By Ogova Ondego
Published August 20, 2017
Kadenge lived with Gakii in Nairobi for five years before they were married. Eight years later and with two children to show for it, they separated.
Describing marriage as a bit of paper and lots of nonsense, the 35-year-old Gakii, now cohabiting with Mutiso, says she never believed in marriage and that she went along with Kadenge to please his relatives and friends.
“Living together without strings attached was all I wanted,” she says. “It was great living together without the responsibilities of caring for children. Each one of us was free to go wherever we wanted without having to account to anyone where we were and with whom.”
Gathoni, a single woman who says she approves of cohabitation says it is a good arrangement as it does not tie one to someone else ‘for better or for worse’.
“Even as you live together you have the freedom to continue searching for another partner,” she says. “Living together enables couples to understand each other better and, I daresay, come-we-stay is better than getting battered in a marriage.
Gathoni declines to comment on why she herself is neither married nor living with a man although she has a child.
Described in Kenya as Nairobi marriages, ‘come-we-stay’, ‘living together’, ‘living-in-sin’ or ‘cohabitation’ is considered an alternative to marriage.
“The fact that I have taken my bride to neither church, registrar of marriages nor elders does not make my marriage any less a union than yours just because you wear a ring and have a paper stating that you are married,” says Indimuli who has been ‘cohabiting’ with a woman for 10 years.
Self-styled moralists, like Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi’s President, view people like Indimuli as undermining family values and morality.
Nkurunziza, whose insistence on a controversial third term as President has thrown the central African country into socio-political instability, has directed that all cohabiting couples must formalise their union by the end of 2017 or face yet-to-be-determined legal consequences. But apart from seeking to ‘moralise’ Burundi, there appears to be no incentives—for instance education, medical or other socio-economic support for children—for couples ‘living-in-sin’ to come forward.
But why do people opt for cohabitation instead of just getting married in a society that frowns on ‘come-we-stay’ relationships?
The late Emmy Gichinga, a clinical psychologist had explained that opposition to one’s choice of a mate by parents is one of the factors leading Kenyans to cohabit.
“Others, especially women, choose to cohabit in the hope that their partners will come to like and eventually get committed to them in matrimony. While some are usually desperate to get married as time is running out, others want to avoid pressure from relatives and friends,” she explained. “Still others will have conceived out of wedlock and are uncomfortable with their status as unmarried mothers. To avoid the stigma of their children being born without a father, they move in with the father-to-be.”
One’s economic status may tempt one into living with another person without getting married as they can’t afford the cost of dowry and other wedding arrangements which go together with African Customary, Western, Hindu, Islamic or types of marriage.
To avoid legal complications, experts advise couples against living together.
“There is something wrong with people who insist on cohabiting. If you refuse to formalise the union and stay footloose, who else are you going out with besides your current partner?” Gichinga posed.
The fear of commitment in marriage, the desire for free and unemotional sexual relationship, abuse and violence in marriage, and the fear of divorce could be some of the factors driving Kenyans into living together without getting married. There is also a shift in values as better ‘educated’ people challenge the traditional sexual norms, taboos and morality.
The reason for ‘living in sin’ in urban Africa is mainly ‘economic’.
In Nairobi—as in many other cities across black Africa—the high cost of living is causing people to have relationships of convenience–living together as they wait for conditions to improve for them to move on; those in gainful employment pool their resources to make ends meet while the unemployed live with a working partner who provides for their needs. A woman in Zambia once confessed she lived with a man merely because he provided for her economically; that she didn’t love the man!
Some people cohabit as a form of courtship as they plan to marry as, one man said, “We have to eat and dress as we study our potential partners!”
A woman in Lagos said that a woman may be emotionally involved with a man but may not be ready for marriage yet. As such, she said, cohabitation provides her with the means to live with the man on her own terms–emotional satisfaction.
“What difference does it make whether one is married? There are some cohabiting couples who are happier and more satisfied than those who had a church wedding. All I need is a wife and it matters not how I get her,” Chaku of Lilongwe in Malawi said.
Living together is a tempting arrangement for people who have seen lots of unhappy marriages or acrimonious divorces following grand and lavish fairy-tale-like weddings. Living together, they say, will enable them to know each other better before committing themselves to each other for life. If they find they are not suited to live with each other, they can part without the heartache of divorce.
While research done by the US National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, people who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce as living together erodes people’s ability to commit themselves to the institution of marriage, some behavioural scientists contend that living together is healthy as it helps root out poor relationships that would otherwise have become unhappy marriages.