The wrath of barrenness in Kamba culture

Peter Mulwa, a Kamba cultural elder

Peter Mulwa, a Kamba cultural elder

The wrath of barrenness in Kamba culture

By Lilian Kaivilu

Peter Mulwa, a 54-year-old Kamba elder says barrenness was highly detested in the traditional Kamba culture. “Although today we believe that childlessness is a plan of God, this was not the case with our fathers. They believed that it was caused by women taking in hot ghee,” explains Mulwa.

Further, the women were taken to traditional healers who would perform rituals to enable conception. The barren women would be given a chain and some chicken eggs to apply around their waist.

Peter Mulwa, a Kamba cultural elder
Peter Mulwa, a Kamba cultural elder

Mulwa says that women who do not bear children or those who do not get sons specifically are allowed by the culture to get the services of surrogate mothers. But unlike the commercial arrangements of surrogacy, surrogate mothers in the Kamba culture require women to literally marry young women as their wives, with the sole aim of getting children on their behalf. The child bears the surname of the ‘woman-husband’.

Mulwa, however, explains that for a woman to marry a surrogate mother, the former must ensure that the surrogate is not from her clan of the husband’s clan. “It is a normal marriage where the parties pay dowry. This marriage is recognised by the Kamba traditions,” he explains. But if the surrogate turns to be barren, the dowry is non-refundable. Mulwa emphasises that a surrogate should not have been married before.


In the Kamba culture, a surrogate mother is used solely for getting children to a barren woman or one who does not have sons. Kamilu* knows this too well. “I regret ever being married as a surrogate. I feel that I was married here purely for the sake of giving this woman children. Just because she was wealthy and able to afford dowry,” says a frustrated Kamilu*, now a mother of eight. “I feel like I wasted my prime years. But the decision on whom to marry lay with my parents,” she remembers.

She, however, explains that as a surrogate, the woman chooses who to bear children with. Asked whether such an arrangement sets up women for multiple sex partners, Kamilu quickly agrees. “Out of my eight children, only three are from the same man. And the woman who has married me has no idea of any of these men,” she reveals.

Mumbe Mumbi, a mother of nine shares in Kamilu’s frustrations. According to the Kenya Reproductive Health Care Bill, 2014, A surrogate parenthood agreement is valid if, among other requirements, it is in writing and is signed by all the parties thereto.

Mumbe Mumbi was married as a surrogate mother when she was still a teenager. She says the practice should be abolished.
Mumbe Mumbi was married as a surrogate mother when she was still a teenager. She says the practice should be abolished.

But Mumbi painfully remembers the naivety with which she entered the surrogacy setup in 1975. “I was very young. I had no idea what marriage was all about. The woman who would later become my ‘husband’ just came to my late parents’ home and said that she wanted me. I had no choice,” she narrates.

At the time, Mumbi was unaware of requirements and duties of a Kaweto. “I did not even know whether I was supposed to act like a wife or a daughter since the woman was way older than me.” The now mother of nine would later learn that she was to married in that particular home solely to bear children for her ‘husband’ Mumbi. The woman Mumbi was married to, did not have any children after her first twins, born blind, died shortly after birth.

After three years of miscarriages, Mumbi got her first child in 1978. In the Kamba culture, a surrogate mother, popularly known as Kaweto, is expected to sire children with a man of her choice.

Legally, the Kenyan law requires the consent of the husband in instances where a woman wants to procure the services of a surrogate mother. “Where the surrogate mother is married or involved in a permanent relationship, the agreement shall not be valid unless her husband or partner has given his written consent to the agreement and has become a party to the agreement,” reads the Kenya Reproductive Health Care Bill, 2014.

Peter Mulwa, a Kamba cultural elder
Peter Mulwa, a Kamba cultural elder

But Peter Mulwa, a Kamba cultural elder insists that in the Kamba culture, there are no written agreements in such marriages. “Just like any other customary marriage in the Kamba culture, a woman who does not have children, or one who has only daughters and wishes to have sons, can formally marry another woman to bear her children,” says Mulwa. Such a marriage, he argues, does not require any written agreement other than the basic dowry payment.

Quick facts about Kamba cultural surrogacy

  • The dowry for a surrogate mother is paid just like the normal customary marriage
  • Unlike in the requirements by the Kenyan law, there is no written agreement in a surrogacy marriage in the Kamba culture
  • Kamba customary laws allow for surrogacy, popularly known as Kaweto
  • Surrogacy is mostly practiced by barren women or women who desire to have sons and are past the child-bearing age
  • In Kaweto setting, the surrogate mother chooses who to sire children with. She is, however, expected to keep a father-daughter relationship with the husband to the woman she is siring children for
  • If a woman marries a surrogate and she does not bear children, the culture expects her to keep the surrogate as her own child
  • Children born of a surrogate mother bear the surname of the woman who married her (the surrogate)




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