Love and Marriage

Things have been really busy around here lately, so we nearly glossed over the fact that we just had our second anniversary! To celebrate we decided to jet out of town on a Friday right after work and head out to Rondo Retreat – a really beautiful retreat center in Kakamega forest that also just happens to have great food (we had horseradish sauce with dinner! we asked them where they got it and the response was “we find it sometimes.” Thanks a lot, guys).


It was really nice to get away (no internet out there!) and have the opportunity to reflect on our marriage and how grateful we are for each other and the opportunities we’ve been able to take advantage of as a couple over the past two years. I’ll be honest that the place is a little weirdly formal – I think we have the British to thank for that – but the candlelit dinner was definitely the best anniversary option around!

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A massive trail of safari ants. Always watch where you’re stepping!

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It has been really interesting to explore how marriages work here, and how that can sometimes differ from the way that we define and approach our marriage. Keep in mind, though, that my observations really only apply to rural Western Kenya. I don’t want to paint Kenya or anyone I know here with a broad brush – my friends and colleagues range from struggling to middle upper class and are from all over the country, so I have a huge diversity of people to hear from about love and marriage! So with that qualifier, some things I’ve noticed about marriage and relationships in Western Kenya:

1. Let’s start with the most sensitive topic I could bring up: polygamy. Wikipedia says that the Luhya “used to” practice polygamy. Apparently no one writing about the Luhya on Wikipedia has been to Western Kenya lately, because polygamy is alive and well! One day in the field we were looking for a child, and the mother informed us that the child lives with the other wife because that wife lives closer to the school. Sometimes it can be really hard to keep track of these family structures – once during a census our program was running we found a compound with 100 people, 8 wives (5 pregnant) and 1 man.


This is what you might imagine polygamy here looks like (Maasai women)

Of course it’s worth noting that a lot of people are very against polygamy – especially in areas that are mostly Christian or don’t have a strong history of polygamy to begin with. One of my coworkers, M, spent a whole year on a practical joke convincing one of my American friends, H, that he had two wives – he even went as far as introducing the “second wife” at his father’s funeral. This guy is serious about his pranks. When the truth finally came out M laughed and said “I can’t believe you fell for it – I’m a Christian!” But let’s not be too hard on H – we’ve both met plenty of Christian polygamists in this area. It can be a little maddening that you never know quite what to believe!  But check out this article to convince you there’s plenty of polygamous pride in Kenya.

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Polygamous? Or Not? Probably not… but get ready to embarrass yourself – don’t assume you know how anyone’s marriage works!

2. Kids. Tim and I get a lot of flack because we are married and don’t have any kids – as it has been for a long time in many places, marriage here has a lot to do with children. Once you have a child many people consider themselves “married.” Family planning is making serious inroads into Kenya, however, and it’s a lot more common to hear people talk about wanting to control the size of their family.

3. Ceremony. Recently a lot of our staff were really offended when we were trying to come up with some survey questions to assess marriage stability and wanted to define marriages as relationships that had been affirmed by a formal ceremony. Some of our staff were (rightfully) upset that we were basically telling them we thought their marriages were invalid! Everyone knows that weddings are expensive, and so that can be pretty impractical. Although everyone knows that Tim and I are married, people are sometimes surprised and impressed to hear that we had a wedding – the two aren’t always linked! (Find another account of how this works here.)

portrait and wedding photography by Chelsea Elizabeth Photography

We loved our wedding ceremony! (photo courtesy Chelsea Elizabeth Photography)

4. Dowries are also a big deal around here. I love the opportunity to talk to my staff and friends about the way that they are preparing for major life events such as weddings and babies, and dowry talk seems to come up all the time. Dowries are a hugely controversial topic across Africa, and as one friend said “If I’m worth so much, how come I don’t get that money?” Still, there is a lot of pride when your husband is able to offer a cow.

Of course there are also a lot of people here who have a big church wedding with a white dress, and the whole ordeal looks a lot like an American wedding.


From a coworker’s wedding – notice how many aspiring photographers are crowding in on the couple as they take their vows

The landscape of what marriage and weddings look like in Kenya seems to be changing rapidly. Marriage is so personal – it looks different not just across cultures, but for every individual couple. While my observations are true for some people in Kenya, the diversity of this country and rapid changes mean you can’t assume any of these things!

Overall, weddings are fun, marriages are precious, and despite the difference we all have a lot to relate about. We had a great time celebrating our anniversary, and are lucky that we get to continue to learn from that ways that everyone around us has a slightly different approach to the crazy institution called “marriage.”


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