Historians say that among the Kamba (also Akamba) people of Eastern Kenya, there were widowed wives, as there are anywhere else. Except, these women had never seen their husbands.
The Kamba people of the Bantu ethnic tribe live in the semi-arid land called Ukambani, encompassing modern-day communities of Makueni County, Kitui County and Machakos County in Kenya.
According to Dr. Paul M. Kyalo, a sociologist at Kenyatta University, it was a traditional custom for women to marry men who had long passed.
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According to research he cites in his paper, the purpose of ghost marriages was to preserve the chain of life. “If a son dies before he has married, the parents arrange for him to be married in absentia; so that the dead man is not cut off from the chain of life which is supreme and most important,” he explains.
Historians say this type of traditional union in Kikamba was called Kuungamia Isyitwa (literal translation: preserve the name of the dead man). Marriage was a must and every adult and normal ‘mukamba’ (male) had to marry as a sign of personal importance. It is believed that every mukamba wife had a spirit husband whose job was to make sure that she conceived. In the case of ghost marriages, the dead man was the spirit husband to the woman.
So what was the process for securing a wife for a dead man? “The parents of the dead man looked for a girl, proposed to the girl’s family, and if they accepted, paid the bride’s gifts and took the bride home to her ghost husband. The family of the dead son took care of the girl and looked for a genitor for her. The children born of this union assume the dead man’s name,” Kyalo explains.
Some cases were more cunning: “An aunt was sent to seduce a girl on behalf of the dead boy who they want to remember. She had to land a cute woman who would marry a dead man who she has never set an eye on but is made to believe exists. The normal procedure of paying dowry is respected and a sperm donor is secretly hired to have children with the woman. The children belong to the dead boy.”
Some say the tradition is no longer practised but there exist widowed wives who were married to dead men. See a snippet of one woman’s story from AllAfrica in 2014 below:
Nairobi — Mulewa Muthiani goes about her business just like any other widowed woman in her village in Ukambani. But there is one difference between her and “normal” widows – Mulewa never met her husband. In fact, she was married to him after he died, about 30 years ago.
Mulewa is what is referred to in Ukambani as a ghost wife. And while she never set eyes on Muthiani, her husband, she knows for a fact that he once lived, and even if now long dead, he continues to live as a spirit. This she knows because when she was being married, her mother in-law, Muthoni – who died in 1992 – told her that she was being married to bear children for Muthoni’s son, Muthiani, who died in early childhood. Yes, she has children – five in fact – who were fathered by different men and who bear her dead husband’s name.