From Kisumu to Kampala

It was in western Kenya, in the village of Ndhiwa not far from Kisumu, where the uncrowned king of polygamy lived out his flamboyant life.

 (Daily Times, 19 December 2012)

Polygamy is widespread in western Kenya, as in many other parts of Africa, and not just Africa.  A few years ago, BBC reported that a 56 year-old Ethiopian with 11 wives and 77 children was “urging people not to follow his example.” Among those not heeding the advice was his 33 year-old eldest son, who was about to marry his fourth wife, while still looking for his first job.

In January 2010, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa “married his fifth wife in a traditional Zulu ceremony at his remote homestead in KwaZulu-Natal. His first wife, whom he married in 1973, was there to see him wed a woman 30 years his junior. His second wife stayed home to prepare the reception.” Jacob Zuma has 21 children from ten different women.

King Mswati III of neighbouring Swaziland has 14 wives and 23 children.  But if he is anything like his late father, King Sobhuza II, the son has a long way to go.  The old man had 70 wives, 210 children and over a thousand grandchildren. May his soul rest in peace!

But it was in western Kenya, in the village of Ndhiwa not far from Kisumu, where the uncrowned king of polygamy lived out his flamboyant life. According to a report of 5 October 2010, Ancentus Akuku (nicknamed “Danger”) passed away due to natural causes in his late 90’s. “He first married in 1939, became a polygamist at 22 and married his last wife in 1992. Akuku had more than 100 wives and more than 200 children.”  May his restless soul find peace!

A 1998 University of Wisconsin survey of more than a thousand societies across the world, quoted in The Independent of 6 January 2010, found that just 186 of them (less than a fifth) were monogamous. “Some 453 had occasional polygyny (more than one wife) and in 588 more it was quite common. Just four featured polyandry (more than one husband). Some anthropologists believe that polygamy has been the norm through human history.”

In Senegal, nearly 47 per cent of marriages are said to feature multiple women. Among the Bedouin population of Israel it stands at about 30 per cent. It is relatively high in many Arab countries. As many as 10,000 Mormons were reported to be living in polygamous families in the US in 2005.  Jigme Singye Wangchuck, King of Bhutan until 2006, has four wives, all sisters. Their father was twice prime minister under his worthy son-in-law!  This practice of being concurrently married to two or more sisters also exists in neighbouring Tibet.

President Obama’s Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, had married four times.   His biological grandmother was Hussein Onyango’s second wife, Habiba, while Sarah was his third.  Obama wrote (in Dreams from My Father) that Habiba was miserable in her marriage and left her husband, abandoned her children and subsequently married again and moved to present-day Tanzania. She gave Hussein Onyango three children: daughters Sarah and Auma, and son, the senior Barack (Barack Obama’s father).

Obama’s ancestral of village of Kogelo is just over an hour’s drive from Kisumu.  The last few kilometres off the main road, still a dirt track, is now being upgraded.  But the highway to Busia, on the Ugandan border, I can best describe as a succession of thousands of potholes for over one hundred kilometres.  The cause for this neglect, I was told, is Kenyan ethnic and tribal politics.  Being a bastion of opposition to the central government, Luo-majority Kisumu is being punished by Kikuyu-dominated Nairobi by being deprived of funds.  A journey that should have taken just over an hour took us three hours.

Land-locked Uganda, which depends partly on this road for access to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, is an innocent victim of this Kenyan tribal squabbling.  Not that Uganda itself is free from the problem of tribalism.

About mid-way between the border and the capital city of Kampala is Jinja, Uganda’s second largest city. Like Kisumu, it is on the shores of the massive Lake Victoria (Nam Lolwe in Luo).  Over 300 km long and with a surface area of nearly 70,000 square km, Lake Victoria is Africa’s largest lake by area, and it is the largest tropical lake in the world. Two rivers flow out of the lake, one of which is the White Nile or “Victoria Nile”.  With a shoreline of over 4,000 km, Lake Victoria’s waters are divided among the three countries in rough proportion to their share of the shoreline: Kenya (6%), Uganda (45%) and Tanzania (49%).

Seated behind me on the bus from Kisumu was a Ugandan trade union leader studying in Kenya on an ILO scholarship, on a visit to his hometown of Jinja.  And seated next to me, bound for Kampala, was an elderly and interesting Kenyan, on his way to attend a wedding.  Educated in Holland, he had been a high government official before taking senior positions in 5-star hotels. 

Now retired, this gentleman lives in Kisumu with his wife.  He claimed to have been everywhere in the world, “except Australia”.  Could I arrange for him a trip to Australia?  He soon conceded that he hadn’t been “everywhere in the world” but “almost” everywhere. Closer interrogation revealed that the world he had in mind was a rather small one.  I know a Pakistani who went to five countries on a “round-the-world” ticket from Australia, so named because the flights are arranged to make a full-circle, originating and ending in Australia.  He describes the trip as his “world tour”.

I am reminded of the man who, so the story goes, claimed to have visited every country that was mentioned to him.  Someone commented that, since this man seemed to have been to every country in the world, he must know geography very well.  To which the man replied, “yes, I have been there too.”

A couple of weeks ago, it was reported that one Graham Hughes, a 33-year old Briton, has set a record, becoming the first person to have visited every country in the world, 201 to be exact, without catching a plane.  It took him four years.  Beginning his journey in Uruguay in South America, he finished in South Sudan, the youngest member of the comity of nations.

By Razi Azmi

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One Response to From Kisumu to Kampala

  1. Pradeep Kalra says:

    A very interesting and informative article.The author’s research is remarkable.

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