Kenya’s Forbidden Love – Inside the Secret World of Nyumba Mboke

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 In our culture, when a woman fails to have children for the husband, meaning she is a barren woman or fails to give birth to a male child, she is forced to marry another younger woman to continue the family lineage  By Sarah Ochieng’ 

Introduction to Nyumba Mboke

It is well known that in African culture, same-gender marriage is a taboo that can lay a curse on the entire community. However, the Kuria community in Migori County has embraced the culture of Nyumba Mboke.

Nyumba Mboke is a cultural practice that allows woman-to-woman marriages and has been taking place in the area for decades, even though gay marriage is criminalized in Kenya.

According to Kuria cultural elders, “Nyumba Mboke” began in the days of their forefathers and is of great value to them.

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African Taboo Contradiction

Nyumba Mboke

Nyabasi Mawisa Mwita, an elder, says that “Nyumba Mboke” was a marriage carried out between women, mainly for the continuity of family lineage in case the woman married was barren and in a case where a woman didn’t give birth to a male child.

Kuria culture perceives male children to be the real family members of a homestead and female children as just but wealth to the homestead and strangers with no value.

“In our culture, when a woman fails to have children for the husband, meaning she is a barren woman or fails to give birth to a male child, she is forced to marry another younger woman to continue the family lineage,” Nyabasi said.

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“We also consider male children as the real family members, and females are just for wealth and have no place amidst us,” he added.

Every community has its own cultural practices, and in Kuria culture, this is considered one of the strongest pillars of keeping the family bond intact.

School Dropout and Stigma

This is not the only culture affecting women in the Kuria community but also the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which the community considers a rite of passage that has persisted, particularly affecting young girls from the age of 10 onward. This cultural practice has caused more havoc than good in the community.

Unfortunately, if these girls become pregnant after undergoing the outlawed FGM, their chances of returning to school diminish significantly. Instead, parents often arrange marriages for them, seeking wealth in exchange for their daughters.

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The belief is that these girls are unfit for marriage to young men and must be married to another woman. This practice is prevalent as parents see it as an expedient way to secure wealth, and the prospects of these girls returning to school after childbirth are minimal and, at times, none at all.

However, it’s not been a bed of roses for the young women and girls who have gone through the Nyumba Mboke practice since it has challenges that last a lifetime.

The challenges include high school dropout rates since they are married at an early age and are bound by the responsibilities of taking care of a family with absolutely no income at hand.

The victims go through abuse and have no freedom in the hands of their in-laws since they are young and naive; hence, they have to be controlled.

Health Risks and Abuse

They face high health risks, transmitting diseases like HIV/AIDS, and syphilis, among others, since they have to sleep with multiple partners with no question to sire more children to the “husbands” women they are married to.

They also suffer from low self-esteem and stigma, to mention just a few from society.

Talking to a teenager only identified as “Bhoke,” who sought anonymity, she states that she was forced to get married to Marowa Ghati, an elderly woman who had no male child after accidentally getting pregnant out of wedlock at an early age.

Fighting back her already-dropping tears, she narrated that the ordeal happened soon after she was forced to undergo the outlawed female genital mutilation before being wed off for 3 cows to the elderly woman.

“My father later sold the cows that were paid as my dowry and never gave my mother a single cent from it. He later succumbed to chronic disease last year,” she said.

Bhoke, who is now 15 years old, is saying she is willing to go back to school and continue her education to realize her dream as a doctor but is also a disturbed mother of three children who is overwhelmed by responsibilities for her children’s needs with no job or skills to fend for herself.

Government and NGO Efforts

“Natamani sana kurudi shule; niliwacha nikiwa class six, na sasa shida ni hawa watoto wangu; nani atawachunga, mimi mwenyewe sina namna,” she posed.

“Napitia magumu sana; hata hao watoto wangu, sidhani nitaweza kuwasomesha,” she added.

With all this burden, the men responsible for the pregnancies under same-sex marriage are also allowed to walk away free from any responsibilities.

A local chief in the area confirmed that Nyumba Mboke marriages had wreaked havoc on the community. Mrs. Magige Bhoke Nchagua, a victim turned girl child rights activist, shares her personal experience of undergoing Nyumba Mboke at the age of 16. Raised by a single mother after her father’s early demise, Nchagua emphasizes the lack of protection, love, and abuse.

Once married through Nyumba Mboke, the girls are left to fend for themselves, receiving only shelter. According to Kuria custom, they are not allowed to engage with their wives’ husbands but are expected to have children with random men, who seldom take responsibility for the pregnancies.

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Nchagua underscores the lack of joy in such marriages, stating that women often enter Nyumba Mboke unions due to the loss or separation from their husbands. The situation worsens as these young girls are forced into such marriages for their parents’ material gains.

In Nyumba Mboke, the married girls receive no assistance from the woman they are married to or her family; instead, they are turned into domestic workers, toiling without payment.

Another victim, Pauline Mohabe, who underwent FGM at 12, got pregnant at 16, experienced divorce, and later found herself in a Nyumba Mboke marriage, describes the mistreatment she endured. Nchagua Magige, now a girl child rights activist, notes a positive shift as the community becomes more enlightened. The prevalence of Nyumba Mboke marriages and the substantial bride prices have reduced, signaling progress.

Activism and Cultural Shifts

The Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) Kenya, through its Migori County coordinator, Mrs. Eva Ojwang, is actively working to enlighten Kuria community members against these regressive practices. Their goal is to ensure that all girls can resume their education even after giving birth.

Jane Bhoke, an activist and a director from Universal Relief Foundation (URF), a non-governmental organization based in Migori, stated that although the government has been trying to fight and rescue girls from Kuria community from these cultural practices, it should check on major factors surrounding the security of girls’ rescue centers and provide financial stability to the centers.

“I know the government is working to rescue our girls, but the truth is, in a day about five of our girls are at risk because these rescue centers are full to the brim with no financial support from the government,” Jane said.

She also mentioned that to eradicate the Nyumba Mboke practice among the Kuria, sensitization and education for the elders and locals should be done, and advocacy for the adoption of children in case of families.

Mrs. Agatha Wekesa, the Deputy Officer Commanding Station at Kehancha Police Station in Kuria West Sub County, highlights the authorities’ efforts to eradicate FGM in the region, promising arrests for human rights violations like FGM, which serves as the starting point for Nyumba Mboke.

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