Hi there! Whitney here. This post is a few thoughts about one of my cultural observances here so far.
I have been asked the questions listed in the title of this post by almost every Kenyan I’ve met here. The first time I realized it was confusing and odd for Kenyans to learn I was married, but without kids, was when I was speaking with Amy, who works at a duka near the hospital selling fresh produce. She introduced me to her three year-old, Victor, and asked me if I had any kids, to which I responded “No.” Later that day I was walking with Scott and introduced him to Amy as my husband. The next day when Amy saw me she asked, “When did you and Daktari (Kiswahili for doctor) go to marry?” “You mean, when did we get married?” I responded to Amy assuming she accidentally used the wrong verb tense in her sentence. She shook her head and asked again. Perplexed, I answered her that we had already been married for four years and that we were married in June of 2008. Amy’s eyes grew wide with comprehension and disbelief upon hearing this. “You are saying you married for four years?” she asked. “Yes,” I responded, happy that she understood. Amy explained, “I didn’t understand the other day. I thought you not married since you have no children.” At this point, I think I looked away and shrugged bashfully. After a pause, she asked the question that was preying on her mind, “Why you not have any children?” Her tone and body language indicated that she could have been either sad or worried for me and was ready to comfort me. I then explained to her, as clearly as I could so she would understand, a reason or two for why we decided to wait to have kids.
This encounter happened the first week here, since then I’ve had multiple similar conversations. When traveling to a community health clinic with a woman named Jane, she recounted a story to me of how she didn’t become pregnant until nine months after she was married and her mother grew very worried about her forcing her to drink some bitter, herbal drink thinking it would help her get pregnant.
Then, this weekend I hiked with some missionaries and interns to the top of Mount Motigo (the one Scott did earlier and posted about) and at the top there was a group of school kids. I spoke with them and they asked me where my mother was. (Kenyans think I’m quite a bit younger than I am–a good self-esteem boost!) I responded that she was in the USA and I came with my husband. The next question was “Where are your children?”
I mentioned this story yesterday to some teachers in the staff room at school. (I’ve been helping and teaching at a primary school here–I love it!) Surprised, Janeth (a science and Kiswahili teacher who is my age) asked why I did not have children. Samuel (a math teacher) cut in and said “What!? I thought you had two or three!” “Really?” I said. Samuel replied, “Yes, it is a given. That is why I never asked you if you had kids because I ‘knew’ you did.” Wanting to better understand the reason for this belief, I asked why people here think you have kids as soon as you get married. Janeth’s response was a quick, but solemn, “It is a must.” “But why?” I pushed only to have her say with more emphasis “It is a must.” Perplexed, I looked around the room for further explanation. I learned that it is an big honor to have children and culturally it is a woman’s duty to bear children for her husband. In some tribes, like the Maasai, the number of children you have signifies your wealth and family status, even though having so many children can overstretch the families budget. Also, a few generations back it was widely accepted for a wife to pick out a second, younger wife for her husband so the younger wife could bear him even more children. The younger wife’s relationship to the elder wife would be that of a servant to a master, with the husband ruling over them both. This is because in Kenyan culture the groom’s family must pay a high price (up to ten cows) to the bride’s family for their daughter. Thus, it has been expected that the bride will work hard for the groom and serve the groom. When the elder wife would pick a younger wife, it was elder wife who paid a price to the younger bride’s family, in a sense, “buying” the younger wife. Elder wives picked younger wives because if they did not pick one, then the husband might grow restless and pick a mistress for himself. Thus, however humiliating or painful it would be, it was better for the elder wife to have her choice of girl/woman and to have the formal arrangement of second wife and rule over her. These traditions of multiple wives are no longer practiced immediately around Tenwek, but do still exist in a few parts of Kenya. Due to these traditions, it is still very important in the culture today to get pregnant and have children as soon as possible after getting married.
So that is what I have learned about this so far. What do you think? Questions?
I hope you enjoyed this “Cultural Observance: Part I” installment of Tenwek Files. Until next time!
Peace to you and in you,
P.S. We are going with a group this weekend to Kakamega Rainforest this weekend and are quite excited! Hopefully we’ll have some good pictures!