May-December Love With a Twist Throws Africa for a Loop
Marriage Stokes Debate Over Gender Roles
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 25, 2003; Page A18
NAIROBI, July 24 -- Inside her misty farmhouse, the clandestine romance bloomed. She was a lonely 67-year-old widow, a former freedom fighter and a pushy Kenyan feminist already a household name in Africa. He was a shy, 25-year-old handyman from a slum who worked inside her home, had coffee-colored eyes and an unusual willingness to cook and clean.
They held hands. He soothed her when her pacemaker made her feel weak. She captivated him with her feisty rants and saucy political stories of an African nation at independence.
They fell in love. And last Friday, Wambui Otieno and Peter Mbugua got married.
But the excitement that swept over the newlyweds in the last week has been everything but honeymoon bliss.
News of a younger man marrying an older woman roared across newspaper headlines and radio shows throughout the continent. The union touched a sensitive part of the African psyche, igniting a debate over women's rights, marriage and the polar pulls of tradition and modernity.
There were rumors that he married her for the money. And accusations that she married him to make a political statement. A jilted 23-year-old came forward, claiming to be Mbugua's live-in fiancee, saying she had wasted her youth.
Then tragedy struck. The groom's 53-year-old mother, who had high blood pressure, died three days after the wedding, "of shock and sadness," concluded Kenya's leading daily, the Nation.
"Does this wedding between an old woman and a young man belong in the Guinness Book of World Records, because it has never happened before in Africa," cried Eric Amulaku, 28, standing on a Nairobi street with male friends who cheered in agreement. "She's just trying to aggravate men. In Africa, we all know that women are as old as they look. Men are as old as they feel. She's disgusting."
In such strident tones, arguments are taking place between the sexes and across generations over a simmering tension in modern Africa: Should women have the same rights as men on a continent where diverse cultural and tribal traditions are strikingly similar in their view of distinct gender roles that almost always clash with Western ideas?
Today's Africa is changing at a dizzying pace. But tribal traditions -- even in urban areas -- still define how most Africans live.
In Kenya, graying men, known respectfully as mzees in Swahali, frequently marry teenage girls, since procreation is seen as a sign of male prowess and the main point of marriage.
Widows, on the other hand, are shunned. They don't inherit their husband's property; it goes to his family. In some traditions, the wives themselves are the property of their husband's tribe.
Otieno's first husband, S.M.Otieno, died 16 years ago. A respected lawyer, he was a popular and Westernized man who always dismissed his tribal traditions. After his death, his widow fought his Luo tribe over where he would be buried, and lost.
And because he was from the Luo tribe, his family claims that it owns her and the property they shared. She, however, is Kikuyu, a tribe that does not typically follow those customs. While the issue has not been discussed for years, the dispute over ownership came back with a furor after her wedding. The Luo now say they would try and claim her body after she is dead, to bury her next to her husband.
Widows say they have no choice but to go for younger men, because men their age dismiss them for women who can bear children.
"I waited and waited for some old man to fall in love with and I was staring at the ceiling getting depressed because no one ever came," Otieno said in an interview on Wednesday evening. She sat on a plump sofa at her spacious ranch in the foothills of Karen, a lush colonial neighborhood in the shadow of the Ngong Hills, where the movie "Out of Africa" was filmed. "It's such a hypocritical thing, because old men marry teenagers all the time and nothing is said."
The couple, clad in matching cream-colored suits, exchanged vows at the municipal wedding chambers in downtown Nairobi. No one from their families came. Thousands of gossipy Kenyans flooded the streets to peer at them.
The event sparked debate over an issue that rarely has the chance to come to the fore in daily life.
"All African men want to do is throw a kanga over us," lamented Rachel Nguli, 22, referring to the traditional flowing dress. Nguli works at a video store in Nairobi, where she watches Western shows like "Sex and the City" and says she envies the freedom of Western women. "African men want to beat us down to the birthing stool. This wedding is a wake-up call for African men."
The regional weekly newspaper East African Standard, read in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya, ran a front-page story under the headline: "Wambui's family appalled by her marriage" and a photo spread inside. The headline on AllAfrica.com, which covers sub-Saharan Africa, read, "Wambui: A woman ahead of her time." And in West Africa, where men often take more than one wife, the story played big on radio stations.
"I have no idea why she did it and I really don't care," Amina Abdalla, a member of the Kenyan parliament, said she told groups of grumbling constituents. "Nelson Mandela married a young girl," she said, referring to Mandela's 1998 marriage at the age of 80 to 52-year-old Graca Machel. "I know for Africans the reverse is culturally shocking. And sometimes people need to be shocked."
But then Mbugua's mother, Florence Nyambura, who in news photographs was wailing in grief over the union, died. Her passing brought cries from elders that the wedding was actually cursed according to tribal traditions. Later reports said the hospital did not treat her correctly or expeditiously.
"When this first happened I thought, 'Okay, it's a big moment for Africa. This will finally be a leg up for women.' Traditions can be dynamic," said Freud Owalukana, a psychology lecturer at the Western College of Arts and Sciences in Kakamega, a rural part of western Kenya. "But then his mother died, and that changes the whole story. On the surface, it beats logic. So everyone is saying it's a curse from above."
The case has thrust Otieno, a beloved and hated figure for her strong opinions and battles against tradition, back into the limelight. Some Luo leaders see her mother-in-law's death as punishment for her past controversy, one that stirred tribal animosities and questions of just how modern Africa had become.
Otieno, whose full name is Virginia Edith Wambui Otieno, comes from a prominent family, fought in the Mau Mau guerrilla uprising that led to independence and is a leader in the Kenyan women's movement.
Her marriage to S.M. Otieno was controversial in part because she was a member of the country's largest and richest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. They were favored under colonial rule and became a rival of the Luo, the country's second-largest tribe.
S.M. Otieno's death set off an Africa-wide debate. The Luo tradition rests on ownership of the body after death. Tribal customs state that the body must be buried in the rural western villages that make up what is known as "Luoland," or else malevolent spirits will haunt the tribe, causing deaths and accidents.
Wambui Otieno fought the issue in court for 154 days in 1987. She lost and became a despised figure for questioning tribal customs. She claimed women should have rights over their husbands' burial ceremonies.
"The wedding has brought back bad blood," said Macharia Gaitho, a columnist for the Nation, which has run front-page articles about the issue every day since the ceremony. "Of course, decades later none of these tensions or issues are really settled yet. And that's why the wedding is causing such a stir. "
With her new husband sitting quietly on a nearby chair, Otieno said she did not care what people say.
"African widows suffer too much," she said, wagging her finger. "We run the country, do all the work and yet we have no rights."
Her young husband just smiled and shook his head in agreement.
Both said they loved each other and were not bothered by the controversy over his mother's death.
"I don't blame her at all," said Mbugua, swathed in a wool sweater. "I love my wife."
But both seem to have a lot of relatives to sway.
Otieno's children said their mother would live to regret the day she married a "boy." Some say she is only marrying him so her 15 children -- whom she has been feuding with recently -- will not get her inheritance.
The Luo tribe will also not be entitled to it, since she can now leave it to her new husband, a fellow Kikuyu.
CCC Metro TLC