October 29 04 Ghost wives and Lake Baringo

During my last stay in Kenya I wrote about the women who ‘marry’ women in order to provide heirs and carry on the family name. Another interesting custom in the Ukambani area is that of ‘ghost wives.’

A recent article tells of a woman called Mulewa who was married to a husband who died about 30 years ago in early childhood. Mulewa is a ‘ghost wife." And although she never met her ‘husband’ she knows he once lived and continues to live as a spirit. Her mother-in-law told her she was to marry her son and bear children for him. Mulewa has five children, fathered by different men, who all bear her dead husband’s name.

In 1967 C.W .Hobley wrote in "Bantu Beliefs and Magic" : There is a curious custom in Ukambani... If a young unmarried man is killed away from his village, his Imu or spirit will return there and speak to the people through the medium of an old woman in a dance and say: "I am so-and-so speaking, and I want a wife." The youth’s father will then make arrangements to buy a girl from another village and bring her to his, and she will be mentioned as the wife of the deceased, speaking of him by name..."

Nowadays the practice has undergone some refinement and accommodates the spirits of male children who died in infancy. All the bereaved mother has to do is count the years until the dead baby would have reached marriageable age, then she can find him a bride.

Ghost wives are distinguished from those who marry other women. In most cases there must be evidence that the intended ‘ghost wife’ has already produced a son. The continuation of the dead man’s lineage and that of his father is of prime importance. Daughters, even if they remain at home and produce children, are not perceived as continuing the line of their maternal grandfather because kinship in this tribe is patrilineal and the children of daughters would not belong to the same clan as their grandfather. The biological link is unimportant. It is the mystical link in the chain of life which is supreme.

A ghost wife is accorded the privileges of a normal wife and her right of inheritance is protected. She receives what her dead husband would have received from his parents. Parents whose sons have died will have received substantial ‘bride price’ from the marriages of their daughters and can use this money to pay the bride price for the ghost wife.

In addition, changes to the law make it possible for a ghost wife to also claim maintenance from any man who has fathered a child with her. But in reality ghost wives rarely reveal the names of the fathers of their children in order to maintain the fiction that any child belongs to the dead husband.

It is not sexual intercourse that constitutes marriage. Marriage is a social arrangement by which a child is given legitimate position in the society, determined by parenthood in the social sense.


We are well into the short rains and experiencing thunderstorms in late afternoon and cool nights. We have been working hard in the computer school and for teacher workshops. We now have a children’s computer class which is proving very popular and will begin evening classes for adults next week in addition to the day classes.

We opted for a break last weekend and took a trip to Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley about five hours by good road from Kakamega. Baringo is one of the few fresh water lakes and has abundant bird life, except flamingos which live in the alkaline waters of Nakuru, Naivasha and Bogoria.

The tarmacked road is a delight to drive. The former President is from the Rift Valley, so roads tend to be good. On a straight stretch we passed a young man carrying two large Turkana baskets. These are sturdy and tight woven, with lids and designs on the sides. We stopped and spoke to him. He was on his way to market and we bargained a little to buy both. He spoke very little English, so I was able to practice my minimal Kiswahili. With a big smile, he pocketed his money and about turned for home. We found the next town with the market several miles further on, up a steep hill, so he saved himself a long walk. We left one happy salesman and we were certainly pleased with our purchases.

The views along this road as it winds up to about 12,000 feet are stunning. It climbs steeply and then drops down to the Kerio valley, only to rise again. Karbarnet, named for a settler named Barnet, is perched in an idyllic situation on the crest of one of the ridges.

The Lodge at Baringo is set on the edge of the 64 km square lake, which is a yellow brown in color, surrounded by stark, dry hills. It hasn’t rained there for about three months and people were hopefully watching the clouds, but nothing came.

The lake has a lot of catfish, many hippos and crocodiles and magnificent bird life. The hippos come up at night to feed in the grounds of the lodge and we heard them snuffling in the bushes as we returned from dinner. They are dangerous animals and cause many deaths at night when they come out of the water to feed. They apparently can run at about 22 km per hour. We were glad of the watchman’s flashlight warning them to stay back.

In the trees dozens of bright blue ‘starlings’ with red underbellies wait for crumbs from the tables. A white hornbill with an orange beak sits on abranch. There are also vivid yellow birds the size of canaries and a lovely pink and grey dove.

We took a boat trip on the lake and met a fisherman in a coracle made of bent branches, just large enough for him to sit, but with his behind in several inches of water. Paddles are shaped from plastic bottles and used on the flat of each hand. Our guide, Joseph, bought catfish from him to feed the fish eagles farther out in the lake. Joseph is about 19 and works in the village cooperative taking groups out on the lake. He is very knowledgeable about birds and wants to study ornithology. He sat his HS leaving last year and scored very high. But the government cut back on scholarship money and Joseph missed a grant by one mark. In the meantime he is working with tourists and paying back the loans for his high school fees. It’s always very upsetting to meet bright young people with determination and initiative, who could go so far but are caught in a system that puts roadblocks in their way.

Although it hasn’t rained for several months this year, there were torrential rains and floods in the big rains a year or so ago. The road close to Baringo was washed out, with the span over the river completely gone. The tarmac ends as if it had been sliced off with a knife. So vehicles now take a meandering path along the dry river bed.

I will try to put some pictures up on my web site, but it may take me a while. I have to load them one or two at a time because of the slow phone lines.