Friday, 6 August 2010

The Infidelity Hour

You probably know that I hate Nairobi traffic. There is, however, a silver lining to the dark thundercloud of Kenyan gridlock: morning talk radio.

The taxi company that I take to work caters mostly to international community workers, and the drivers are required to pick the same English-heavy channel every morning. The DJ and callers speak mostly in English with a sprinkling of Swahili, so it’s easy to understand.

Between 8:00 and 9:30 am, the discussion is devoted to two topics: public corruption and infidelity. Corruption discussion = boring. But discussions on cheating = hilarious, depressing and revealing, all at the same time.

The show uses the same format every time: the discussion typically kicks off around 8:15 with a story about a man or a woman who was caught cheating, who cheated without getting caught, who caught his or her partner cheating, who knows someone who is a mistress, who suspects they are being cheated on, or who has an interesting anecdote about cheating. After the DJ has explained the story, he asks listeners what they would do if they found themselves in that person’s shoes.

(Actual) examples have included:
1) Story: a married Kenyan woman gave birth to her third child. The child was visibly half Caucasian. Her husband was very upset and at a loss of what to do. Question: what would you do as a man in this situation? Do you leave your wife?
2) Story: a recently married man finds that his girlfriend spends a lot of time out with her girlfriends and doesn’t get home until quite late one or two nights a week. She doesn’t tend to call or text while she’s out. Question to men: do you think it is important to tame your wife once you get married? To women: do you think you need to be tamed?
3) Today’s story: the king of Swaziland (honest!) had his police raid a hotel and found that one of his ministers was sleeping with one of his wives. (Aside: who is dumb enough to sleep with the wife of an absolute monarch?) Question to men: have you ever caught your partner in bed with a close friend? And what did you do? To women: have you ever been caught red-handed?
4) Story: a man tells his mistress that his wife suspects he is being unfaithful. The mistress is worried about her identity being discovered and facing the wrath of the wronged wife. Question to mistresses: have you ever faced the wrath of his wife? To wives: have you ever had to deal with a mistress? Do you do it directly or indirectly through the husband?

The stories are rarely as interesting as the sound bites from the people that call in. There are angry callers and calm ones, mistresses and wives, men and women, people with firsthand accounts and people who answer in hypothetical. The callers are an interesting glimpse into how fidelity is seen in Kenya: publicly condemned, definitely widespread and even accepted as a fact of everyday life.

One of the most surprising things about listening to the Hour of Cheating is how reasonable and un-macho many of the male callers are. In response to today’s story, a number of Kenyan men called in to discuss how they would handle their wife giving birth to a child that was obviously not theirs. One pointed out that it was the husband’s responsibility to keep the family together, no matter what happened, and to be a good father to the child even if it wasn’t biologically his. Another explained that infidelity is painful, but it’s a wound that can be repaired if the woman is willing to amend her ways and not do it again. A third said (correctly, I’d say) that men become extremely angry when they first find out about infidelity but that they calm down in the end. Maybe the callers on this show aren’t representative of the general population, but their responses seemed more understanding and forgiving than I would have expected.

There are some less surprising aspects of unfaithfulness. Infidelity in Kenya, I have gathered, is often a partly financial relationship. Certainly engaging a prostitute is a very common pattern for some men – and is purely transactional. But a typical pattern of long-term infidelity involves a married man having an affair with a younger woman (who may or may not be married herself). We can call this type of relationship the “sugar daddy affair.” This arrangement should be familiar to most readers: the man generally provides the woman with money, entertainment and things; the mistress enters into a kind of medium-term goods-for-services exchange. In many cases, there is an emotional component, but the financial aspect is never too far below the surface. Last week, when a female caller (who claimed to be a mistress) explained that she never received any material things from her lover, the DJ and callers expressed shock at the situation.

According to many of the wives who call in, they often suspect that their husband is being unfaithful without any concrete evidence. But since extramarital affairs have a material component, the struggle between the wife and the mistress is not only a fight over dignity and love, but also over financial resources. As the DJ frequently points out: if you can’t tell exactly how much money your husband is bringing in, how can you be sure that he’s not buying his mistress a car or giving her money for school? For wives and mistresses, it’s a zero-sum game; what the mistress gets, the wife and kids don’t.

Although the discussion about infidelity on the radio is often gossipy and matter-of-fact, the issue of infidelity (especially sugar-daddy affairs) has two major implications from a development standpoint.

First, infidelity, and having multiple partners in general, is a major health risk. In Kenya, infrequent condom usage combined with high STD rates and widespread infidelity is (quite literally) a deadly combination. The problem is the same in other East African countries. Public health workers across East Africa see sexual transmission of major diseases such as HIV as one of their top priorities. Sugar daddy-type affairs often involve older men and younger women, which lead to the intergenerational spread of HIV. As my health-worker friends point out, the intergenerational transmission of HIV/AIDS is one of the main ways that HIV levels remain so high, since younger generations get infected earlier than they would if sexual activity was confined to peers.

Overcoming dangerous sexual practices is hard work. Last summer, Uganda and Rwanda launched “anti-sugar daddy” campaigns: one sign in Kampala showed a young girl in a college uniform making a ‘no’ sign with her hand to an older man in a luxury car. (Oddly enough, the government was gender neutral enough to print “anti-sugar momma” posters: a young man refusing a beer from an older woman in a suit – a somewhat less likely situation). On the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, signs in Swahili said ‘If you truly love her, you’ll protect her,’ with regard to condom usage and affairs. In downtown Dar-es-Salaam, humorous murals reminded passerby that sleeping with teachers and government officials was a dangerous and unhealthy practice for young women.

The second problem relates to savings and investment. One of the phenomena familiar to African development workers is the so-called “girl effect” – the notion that females are much more likely to invest money they receive in health, education of children, basic needs and savings. Men, in general, spend a much larger share of funds on luxury and unnecessary items such as alcohol, women, imported goods and entertainment. This isn’t to say that men are always less wise with their cash, but there is considerable evidence that this tendency holds true overall. Many microfinance institutions and development organizations will only work with women for this reason. When there’s only so much money to go around, they reason, why spend where it won’t have an impact?

How does this relate to infidelity? When infidelity involves a sugar-daddy type relationship (and what mistress wouldn’t at least want to be taken out to dinner?) it siphons funds from the household to another woman, often in the form of luxury goods, clothing or entertainment. Rather than being spent wisely at home on education, healthcare, etc., the money is wasted on items that produce little return on investment. Each trip with the mistress means that one of the children might not be able to attend school that month. Critics of this view might point out that accepting funds from a cheating husband is the only means that some young women can start their own businesses, attend college or university, or support themselves, but such situations are probably uncommon.

It can be a little depressing to hear about all the cheating that’s going on. There’s not much to do except for me to keep listening.


  1. LOVE the image of the coug in the suit trying to buy some young dude a drink. Just say no!

  2. Great post Al. Fun and informative.

  3. Super interesting...I read about intergenerational HIV transfer (and how having concurrent relationships can be more dangerous than men visiting prostitutes in the spread of AIDS) in "The Invisible Cure" and have been interested in public campaigns about curbing extramarital affairs/using protection ever since. Have you heard about the fataki campaign in Tanzania?

    P.S. Still planning on hitting up Kigali at some point??

  4. Steph: it's so for me tough in East Africa. Every day, fighting off women in suits who try to buy me Tuskers. But I stay strong.

    Catherine: the public campaign stuff is pretty fascinating. I never saw Fataki stories in Dar, but I gather it was big in Morogoro region. Pretty amazing stuff! Looks like I'll be in the 250 first week off Sept., btw.