Thursday, July 14, 2011

Big Love, Nyanza Style

The HIV prevalence in Nyanza Province (where I am currently staying) is the highest in the country, with rates of up to 40% in some areas. My awareness of this disturbing fact comes from knowledgeable friends working locally in the field of public health as well as the high visibility of NGOs and VCT (voluntary counseling and testing) clinics in the area. More recently, I’ve observed the consequences of the AIDS epidemic on a more personal scale. In almost every village we visit I have met large numbers of widows and orphans. I realize that AIDS is not the only explanation for their presence but it seems likely to be an important contributor.

One particularly striking consequence of the AIDS epidemic in this region is its impact on polygamous households. I have now encountered a number of households headed by multiple “co-wives” whose husbands died years ago. The other day I visited a homestead where 11 co-wives were still living together, 28 years after their husband had died. The late patriarch had been a District Officer; his grave (with birth and death dates marked as “Sunrise” and “Sunset”) dominated the impressive homestead/ I asked a colleague how these women supported themselves and he explained that they probably had grown children who helped them out. Today we met six co-wives who were widowed four years ago. The three senior wives had each brought a relative to the family; their younger wives were either cousins or sisters. The co-wives casually motioned to an old photograph of their late husband, explained that they live in harmony and have no desire to remarry.

The decision to remarry is not always a choice, however, as I learned today. In villages where wife inheritance is still practiced, a woman of childbearing age (under 40) must be “inherited” if her husband passes away. Traditionally the late husband’s brother was the inheritor but more recently inheritance has been open to other men. My colleague explained that wife inheritance is becoming less common as people’s awareness about HIV has grown, but it has not gone away entirely. And there are consequences associated with forgoing this tradition. For instance, today we met a young couple living in rented housing, which is extremely uncommon in this area. We learned that the husband’s mother had been widowed, and refused to be inherited though she was still of inheritable age. As a result, the young man had not been allowed to build a home on his family’s plot, since the necessary rites could not be carried out before his mother consented to remarry.

After explaining these traditions in detail my colleague asked if there were similar practices in the U.S. I decided against attempting to tell him what little I know about Mormonism or the plot of the most recent (read: only) Big Love episode that I have seen and simply answered, “not really.”


  1. Fascinating... there is a paper to be written on social insurance among co-wives.
    If only these co-wives could join forces and fight against such norms such as this "inheritance" story... They should get the appropriate instruments to do so, some projects are moving in that direction.
    Polygamous households are a minority though, at least in Uganda.

  2. Oooh, that totally sounds like a fun paper! You could compare outcomes for women, and their children, whose husbands died before there were cowives, or measure the marginal value of an extra cowife, or sister wife. I'm going to guess increasing at a decreasing rate.
    Ooh, or their propensity to use banking or other money services.
    Sorry, there I go again. Thanks for sharing, Ruth!

  3. Oh man, look what happens when you let economists read your blog... Ha ha. Have actually been wanting to introduce the two of you -- expect a join Facebook message soon!

    Also, I don't want to give the impression that polygamy is the norm in Kenya, or Nyanza Province. I just found the phenomenon of "co-widows" to be interesting.