Advertisement

Africa’s Potentate of Polygamy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You could call Ancentus Akuku Oguela the father of all polygamists. Around here, people just call him Akuku Danger.

He was born in 1918. His youngest wife was born in 1979. His first child arrived in 1948. His most recent is 4 months old.

Married more than 100 times and separated from more than 80 of his wives, Akuku Danger says he is now husband to 37 wives scattered across several homesteads in western Kenya’s Nyanza province. And the 81-year-old patriarch claims to have fathered 172 children.

Polygamy is widely practiced and socially acceptable in communities across Africa. Social researchers estimate that among Kenya’s 29 million people, more than 50% of the men are polygamous and 30% of the women are part of a plural marriage.

Advertisement

Still, the practice is under mounting pressure, undermined by Christian beliefs, the influence of Western culture--particularly on young people who are opposed to sharing their spouse--and most important, by economic hardship.

“Even men themselves have realized it is very difficult for them to be polygamous. . . . Having two or three wives and you are the only breadwinner,” said social worker Maggie Gona, acting chair of Kenya’s National Commission on the Status of Women.

However, traditionalists like Akuku Danger feel that the end of polygamy would erase an integral part of a traditional Kenyan lifestyle.

"[Polygamy] was something ordained by our ancestors,” said Akuku, sitting regally, surrounded by 14 of his doting spouses at his “state house,” a large two-room structure where he receives visitors. “If it’s legal, if you can afford it, and it works for you, then you should have the right to continue.”

Advertisement

Although at least two other men who live nearby have at least 50 wives, Akuku may be the most married man in Kenya. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

His many wives and children attest to his fairness and the benefit of a large, extended family. The youngest wife, 20-year-old Jostine Auma Akuku, says she is much better off with an octogenarian polygamist than with her first husband, a much younger man. He abused her and threw her out of the house because she didn’t get pregnant.

She did get pregnant by Akuku. The couple produced Hesbon Anyona Akuku, now 4 months old, a year after they were wed.

“I don’t mind being the last wife,” the elementary school dropout said. “I feel good about it, because he loves me.”

Advertisement

Traditionally, polygamy was a sign of wealth and status, said Christine Ombaka, a lecturer in communications at Nyanza’s Maseno University, who has studied traditional practices. Numerous wives and children brought men respect and economic security.

In particular, the desire for male heirs to preserve their lineage and wealth drove men to take several women, Ombaka said. In many African nations, including Kenya, women cannot inherit property.

A community leader was, and often still is, expected to have several wives as a status symbol.

Having Many Partners Viewed as Essential

Advertisement

Alfred Odongo, an assistant chief in the village of South Kaganda in Nyanza province, said that having many partners was essential for a man with professional and social responsibilities.

“Instead of employing somebody, you can have wives who can take over and look after things on your behalf,” said Odongo, 36, who has two spouses ages 24 and 20, and six children. “If one is sick, the other can take care of the family.”

Diseases--such as HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS--that have ravaged Africa are now part of the debate about polygamy.

Defenders say such diseases prove the need for polygamy to ensure that more children are born.

Advertisement

“With one wife, it’s like a person carrying all of his eggs in one basket, where, when the basket drops all the eggs break and you are left with nothing,” said Fred Solomon Obamba, 59, a member of an elders committee of the Luo tribe that gives advice on cultural issues and values. Obamba has two wives whom he married 10 years apart, and 22 children.

Others argue that more partners mean a fertile breeding ground for sexually transmitted diseases.

The fact that somebody is polygamous and may have several partners, both inside and outside the home, would seem to increase the chances of bringing HIV into the family, said Anthony Mugo, spokesman for Kenya’s Federation of Women Lawyers.

Some experts point out that polygamy is taking on new forms in urban society, where men still marry several women. Often, though, the wives are unaware of the polygamous situation.

Advertisement

Throughout most of Africa, traditional marriages--often involving colorful rituals--are equally accepted as unions sealed in a church or registry office. And no one usually checks whether people entering a traditional marriage already have spouses.

A.B.C. Ocholla Ayayo, a professor of anthropology and population studies at the University of Nairobi, said anecdotal evidence indicates that many young women--among them university graduates discouraged by the lack of employment opportunities--actively seek married men who were already established in life.

“They feel somebody must take care of them,” Ayayo said. Unlike in the countryside, “men now tend to have wives distributed in different places, because they cannot keep them all in one [city] house. Sometimes it is done with the knowledge of the [first] wife, sometimes not at all; and each woman thinks that she is the only person.”

Gona acknowledged that some women are duped into believing that they are their husband’s only wife.

Advertisement

“It brings a lot of problems when the husband dies,” said Gona, including a tug-of-war over inheritance.

Ombaka maintained that tolerance for polygamy among contemporary women is waning.

“The fact that you’re sharing a man is an indignity,” she said. “It means your husband has betrayed you. It’s an emotional issue.”

Akuku’s story is not typical. Polygamists normally take two or three wives, but rarely more than 10.

Advertisement

Supporters of what critics call “wife hoarding” view such a patriarch as a man to be admired and feared.

“It’s obvious that when a family is big, nobody can threaten [it]. It becomes a force to be reckoned with,” Akuku said. His mother’s father had 45 wives, but his own father had just three.

“I must be respected, I’m an upright man. If you look at my family, they are all well taken care of,” he said.

Akuku still towers well over 6 feet, 2 inches tall. Dressed in a dapper dark suit and tie complemented by a black Stetson hat, gleaming black shoes and a trendy cane, he exudes an air of authority.

Advertisement

His jet black hair, taut features, clearly focused brown eyes and commanding speech belie his age and add to his aura of intimidation.

After 18th Wife, He Got His Nickname

But that’s not what won him the nickname “Danger.”

“It came after I started marrying many wives,” said Akuku, who would sometimes marry as many as four times a year. “After my first marriage didn’t go well, I decided to get married again. After the second wife, they just kept coming. Soon I had 18. People started saying, ‘That man is dangerous.’ ”

Advertisement

Akuku left high school in 1937 and married his first wife a year later at the age of 20. He completed an apprenticeship in tailoring, and was successful enough that he opened his own shop. The money he earned from tailoring and crop farming allowed him to buy livestock, necessary for paying dowries. He never gave less than 18 cattle for each of his wives.

“The idea was to marry a wife so that she could come and help me develop the family,” Akuku said. “Once they come, we pool our resources.”

Polygamy has undoubtedly bolstered Akuku’s financial status.

He boasts that he has fathered 85 sons and 87 daughters--among them, doctors, lawyers, teachers and a slew of casual laborers. He lost count of his grandchildren years ago, but believes that the brood could number well over 3,000, and every individual counts.

Advertisement

“It feels great to be part of a big family because you never lack anything,” said Kennedy Otieno Akuku, 18, a son of Danger’s 19th wife, who bore him nine children. “I have several mothers. I can never go hungry. One of them will always feed me.”

Akuku said there was no great secret to his power of seduction.

“I just tell them I’m the best man on Earth,” he said. “You don’t seduce a woman by telling her you’re an ordinary man.”

“He was so smart, so elegant,” recalled Seprina Ajwang’ Akuku, 73, Danger’s feisty second wife, of the first time she laid eyes on him. “Even the bike he came on was neat. When I saw him, I said to myself, ‘I won’t let this one go. This is my man.’ ”

Advertisement

When Akuku separated from his first spouse in 1950, Seprina Ajwang’ “inherited” the position of chief wife. She claims to have been instrumental in helping Akuku woo his third wife, who was a close acquaintance.

“I thought it would be better to have two people in one house who are friends to live with one man we both love,” she said. Being one of many doesn’t bother her.

Each wife is set up in a hut on one of Akuku’s 12 homesteads, which lie about five miles apart.

Akuku said he usually lives alone. He chooses the woman to cook and care for him at regular intervals.

Advertisement

When not attending to Akuku, most of the women tend to his farms. They swear they are happy.

Wife No. 8 Still Has Praise for Him

“If you compare us to other women out there whose husbands have one wife, we live a much better life than them,” said Syprosa Omune Akuku, the 67-year-old wife No. 8, who had seven of Akuku’s children. “We never starve. [Akuku] really takes care of us. It’s really great to be married to him. Many young men today are not as responsible as he was. Finding one like [Akuku] is not easy these days.”

“I love all my women,” Akuku said. “I give them equal love. If a man is fair in his distribution of love and wealth, then there is no jealousy.”

Advertisement


Advertisement