NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ Tabitha Murungu counsels Kenya’s lonely and lovesick in an advice column, and recently started the only singles group in Nairobi.
But Murungu says she’s no matchmaker. Fixing people up isn’t easy in this East African nation, where people don’t feel comfortable talking about being alone _ especially on Valentine’s Day.
“Everyone is expected to get married,″ Murungu said. “It is like people look at you as if you are incomplete, if you are not married.″
Murungu says her singles group was inspired by the weekly crush of letters she receives from single people responding to her counseling column, “Ask me anything,″ in the Sunday Standard newspaper.
“It hurts when you see people suffering, and you cannot do something,″ she said in an interview this week.
In Kenya, single women aged 30 to 35 and unmarried men over 37 are considered “over the hill,″ said Murungu. Traditionally, people lived in communities where they knew each other and arranged marriages were customary. “Because of urban migration and Western education, people grow up without knowing each other intimately,″ said Edward Ontita, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Nairobi. “This idea of people coming together like it used to be in the village dances, festivals and communal works _ which also acted as marriage supermarkets _ is as old as man.″
By getting together, singles are trying to put forward the idea in Kenyan culture that “singlehood″ is legitimate and that it’s possible to be both unmarried and happy, he said. Sociologists, meanwhile, say it is time to redefine the family.
“Traditionally, it is seen as mother, father and children,″ Ontita said, “I think we need to refine the family to include single mothers or fathers in our modern days.″ Murungu started her singles program last year with an attempt at matchmaking, but she soon realized it wasn’t working.
“People are not machines. You cannot fit them together,″ she said.
Yet singles enjoy getting together in the Kenyan capital. A recent singles soiree Murungu arranged at a Nairobi hotel drew at least 30 people _ not much by Western standards, but a success in a culture where singles often go it alone.
“It is good for us to socialize,″ said Judy Ntibuka, 40, at the dinner. “People mistake us, as if, if you’re single, you’re an outcast.″
“I came to meet other singles. I just wanted to hear their views,″ said a 39-year-old divorced businesswoman who gave her name only as Irene. “I am single and satisfied. I would never want a man in my house.″
In what amounts to a low-key, laid-back dating service, Murungu maintains two registers _ one for men, the other for women _ where singles looking for a spouse can give their personal details and browse through others’ entries. “If one gets a person with details he or she likes, our job is to connect them up,″ she said.
Though Murungu, 37, is a married mother of three, she says her program isn’t necessarily geared towards marriage.
But “if it does happen, that is our joy,″ she said. “We are forming relationships not just between men and women, but also (friendships) between women and women, and men and men.″
Though Valentine’s Day, a foreign import, has become a commercial success in Kenya, don’t look for Murungu to play Cupid and throw a singles party this weekend.
“I don’t like the idea of people going out giving roses to strangers,″ she said. “It makes no sense.″