It was a great marriage but after that Sunday afternoon things started happening fast and it turned from being a great marriage to an okay marriage. Here is how it unwound. He was chilling watching football on TV. Church had happened. Lunch had happened. His wife was in the bedroom folding clothes, trying to nap or watching something on her phone or whatever it is wives do in the bedroom on lazy Sunday afternoons. His son – 5-years old then – wandered into the sitting room and handed him a passport. He opened it and saw that it was his wife’s passport, rather, the name on the passport was his wife’s. This was strange because they had been married for 5-years and he had never known that she had a passport. She had never mentioned -even in passing – that she was getting a passport. He had never seen a passport in that house. Which is not shocking because really, if we men can’t find our own socks in the bedroom drawer, how are we going to see a new passport? A wife can plant a tree in the corner of the bedroom and you won’t see it before Easter. Sembuse a passport? (Insha in primo was never complete until you used the word “sembuse.”)
Anyway, he goes to the bedroom, passport in hand, and asks in that voice that men use when they want to sound authoritative: “What is this?” She is going through her clothes, organising her week in pants and dresses, scarves and heels, in blues and scarlets and in prints and browns.
“A passport,” she said, barely looking at him.
“Yes, I can see it is a passport. It’s your passport.”
“Yes it is,” she said calmly, turning to look at him as if to say “What’s your point?” That knocked the wind out of his sails briefly. But then he recovered long enough to ask.
“On this page bearing Next Of Kin,” he thumbed the page, “you have put down your family’s contacts, not my name. I mean, what is this, Eve*?” he asked, trying to choke down the sense of betrayal rising up his throat. “Hell, I didn’t even know you had applied for a passport, what do you need a passport for?”
She should have said, “To swat mosquitoes.” Instead she hit the roof. She told him to stop trying to “manage her life.” That she was an adult and she was free to get a government document if she so desired. And she was fed up with this interrogation. She returned the dress she was holding and stomped out of the bedroom, leaving him standing there with a passport that didn’t have him – husband of five years – as next of kin.
“Of course by the time we were having this confrontation about the passport, I had noticed a pattern in her – she was quick to fight me, to disregard my views, she was always quick to anger, volatile, and ready to bruise me in a fight. She would go against my authority, things she knew I forbade,” he tells me. We are in a café. We are seated with our heads close together, as if we are planning to hold an illegal gathering in Uhuru park.
This new change in his wife was particularly out of character because he had known her when she was in college and he was working and since she was from a single parent – her father had died when she was 7-years old and her mother was struggling – he had paid her fees through college and helped her secure a job. He had invested in her education then invested in their relationship and then invested in their marriage. She had always been considerate and loving and respectful, now she was brusque and ready to draw blood at the tiniest of provocations.
“On investigation, I found out that her sister who was in Italy had been feeding her garbage, telling her that she deserved a better life in Italy, where she was living and working,” he says. “I think my son let the cat out of the bag, her plan was to sneak out of the country to join her sister.”
He confronted the sister in Italy. He told her to eat her tagliatelle and focaccia bread in peace and back the hell off from his wife and from his marriage. The sister – a feisty one – said “Aah sei pazzo! My sister is not your pet that you cage, if she wants a better life for herself then she should go for it. If you don’t take care of your home, someone will.” Unkind words were exchanged.
The marriage started going tits up gradually. He felt slighted. She felt affronted. He wanted her to be the woman he had known. She didn’t how to be that woman, and if she did, she didn’t want to because she was this woman now and she wanted him to treat her like someone who had evolved, not a photo of a landscape that never changes. And so it happened that they couldn’t agree on anything. They fought constantly. One day it got physical. It was on a Sunday. (Again.) They were having one of their usual altercations when she said something and he said, “I’m sorry, what? What did you just say?” She repeated it, chin up. It was something that was meant to draw him out, one of those things that a woman will say knowing that it will pierce and puncture your ego.
He killed the distance between them at the speed of light and slapped her across her face. She wasn’t the type of girl you slap. She was fire, brimstone and madness rolled into a ball of fury. She lunged and grabbed the side of his face, like it was a piece of fabric and pulled and using her other fist (closed and hard like a potato) pummelled at the side of his face, flaying, trying to tear off half his face. A brief but intense physical altercation ensued, furniture moved, picture frames fell off the wall and backs slammed into walls. He’s a stocky man with wide, powerful shoulders, the duel ended as fast as it had started. She curled up in the corner of the bedroom, sobbing quietly for her son not to hear. He paced around the room, breathing heavily, shaking and perhaps shocked at what had just happened.
A week later, on a Monday night, he came back from some meeting in Nakuru and when he opened the door, his shadow fell across the floor of an empty living room. “She had packed and taken virtually everything in the house except his clothes and a duvet.” He stood in the middle of the room and called her on phone. Mteja. As he went from one empty room to another he called his brother and said, “I think Eve* just left.”
“Left for where?”
“I came home and she is gone. Taken everything with her.”
His voice sounded disemboweled in the empty bedroom, the echo of his footsteps followed him around empty rooms. When he spoke he could hear the echo of his own voice in his bones. Amazing how much sound furniture absorbs. He stood at the curtainless window, looking outside, feeling like a bachelor again – a bachelor who had had his life auctioned. He would have made a meal had she left utensils. He couldn’t even brush his teeth – his toothbrush was gone. He felt bereft, not at the loss of the household goods, but at the loss of his identity. It was almost like she had also taken off with who he was. “A wife leaves with a part that you identified with as a man. That part that gave you purpose.” Now you are just a man without a toothbrush. He felt unmoored.
That night he showered without soap (also gone) and dried himself with his old clothes and slept on that duvet on the floor (the pillow also gone) in the middle of the bedroom without curtains, the sky outside the colour of green tea.
He learnt that she had moved to her mother’s house in a different estate in Nairobi. “There is always that embarrassment of calling your mother-in-law to inquire about your wife, her daughter, knowing well that you have been demonised,” he says. “When you call, you realise you lost your face.”
She refused to come back home. She was convinced she had a crack at being happy in Italy and everybody deserved to pursue their form of happiness, even if it involves bread and pasta and hairy-chested and amorous men screaming “bella bella bella!”
In the following months he would send shopping to her mother’s place because his son lived there. Some weekends his sister-in-law would bring the child to town to meet him in a café. There are men who don’t know how to be single. They want someone to call them and ask, “Babe, are you wearing a jacket, it’s cold.” Then there are men who would rather die of hypothermia than feel that they are being mothered to wear a jacket. “I knew I didn’t want to stay single, I didn’t know how to. I didn’t want to jump from one relationship to the next. I wanted to settle down and marry and start another family quickly and focus on my business that was still young,” he says.
One Saturday afternoon he and his boys met for lunch in one of those places you can eat and then have drinks later. During lunch one of his boys says, “Aah, I know one of the ladies at that table.” So he goes to say hello and convinces the ladies to join them. He liked the quiet one with powdery cheeks. The one with an Erykah Badu head scarf. (She was having a bad hair day but killing it with that afro-look). She had full-lips and big eyes that look sort of teary but in a sexy way. Like the kind of eyes one would get when they tried to light a fire in a fireplace by blowing into the hearth and smoke. He didn’t take her number but something weird happened; when he went back to the café again for lunch after two days she was there, seated alone with her watery eyes and full lips, sucking juice through a lucky straw. He said, “Hey, if I didn’t know better I’d say you were stalking me!” And she said, “If I was stalking you, trust me, you would know.” (Okay, I’ve made up that convo in my head.)
Anyhow, they started talking. She was easy to talk to. She laughed from her stomach. When he spoke she looked at him intensely, as if everything he was saying was so important and nobody else would ever say them the way he did. It was only natural that he marry her so that no other man would be looked at in the same watery way she looked at him.
They started living together. It was happy and everything was hunkydory. No strange passports showed up on Sundays. He was her next-of-kin.
“One year down the line my dad calls me and says, ‘Eve called me, she wants to come back to make the marriage work.’”
“Oh, what happened to Italy? I thought she was leaving for a better life? I’m married now!” he tells Poppa.
“Yeah, I’m just relaying the message, she wants a meeting.”
He told his wife about his ex-wife wanting to come back and she hit the roof. She said, “Are you mad? How are we even discussing this? It’s either her or me, take care of it.” But he talked to her about it daily. He doesn’t tell me exactly what he said, but whatever he said she eventually agreed to a meeting.
His first wife had his son. She wasn’t about to let her son go, but he wanted to be with his son. Also, there was a little matter of love; he still loved her. The idea of having her back seemed like a grand idea. But the idea of leaving his current wife was also grandly out of the question. He was in love with two women. He wanted to have and eat his cake. Or basically be a man, in short. He called his brother, his thinktank, and he suggested that a meeting for all was necessary. So they convened a kangaroo court, almost 15 people in total. There were five people from Eve’s family, including her mother, five people from his own family, including his father, five people from his wife’s family, including one of those tough uncles who speaks while tapping his walking cane on the ground.
The meeting lasted 12-hours, non-stop, no breaks. They ate and drank juice and sodas. At the end of the meeting the second wife agreed to try and see how it would work with the first wife back.
“Hang on,” I say. “She said she was willing to have a co-wife?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Sort of.”
“I know it sounds easy but it wasn’t. It was a very tense and emotional meeting. Extremely. There were a lot of tears, lots and lots. Hard words were said. I was honest; I said I wanted to have my son back and if he came back with my first wife then I would take them both. I told my second wife that I loved her and that I was not willing to let her go, but that I also had some unresolved feelings for my first wife which I only realised recently. I said I was willing to be single and let go of all of them, if I couldn’t have my son and former wife back and also keep her. My wife’s people were mad, her sister said I was trying to make her sister look like an idiot. The room was tense but the older men guided it with wisdom and calmness.”
“That is mad!” I say.
“Yeah. But sometimes the language of madness is what we understand.”
When he left that room he had two wives. He was polygamous. The drive home with his wife was so tense. She was quiet and lost in thought. He talked to her that night. Told her that he was not going to love her less. That she was his heart of hearts and that he would never forsake her and that he wanted her and their young baby in his life. He reassured her the next day. And the next.
“Why didn’t she leave?” I asked.
“Because I was straight with her,” he says. “I put my all my cards on the table. That’s the thing, we are always afraid to put our cards on the table. We are afraid to offend and hurt but we hurt the ones we love most when we hide cards. People handle truth much easier than deceit. I remember when I met my second wife in the café the second time, I told her, ‘You are seated with a married man.’ I told her all about my first wife and how she left me and how I have never quite reconciled with that.”
In the meeting it was agreed that since he wanted to make this two beds he had to lie on both of them. That meant he had to get his first wife a house. After a week he got an apartment, furnished it – from toothpick to tablemats – and his first wife moved in with his son. That set him back about 400K.
He then organised for a meeting with just the two wives and one representative from their respective families to act as witnesses. There, he set the agenda for that, erm, union.
“I told them that I’m not a perfect man,” he says. “That I have great flaws. That this is not what they might have seen as their lives in marriage but that I was confident that it was going to work, that I was going to make it work but that I needed all of us to work as a team. That they are not co-wives but sisters – “
I’m now laughing at how preposterous (and dangerous) this sounds. How surreal it is. It sounds like a Nigerian movie with bad sound. I’m trying to wrap my head around this story. How one man can convince his wife to accept another wife and on top of that ask her to see her as her sister?! What powers are those? Why does God give some men such powers and leave us with only the power to reverse park? So unfair! Because even the best reverse parking maneuvers never made anyone a great husband or father.
“I told them that I would not treat anyone more special than the other. That I would take care of all of them – rent, school fees, all medical and education insurances, and all the big bills. That since they had jobs all they had to do is take care of some of the small costs of running a home.”
Long story short, this man now has two wives in this day and age. He has had them for the past five years. He has four children, two with each wife. He says they are happy. (He showed me pictures of them in shags over Christmas; with him sandwiched between the two smiling wives and another picture of the two wives holding each other, laughing.
“How does this work?” I ask him.
“So, I stay in one house for a week -from Monday evening to the next Monday morning. We agreed on this when we met second time with one representative from each family so that nobody tries to change the rules midway. When I’m in one house I can’t go to the other house unless it’s an emergency – like she or one of my children is sick. But either can call me on the phone anytime. The second thing -”
“Wait, hold on. What were the teething problems in this arrangement?”
“Sometimes one wife would try to trick me that one of the children was sick so that I go back to her house, but I’d say, ‘Okay, let’s meet at the hospital’”, he says. “ Also my first wife would complain at the beginning, saying that she had been away and so she needed to spend more time with me. I’d say, nope, the rules can only change if we all meet again, we agreed on this with witnesses so it stays as it is. Eventually things settled.
“How much energy does this arrangement take from you, running two homes? I mean, running one home is hard enough!”
“The problems that I encounter are small problems, little squabbles, basically one wife says that wife said that…as a general rule if you say the other wife did or said something I’d wait until we all meet on Sunday and ask you to repeat the allegation.”
“Oh, so there is a day for conflict resolution?” I ask laughing.
“All Sundays we meet and have lunch together. If I’m at wife A’s house, wife B will come to wife A’s with the kids and vice versa. That’s the day that we all sit down and resolve any issues. I never ever resolve an issue in the absence of the other. If you have a complaint you say it on Sunday and we talk about it and we resolve it. We never start a new week with an old problem. So they now know not to try and feed me stories about the other because I will not engage, I will say sawa, let’s wait for Sunday.”
“Yes, also obviously one wife has a better job than the other so she might try and outshine the other by buying better clothes for her children. I saw this coming and we discussed this with them and we agreed that if one wife buys clothes for her children, it’s only fair that she buys the same for other wife’s children, because those are her sister’s children and your sister’s children are your children, no?”
“Ha-ha. Well…” I say.
“This must be expensive, of course, how much is your domestic bill a month, 500K?”
He laughs and says half a meter is stretching it. He runs a small interior decor business, employing about 16 people, and work is tight, of course. “The problem with us is that we try and hide our money from our wives. I don’t. To rub unrealistic expectations, I always declare how much I make to them so that even if they are demanding money, they know my capabilities.”
“So, have you ever thought that there is a chance that while you are in this house, your other wife might be in another house, getting her groove on?” I ask, happy that I have finally used the phrase, “get your groove on” this year.
“You can have one wife and she can still get her groove on if she wants to, right under your nose,” he says.
“True.” I nod.
“But at the beginning I told them what I believe in; that anything done in the dark shall soon come to light. That should they choose to shag someone else and they pick up a disease, I’m sure that I will be the first to die from it and they would have single-handedly ruined the lives of everybody else in this family. So I never worry about that because I can’t control it. You can’t live life wondering if your wife is shagging someone else. I’d rather send that energy into better things.”
“What about sex?” I ask. “I’m sure you have to perform well in both houses every week, because the other one has been waiting for a week. How do you maintain the tempo, how do you control quality?”
We laugh at that.
“Sex is mental, at least for me. If the mind is rested and calm, the energy for sex comes. If you are distracted, if you are not settled in the mind, it doesn’t matter, your sex will suffer.”
“I’m sure there is a house you prefer…”
“No,” he says.
“Come on, there must be a wife you look forward to seeing…”
“Never. I like going to both houses, they all treat me the same.”
“It’s impossible, bwana. You want to to tell me both houses treat you in the exact way? Come on, you can tell me, I don’t even have to write it in the article.”
“I’m telling you, I look forward to seeing each wife.”
“Is that your final answer?”
He laughs. “That’s my final answer.”
He speaks slowly. He has that solidness around him, that silent authority. He’s got broad shoulders and a deceptively soft demeanor. Because beneath that he is a silent powerhouse. The type that don’t have to raise their voices to express their dissatisfaction but from the timbre and fibre of their voices you are sure of their position. Have you been seated in a group where everybody is shouting to be heard but then one person starts to speak and everybody sort of falls into silence because of how they speak? That’s the guy. A power bank of energy. He exudes supreme confidence. There is only one other guy I have ever encountered with this type of confidence, my pal, Victor Balla, who now lives in Houston.
“What, in your books, is a good husband?” I ask. I ask because I know for a fact that not all good men make good husbands. Just because a man is a bad husband doesn’t make him a bad man. But it’s harder to be a good husband if you are a bad man. I don’t see Hitler as a good husband. Or Trump. Also, you can be a bad husband but a good father. I can’t see a really bad father being a husband of the year because how can you be bad to your own blood, bad to your own child and be a great person to someone you met at Brew Bistro five years ago and married?
So, what is a good husband?
“A good husband knows where the family is headed. You are the captain of the ship. You give direction, you make decisions, you offer leadership. I always tell my wives, ‘we are going that direction and this is why I think it’s a good direction’ and if they have an objection we will all discuss it. A good husband provides for his family.”
“Was your father polygamous?”
“No. My mom is the only wife.”
“What do your friends think of this?”
“Everybody calls me mganga. They think I must have done some juju to make these women agree to this.” He laughs for the first time. “Whenever I fill a form and it requires spouse I always add and then add my second wife. People always find that fascinating. Listen, who is to say that marrying two wives is improper? Does having two wives guarantee a successful marriage? I don’t know, but it’s working for me and it seems to be working for my wives and that is what matters, not what society thinks.”
“Have you checked if the second wife has applied for a passport?” I joke, and he doesn’t get it. Oh well, this is not that party, I guess.
He tells me that polygamy, for him, is freedom. That he – at 41-years now – leads a better quality of life than most men. “You see all these men in this café? Ask them to leave their phones with their wives for 30 minutes. Nobody will have a marriage. I love two women and they are my wives. I don’t have other women outside of these two. Which means I don’t have to sneak around, lie, hide my phone, put my phone on silent,” he says. “You know, I know a guy who had a child out of wedlock and now the child is in Form One. His wife has no clue. Can you imagine what this man has to do to maintain a lie for 13-years? Can you imagine how painful and taxing it has to be not to spend time with your own son on Christmas because he is a lie?” He sips his juice, shaking his head.
“My wives all know the pattern of unlocking my phone, so do my children. My phone has no secrets. Here is what happens when you lie. First you have to believe the lie. Then you have to have the energy to embrace that lie, to own it. Then lastly you have to remember that lie, next week, next month, next year. And the thing with one lie is that it needs another lie to cover it and then another lie to cover that one. You are in prison my friend. I’m not in prison, I declared my love for two women and I don’t have to ever lie to them about another woman. Am I not free?”
“Yes, you are.”
“All my energies are focused on making money, on driving the agenda of my family forward. Listen, because of this one friend of mine recently declared a child he had out of wedlock.”
“Is he still alive?”
He laughs. “He is-”
“No, really, can you check now. A lot can happen in an hour.”
“My point is that this is my life and I want to live it the way I want to live it. Having two wives might not work for the next guy, but it works for me and it works for my wives as far as I can tell and that’s what’s important. I can’t question your choices as a man, can I?”
I shake my head.
When we say goodbye he says he doesn’t want to prescribe polygamy to anyone. He also doesn’t know which marriages work and which don’t. That he’s got no authority on any marriage other than his own. And that I shouldn’t cast him as some sort of marriage swami. Then he was off for another meeting, to make money, because God knows he needs it.
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