent of the 1,231 cultures are classified as polygamous.
“Societies, both from the dimension of natural history and social history, have been polygamous. However, the introduction of monogamy was necessitated by what one could see as some kind of selfishness on the part of the male species to protect their offspring, in a sense. But you cannot exclude the influence of New Testament Christianity. Because in the Old Testament, you know, Solomon broke both the Christian and Islamic laws of polygamy. He had only a thousand of them,” argues Dr Ombongi.
Abdulkarim Omar, a Muslim scholar, adds that originally in the Koran, polygamy was allowed mostly to take care of war widows and their children “in societies where wars were common, killing many men and leading to far more women than men in these arid spaces”.
Quoting from Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad’s The Life and Character of the Seal and Prophets, Omar gives examples of where a man may move from monogamy and go on to marry as many as four women in his lifetime.
“He may first marry for protection against physical, moral, and spiritual ailments, associated with promiscuity and the weakness of the flesh. Then he finds his first wife is barren and marries a second woman for the continuation of human life. He may then fall in love with a third woman and marry her out of the growth of the relationship and (com)passion. Lastly, in his sunset years, he could marry again for companionship and peace of mind.”
Outside of the practice of polygamy, most Kenyans still struggle with maintaining a lifelong sexually exclusive relationship with just one partner.
So, why does monogamy prove difficult for many people? David P. Barash, the author of the book ''Out of Eden'', argues that monogamy is unnatural. That it is a socially constructed concept that is not universal to all human societies but rather is enforced by certain societies and so has become a norm.
Does the monogamy struggle cut across races and countries?
Finn Sue Seppanen, who has lived for over a decade in Kenya, notes that, “Many African men are players, including those with wedding rings on their fingers”, and that they “are not shy about being players”.
She says that in Finland, where sexual liberation (for both sexes) is acceptable, “Once people are married, it is not socially acceptable to be seen running around with others as seems to be the case here in Kenya”.
Also, Finns tend to get into their first marriages quite late – age 35 for men, and 32 for women – so they have somewhat settled by then, and although last year had the lowest marriage rate in decades (only 20,000 Finns tied the knot), 75 per cent were married for the first time, 20 per cent were contracting a second marriage, and five per cent doing a third wedding. The Finnish divorce rate is 51 percent, three times higher than Kenya’s at 17 percent.
“Better to just leave and be a serial polygamist than a serial cheat,” says Sue.
Adam’s ribs in Eve, Faith, Mercy, Joy
Interestingly, in Kenya, infidelity comes a distant second to financial issues as a reason for divorce.
Alec Kong’o, a pastor at the New Deliverance Church in Ngong, Nairobi, argues that if God wanted man to be polygamous, “He would have removed all of Adam’s ribs and made him not just Eve but also Faith, Mercy and Joy to be his multiple wives”.
For psychologists, they base their monogamy argument on the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud’s theory.
Eve Waruingi, a mental health specialist and counselling psychologist, uses classic Sigmund Freud theories in her case against monogamy.
“In Freud’s Primeval Patriarchy Theory, human beings are no different from wild horses and gorillas in the wild, with alpha males having all the females, and chasing out or castrating their sons and male rivals. That is how many human societies ended up with eunuchs in the polygamous harems of the alphas. But then there were patricides and revolts. In particular, incest and polygamy became taboo, especially in the West. Sigmund Freud argues that by going against his polygamous nature, man gets a lot of psychological neuroses.”
“In other words,” Eve adds with a smile, “monogamy is at the root of most of our psychological disturbances in our societies. It is not natural at all.”
Only 10 percent
Mammals are not big on monogamy. In less than 10 percent of species, it is common to have individuals who mate exclusively. Scientists estimate that three to five per cent of all mammals practice some form of monogamy. Among primates, just 29 per cent are monogamous.
The bald eagle, the creepy black vulture and the grey wolf are among these monogamous few. Macaroni penguins do a love dance when they see their partners, seahorses are monogamous (but only because the females are violently jealous of their partners) and male barn owls even court their life partners by bringing them gifts of dead mice. The term “love birds” is derived from love swans, who curve their necks together in a love heart shape as they touch beaks, and while the European beaver is monogamous, its North American cousin “sees other beavers.”
However, in the times we live in, and because vectors like the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the human papillomavirus (HPV) are spread through sex, monogamy might have come to humans out of the desire to avoid diseases.
“If you live in a world where we have numerous sexually transmitted diseases or conditions, then probably one will argue that limiting oneself to one female puts you in a better state to prevent yourself from acquiring and spreading some of these conditions,” argues Dr Ombongi.