Trial By Impotence

I have been following the debate on Jackline Mwende and Stephen Ngila Thenge with some apprehension. Stephen Ngila was the man accused of chopping off the hands of his wife, Jackline Mwende in spate of rage that shocked the nation in mid-2016. Stephen was charged in court and the case is ongoing.

A week ago, fresh details emerged that pointed an accusing finger at Jackline Mwende, when she announced that she was pregnant with another man’s child. The online tabloids went to town with the story, “She cheated” with good reason, “to save her marriage” and it became a heated topic of discussion on the popular radio breakfast show with Maina and King’ang’i on Classic FM.

A disturbingly large number of male commentators seemed to think that extreme violence is a justified response to infidelity. Stephen was a ‘good guy’ who was provoked and his ex-wife’s recent confession was an unforgivable violation of trust that warranted the brutality she experienced.

A few reached for scripture, to emphasise the severity of the sin of adultery and the damnation that follows anyone who breaks the sanctity of marriage.

The hypocrisy of our society is that men in the same shoes, caught philandering get away with a slap on the wrist. In our patriarchal setup, the man does not lose face for sleeping around. When you talk to women in the spaces where their voices are suppressed, you will often hear the notion that “My man is good as long I do not make him angry”.

So the women are socialised not to rattle the snake lest they get bitten.

There is a dangerous trend of tolerating or justifying gender violence in cases of infidelity. The provoked partner assumes some moral high ground that turns them into judge, jury and executioner.

Adultery is not a criminal offence and sometimes I wish some of that outrage expressed against those caught up in extra-marital affairs would be directed at grand theft suspects.

The big pink elephant in the room is impotency and its importance in framing masculinity. The revelation of male infertility leads to deep shame, guilt, feelings of emasculation and anger that if not managed can deteriorate to a visceral violent act.

In the list of grave wrongs that a man can be subjected to, few things can match up to having another man’s baby behind your husband’s back. Sadly, it happens fairly regularly. How does a man get beyond the righteousness of anger and betrayal?

In a liberal relationship, where a couple is unable to conceive naturally, adoption or a surrogate parent becomes the obvious choice. Even in the traditional African setup, which is the default position in marital disputes, it was common knowledge that a certain level of extra marital discretion was permissible as long as the children born out of an affair were considered the children of the legal father. The biological father was merely a surrogate and who was expected to remain anonymous, a secret taken to the grave, between the mother and the sperm donor.

Therefore infidelity or cheating is merely the consequence of a deeper problem. The problem of male infertility or impotency. Culturally it is viewed as a character damaging slur, to accuse a man of shooting blanks. In cases of childless marriages, the woman is blamed because admittance of impotency is admitting failure in your primary role as a man.

In a world where a man is judged by sexual performance, this level of anxiety can become debilitating.

The good news is that most of the problems around impotency are as treatable as malaria. Health experts have shown that impotency is purely psychological, or physical or organic.

The ignorance around impotency is about as alarming as what we witnessed in the early years of STDs.  Our society needs to start addressing the stigma of impotency in its varying degrees of manifestation in a marriage.  The challenge of sexual intimacy is the norm rather than the exception. People will have conversations about managing finances but on issues related to sex, we prefer to bury our heads in sand holes. Sexual dysfunction is the cause of personal and psychological distress.

Any couple that has been together for a long stretch will experience some level of imbalance in their pursuit of sexual intimacy. Sexual performance as the primary goal of intimacy is tearing couples apart.  But the remedy is not outside the marriage or the relationship and it takes a more concerted effort than pointing an accusing finger at one’s partner.

Impotency is a health issue and not a character flaw. The causes must be understood, diagnosed and treated because they are treatable.

But the conspiracy of silence compounds the problem of impotency. For most couples, it is a catch-22 situation. Lack of cultivated trust in a relationship, leaves partners feeling vulnerable and afraid to talk about their sexual problems. Raising such intimacy concerns creates an atmosphere of stress yet ignoring them is a ticking time bomb that comes to head when one of the partners feels betrayed and snaps. Silence, ignorance and shame, kills intimacy slowly.

In the absence of honest communication and knowledge, anger takes over as compensation, escalated by daily irritations and disagreements that eventually end up in a blow-out. Sexual performance problems are changeable and treatable.

Understanding the nature of the problem is the first step to acceptance and only with acceptance, can a man find recovery.




Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan writer, curator and editor. This blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan and African life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. I think one of the biggest issues is that we do not talk about it. Somehow, this is something that is just supposed to work on it own. If it does not work, blame everything else – the food, stress at work, the woman has lost shape, the opposition(:-)), global warming – anything but facing the real issue. Even the mere mention of a problem lowers esteem to new levels, makes a man a laughing stock, the butt of jokes. This make it even more difficult for someone to seek help.

    There is also the fact that we are socialized to not discuss sex and related matters – often seen as a taboo topic, something embarrassing, to be kept quiet and private at all times. You wrote an article here about young people learning about sex from not very reliable sources because parents were not really talking about it. How easy then would it be to open up about a problem in this area?

    As you say, if we are more open and talk about sex etc, it would do a world of good, probably even resolve some of the related issues.

  2. Gregory Mabele

    “Adultery is not a criminal offence” – I wish it were. In this era of HIV/AIDS I would certainly NOT appreciate it if my wife went receiving another man’s “oats” all in the name of trying to save our marriage. It is my belief that marriages that break were already built on quicksand from the get-go. People want to sweep important matters under the carpet during courtship and then when the proverbial garbage hits the fan, they go mad and slaughter one another. It is the height of hypocrisy on both partners!!!

    Don’t get me wrong, Oyunga, I am not trying to justify what that guy did, but I see the red he was seeing…albeit from a distance. In couples counselling, most couples are advised to keep their partners’ faults between them and not to go broadcasting them to the outside world because the narrative then gets a life of its own – as a result, egos suffer, third parties encroach in the marriage and BOOM! Iko shida. What Mwende did was unforgivable, but I wish I were their neighbour/friend – I would have advised him to simply walk away…he should face the consequences of his acting under the influence of ego. I have said my own.

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