In a poor community, the practice known as nyumba mboke allows for an arranged marriage between a woman and her surrogate, but these are often abused.
In a village in southwestern Kenya, near the border with Tanzania, Grace Boke, 19, mother of three daughters, lives with her wife, who was unable to give birth to her own children.
They married under the “nyumba mboke” scheme, a practice that allows for women-to-wife marriage, despite the fact that such marriage is illegal in Kenya. But there is little love or romance in this marriage.
Boke is one of the hundreds of Kenyan surrogates who, for the most part, live in poverty with their partners, who are desperate to have their own children.
The teenager, who speaks Swahili and her local dialect, dropped out of school and married Pauline Gati after conceiving her first child out of wedlock. She takes care of her nine-month-old daughter in their small earthen house in Kibunto village, Kuria district. The baby has a skin infection and cries during breastfeeding.
“My father forced me to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) when I was very young, and immediately after that, I had a relationship with a man who got me pregnant and disappeared. My parents were very poor and decided to give me, in exchange for four cows, for a woman without children. She is now my partner,” Boke told Al Jazeera.
“Later, my father sold the cows and started drinking and never gave money to my mother. When I was welcomed into this house, I was told that there was no field in which I could find food, all she wanted was that I help her have children. It really worried me, but she insisted that we will fight at all costs to find food for the children,” says the girl.
Boke and Gati struggle to feed the three children who are under five. According to Gati, same-sex marriage is culturally accepted, so that women who can not have children, or who have not yet had a son, can meet the expectations of society. A typical practice in Africa, accepted by barren women.
“My husband died and left me without children after we had lived together for many years. I was facing a lot of stigma from the community and was advised to ask a young woman to help me have children. I do not have fields because I ran away from where I lived. Here, a good Samaritan offered me this little plot where we have this little two-bedroom house. I decided to marry Boke in exchange for four cows. His children… will be mine. I will have someone to take care of me when I’m old,” Gati said.
Gati and Boke do daily work in the fields to find food. But sometimes they sleep hungry. “Boke has no source of income. She is supposed to rely entirely on me because the men who put her pregnant have no responsibility to these children. The men she meets are supposed to put her pregnant and free her; we do not follow them… because we fear they will kill us or the babies.”
In the village of Gwikonge, also in Kuria, Gatatina Sinda, a 48-year-old surrogate mother, lives with her eight children in a crumbling house. “My life is difficult because I was married here to an elderly woman who had no children and wanted me to have children. She died leaving me with these eight children. I have a lot of trouble feeding them and educating them.”
“I do not know where I will go with my children when this house falls. This nyumba mboke brought me a lot of misery for me and my children.”
Melisa Nyabware, 41, is a mother of five and HIV positive. Her father, an alcoholic, took her out of school to send her to another woman. “My father ruined my life because of five cows. I’m so mad at him even though he’s already dead. I could have sued him,” says the young woman to Al Jazeera.
“It’s very difficult to have children when you have no one to look after them. My partner was old when she welcomed me and died later. She was not able to support me and my children. I lived as a beggar.
But Goceso (Gokeharaka Central and South), a local women’s group offering financial support, gave her some hope. Susan Maroa, President of Goceso, told Al Jazeera that the group is not able to support all the victims of arranged marriages. “This is a big problem here because born children do not have family support and end up languishing in poverty.”
Sammy Chacha, a chef in Kehancha, confirmed that nyumba mboke weddings have wreaked havoc in the community. “This culture is deeply rooted in this community and as a result, young women and children born in this kind of marriage suffer a lot. Parents… get angry when they are offered a few cows in exchange for their daughters,” he said.
The Nyumba mboke unions are not supported by the Constitution and therefore violate the rights of women and children, he said. “As a local administration in this region, we discourage this practice, but people do it without our knowledge. We only hear about it when conflicts break out.” Local authorities offer workshops and organize meetings to educate parents and advocate for adoption for families who want children.