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.”