"I married according to our age-old tradition, where if a woman was not lucky enough to have her own children, she got another woman to honour her with children." – Juliana Soi.
It’s easy to view history as a single continuous line of progress, especially when looking through a queer lens. This, however, ignores the complexity of real cultures and beliefs. This approach to history often exists as a comfort from the harms of modern society, highlighting the growth and change for marginalized people today.
Reality continues to be much more complex and beautiful. Though some may take comfort in the idea of a steady uphill climb, neither the caverns and dips nor the steep spikes of our past and future are without precedent. Sometimes these changes come from the embrace of tradition and cultural values that have been forgotten or erased from popularity. One well-maintained tradition, though it does not fit into the modern narrative of queerness and growth within the country, is Kenya’s custom of women-to-women marriages.
This tradition can be traced back as far as the eighteenth century, though it likely existed before then, and is not exclusive to Kenya. Ethnic groups around sub-Saharan Africa such as the Kamba, Igbo, Kalabari, Simbiti, Kikuyu, Nuer, Dinka, Kimutu, Nnobi, Gusii, Lovedu, and Dahomey have similar customs. Of course, each culture has its own unique take and practices. The Nandi were chosen to focus on because of the current reaction to these marriages from the Kenyan government.
You would struggle to overestimate colonialism’s effect in Kenya, particularly in the upkeep of history and tradition. In both everyday life and in larger theoretical discussions, we must keep in mind the impact of British Invasion and subsequent exploitation of Kenyan people and resources. Countless bits of culture have been erased, and the Kenyan government must constantly battle this truth. The role of the government is intended to be one of service rather than of control. Within the Judicature Act it is explicitly written:
“The High Court, the Court of Appeal and subordinate courts shall be guided by African customary law in civil cases in which one or more parties is subject to it or affected by it, so far as it is applicable and is not repugnant to justice and morality or inconsistent with any written law; and shall decide all such cases according to substantial justice without undue regard to technicalities of procedure and without undue delay.”
This means that customs from the many groups within Kenya must be protected under the law so long as they do not go against any written law. This is where the women of Nandi come in.
The Nandi have a heavy emphasis on giving birth to sons in order to pass on property, and so the position of a woman who is unable or unwilling to do so is an unstable one at best. When a Nandi woman reaches the age of menopause or has been widowed, she has a few options. She may adopt a son from a neighboring town, reconcile with the idea that the property she holds will not stay in the family, or she may marry another woman.
For some, this is a purely economic decision. If a woman is left with land after her husband passes or is unable to conceive, her family has no rights to the land or property, and it will go on to someone else.
It may also be a decision made out of regard for status. No matter how they are brought into the family, having sons is a symbol of status. Additionally, when a woman makes the decision to marry another woman, she effectively becomes a man within the eyes of society. She is no longer expected to perform traditionally feminine tasks and is welcomed into ceremonies typically reserved for men.
There are, also, many reasons a Nandi woman of marriageable age might choose to marry an older woman. It can be that she has been deemed unmarriable. She may be afraid of the violence that may come with a marriage to a man, as these women-to-women marriages are known to involve less violence. She may have had a child out of wedlock and know that this is a good option to make sure the child has an inheritance.
It is also worth noting that after the marriage ceremony, the “female husbands” (the older women) are expected to have no sexual relationships with any gender. This rule allows women-to-women marriages to avoid violating Kenyan laws against homosexuality.
By that same logic, it must also be acknowledged that there is a powerful incentive for the women in these marriages to lie about any sexual nature between them. They could not only have their marriage delegitimized and their children inheritance-less, but they would also face legal consequences.