Do Not Marry a Politician and Other Kitchen Table Things
I’ve long been taught that the appearance of a good marriage, not a good marriage necessarily, is the ultimate goal.
In Luo, this phrase means, “Your husband isn’t family.”
Luo funerals are extravagant. They could last as long as three weeks and loud performances of grief are often delivered mostly by people a little removed (or not even touched at all) by the harshness of the loss. The bereaved family is expected to feed hundreds of people for a week or so and people are often annoyed if they don’t get at least one proper meal and a refreshment on the day of the burial. But these rituals are also community and history: funeral committees by day and discos by night; quiet mourning in the evening and laughter around fires in the dark. A lot of stories are shared about the greatness of men and the servitude of women. Men are noble if they didn’t beat their wives too much, and women are sensible for learning their lessons and never provoking their husbands in the same foolish way twice.
Apparently, for a time, people were floored if someone died without ever laying a hand on his wife. So much so that before the husband was buried, they would take his hand and slap the widow so he wouldn’t go to the ground without disciplining his wife. This story is often told to me as a joke. Every single time, it has brought tears to my eyes.
My mother goes all out for funerals. Every time she, a friend, or a family member is bereaved, she gives everything from finances to labor. My sisters and I often have to remind her to rest: She doesn’t have to cook and take care of everyone that shows up for her brother’s funeral. But my mother, like her mother, never really sits still. I think it’s how she loves. I think it’s how she grieves as well. But also I think it’s because women aren’t allowed to rest, not even when they’re in pain.
In the years she’s been married to my father, I have seen her exhaust herself for the funerals of her in-laws, some of whom openly hate her. She has slept in the cold and forgotten to eat. Every time a member of my father’s extended family dies, she is gone for at least a week and she always comes back mistreated: condescended to, dismissed, and emotionally manipulated. Every time, we try to convince her to extend herself a little less, because, you know, chuori ok watni. She’s often told us in passing that she is aware that her in-laws don’t consider her family.
“They only tolerate you while he’s alive. They’ll try to kill you even before his body hits the ground.”
Even with this reality, my mum expects and hopes that I will marry a Luo man. Over the years, even when she doesn’t explicitly state it, she’s tried to mold me into her version of a good wife. A frustrating endeavor for her, as I’ve increasingly made it clear that I do not enjoy domestic labor, and certainly have no interest in performing it for a man. I think I’m wearing her down because she’s begun to stress domestic labor as an essential life skill, even if I don’t want to get married. It mostly works, except when she’s trying to make me learn how to cook chapatis and I’m not interested because I don’t like chapatis. Besides, they aren’t a worthwhile meal to make. You spend so much time and energy preparing them, and by the time they are ready, you’ve been smelling them for so long, you don’t even want to eat them.
She hasn’t always been sleek about these efforts. When I was younger and a lot less assertive, she was even violent about it. She felt she needed to raise me into a proper woman and ultimately, a good wife. Catering to men, as we all know, is essential to proper womanhood. And she also needed to survive her marriage, her daughters occasionally be damned.
One Saturday when I was sixteen, my siblings and I woke to my mother banging utensils in the kitchen. At first, we thought she was just being passive aggressive as usual. It’s just a thing African mothers do if you’re sleeping in—they never like it. When we finally got to the kitchen, however, it became very clear this was something else. My father was home for the weekend.
When my father is home, we cook ugali in a bigger sufuria. It turns out, the previous night, one of us had cooked ugali in the sufuria that is meant for tea, and then left it soaking in the sink. This probably meant that we’d have to make tea in a different sufuria meant for some other food, or use the extra sufurias not meant for daily use. Stress all around, I tell you. What usually would have been ten or so minutes of getting yelled at turned into insults, pulling and pushing, and eventually, forcefully dropping a heavy, aluminum sufuria on our feet.
We all understood that this was a performance for my father. A performance of power and control for the person who had both over her. A cry for solidarity. Maybe, just maybe, if she could make us just a little bit terrified of her as we were of him, she’d be more equal to him in their marriage.
Over the course of my life, but more so in the last year, I have found myself in the company of older married women. These types of hangout sessions begin and end with being lovingly fed lots of food, sometimes with hints of body shaming, punctuated with tales of terrible marriages. Unlike when I was a teenager, I can’t just leave after a meal; I am expected to sit down and quietly absorb the wisdom in these conversations. It is expected that I will be getting married soon, and it is imperative that I know how to navigate a marriage, which involves surviving inevitable hurt and saving the marriage whilst still being a good wife. Saving a marriage, it seems, especially after the husband fucks up or around, is integral to being a good wife.
In a beautiful kitchen in Pennsylvania, the conversation started as an incredulous narration of the audacity of a philandering Kenyan politician. We were at my aunt’s friend’s house to see her mother, who was visiting from Kenya. My aunt’s friend lives in a three-story house that smells so good. It has a screening room and a kitchen that feels like a picnic in spring. While my aunt gave me a tour, I silently wondered who I had to marry so I wouldn’t have to work for a home like that. I think this every time I like the scent of a house, but then I remember that they only smell so good because the women work to keep it so. And then I just want someone to buy me a house, but without the marriage part, so I can keep it smelling so good all by myself.
The politician didn’t like that his fiancée was hesitant about having children with him. The politician was convinced that the fiancee was being influenced by his first two wives. He never considered it had anything to do with the fact that he’d fathered children with multiple women, children he doesn’t really take care of.
The women all agreed that whoever is married to the politician when he dies will have to deal with more of the politician’s children and their mothers coming out of the woodwork and claiming their share of the inheritance. My aunt and her friend went back and forth about the best way for the widow to retain the most assets: Give them the car but keep the house and the land. Give them the house but don’t reveal other investment properties. I wondered why these options each assumed that the side families aren’t smart enough to claim more than what’s readily apparent. I wondered if part of surviving your husband’s betrayal is assuming that of all the women, you had to have been the smartest; you had to have been the one he was most honest with when it came to money; that you’re the one he chose to be his undignified widow. I wondered if part of surviving marriages with men is believing, against all evidence, that they chose you when it mattered.
Nobody ever suggested that the fiancée should maybe consider not marrying the politician. Women getting married to men is, after all, inevitable.
When we finally got to the advice portion of this conversation, my aunt’s friend told me, “Do not marry a politician.” And then a few seconds later, “Especially if he calls himself Mato.” I would have been okay with just “do not marry” but I widened my eyes and hoped it was interpreted as naivety and interest.
“Because, why would a grown man shorten Martin to Mato? Why would you marry a childish politician? Do not marry a man-child. More than anything, do not marry a man you have to take care of financially.”
It seemed to me her definition of man-child began and ended with finances and a nickname, because so much of marriage is women taking care of men. It is cooking and making a plate for men. It is doing their laundry and ironing their shirts. It is polishing their shoes and fighting the women they cheat with. It is bringing them lunch and warning the secretary if he seems a little flirtatious.
My parents have been in a long-distance marriage for most of my life. My father is often gone for weeks to several months at a time. Growing up, I could never really tell if my father disliked children in general, or if he couldn’t stand us specifically. We all lived in the same house when I was six and seven, and in that time, my sister and I were never allowed to be in the same room with him. When he came home in the evening, my sister, three years younger, and I had to either sit really still in the kitchen so as not to disrupt my mum’s cooking or go outside. We often chose to go outside where I’d sit on a slab in front of our house and watch my sister to make sure she wasn’t picking too many fights. She often would, and I’d work hard to ensure my father didn’t hear about it, mostly by bribing the aggrieved child. I offered to do their homework or teach them to hula hoop, which in our case was a used bicycle tire.
I was afraid of my father. But also, even at seven, I knew that my sister and I misbehaving would not be good for my mother if my father found out. I already knew that mothers were responsible for their children’s failures but never their achievements. I remember my father acknowledging us once that whole year: He happened to catch a game where the Williams sisters were dominating and he became excited about the idea of me and my sister being that good at something. His name is William.
When I was nine, we moved to a small town several hundred kilometers away from all of the many towns where my father worked. He came home a few times a year and even though we were much older and well-behaved, we weren’t allowed to be around him. When we were older, my mother ate with him instead of us. When he eventually went back to work and my mum came back to eat with us, we teased her for getting carried away and forgetting who her actual family was. We were joking. We also meant it.
We’d noticed, and it was a running—albeit sad—joke that my mum tended to betray us when my father was around. At this point, she only cooked when he was home, because why would she cook when she had girls old enough to be married living in her house? But also, married women shouldn’t let other people feed their husbands because then they cheat, and then who will you blame?
We’d disappoint her from time to time by not completing our chores on time, but the typical punishment, if there was any, was a tongue-lashing. Things were much worse when he was home. Her voice got a lot more shrill, she seemed a lot more annoyed by our existence, and every tiny little mistake was exaggerated and disproportionately punished. If she did this every day, there’d be a blow up the night before he left. He’d threaten and slut shame us. We’d sniffle and cry. And she’d sit there looking protected but miserable nonetheless. And then he’d leave, and she’d come back to our table and we’d joke about it.
As I grew older, I got angrier. Anger that was often directed at my mother. Without knowing it, I fell into patriarchal scripts about parental roles. From my father, I expected indifference at best, violence at worst. I didn’t expect to have a healthy relationship with him, so I didn’t hold him accountable for his violence. But from my mother, I expected care and protection. I was yet to understand that men’s violence is layered: If she shielded us from our father’s violence, it could instead fall on her. I also didn’t understand that women don’t always have negotiating power in their marriages, not when it comes to men’s violence. Not even to protect their children.
In her own way, my mother tried to make him do his share. She was snitching, yes. But she was also asking that he be her partner. She was asking that for a few days a year, he share the work of parenting us. Like a lot of men, however, my father didn’t expect to parent beyond threats of violence and his financial contribution to the household. While my mother was crumbling under the weight of single-handedly parenting us, my father was enjoying what he thought was a reasonably successful marriage. My mother grew desperate, my father stayed oblivious. At some point, she accepted the only form of support he could give, which was opening us up to his violence. As far as I could tell, one of the only times my father was on her side was when they were both against us.
I will always be curious, but will never ask, if choosing him over us was a conscious decision. I know that women are conditioned to survive their marriages to men no matter what. Our mothers, too, were given the same lessons that they try to teach us about marriage: The appearance of a good marriage—not a good marriage necessarily—is the ultimate goal. It’s about endurance. And women? Women are nothing if not enduring.
A Kenyan writer of both fiction and non-fiction. For her fiction, she is interested in writing stories that portray Kenyan-ness(and African-ness) in the ordinary, mundane,defining details. For her nonfiction, she particularly writes narrative essays. She also writes about feminism and all its intersections, especially for African women. You can find more f her work at clariesramblings.com