Same-sex marriages are illegal in Tanzania. But in one remote part of the country, older women and widows are driven into marrying younger women, for extraordinary reasons –including procreation. But sex is not one of them. This is a dumbfounding tale of steep patriarchy that should have no room in 2018
Report by Monika Rębała. Photos by Myriam Meloni (In Tarime, Tanzania)
Twenty-five-year-old Rehema has just finished washing clothes. Shirts and dresses lie on dried grass as nearby two goats and a couple of hens walk around pecking the ground. During the dry season, when it doesn’t rain for days on end, Nyamerambaro, a village outside Tarime in the northwest of Tanzania, with 34,000 inhabitants, is turning into a steppe, and today Rehema sits inside her small stone house to escape the heat.
A few feet from the house is a smouldering hearth where Rehema is going to prepare dinner.
“I do what every wife does,” she says while trying to breastfeed her crying daughter. “I get up in the morning, I cook porridge, wash clothes, work in the field, and look after the children.”
Her wife is 81-year-old Veronica Nyagonchera, sitting down on a plastic chair in front of the house trying to calm the little girl. “There are lots of marriages like ours here,” she says, standing up to tie a traditional green kanga around her waist.
Veronica and Rehema have been married for 11 years and are raising three children together.
According to a local tradition called nyumba ntobhu, an older woman can marry a younger one, a custom practised by the Kurya people – a population of roughly 700,000 spread around Lake Victoria.
“Women have no other choice,” says Dinna Maningo, a reporter for Mwananchi, a newspaper based in Tarime. “Customary law prohibits wives from inheriting any possessions, including those left by a deceased husband. When a widow has no sons, their husband’s male relatives have the right to divide what is left among themselves. To stay in their houses and keep theirs and their late husband’s land, many are forced to marry another woman, in the hope that the woman will bear a male child to inherit the property,” she explains.
While same-sex marriages are illegal in Tanzania, nyumba ntobhu is not a homosexual relationship, because although the women live together and bear children together (conceived with an outsider male), they do not have sex. Both traditional and government authorities tolerate the practice.
According to the tradition, a young woman should have only one man, , who is chosen for her by the older woman’s clan.
“It is quite ordinary here that women have wives,” says 52-year-old Boniface Meremo, a stout and confident man, who is the leader of Nyamerambaro village. “This tradition has existed for generations. For every member of the Kurya tribe, the endurance of the bloodline is the most important thing. What should a widow do when she does not have sons, and people point a finger at her?”
Wives and cows
Veronica spent most of her married life to her late husband trying to conceive a son, but only bore daughters. After his death, she married Mugosi Isombe, a 20-year-old woman in the hope she would bear her an heir, but she also gave birth to girls.
In 2005, at the age of 70, Veronica married a second wife, Rehema, who was only 14 years old on the day she got married.
“I saw her for the first time in the centre of the village, and I started asking other people who she was,” says Veronica. “When I found out where she lived, I approached her parents and asked them directly whether they were willing to give their daughter to me. They told me they had nothing against it, and the only thing they wanted in exchange was a traditional payment for the bride.”
Rehema did not oppose this arrangement either: “I was very young, but I replied promptly that I agreed. My mother had died when I was little, and my father had remarried. I was afraid that if I had said no, they would have treated me badly,” she explains.
The deal was struck. “They wanted eight cows, but in the end they agreed to take six,” Rehema adds.
When you consider that Rehema was a young and healthy woman, this price does not seem too steep. Today an average price for a wife is between 10 and 20 cows (one cow costs about 500,000 Tanzanian shillings, which is around 200 euros). The same price list is used when it comes to male-female marriages.
The journalist Dinna explains the reasons why parents agree to give their daughters to older women.
“First of all, they do it to get out of poverty and to earn money. It is also an excellent way out of a difficult situation, when an unmarried girl gets pregnant and when no man would take her for a wife, or it would be difficult to get a good price for her,” she says.
Young women usually have nothing to say about their future. They are asked for their approval, but they rarely refuse.
“I couldn’t protest, because my father would send me and my mother away,” says 37-year-old Margaret Juma, who has for the past 15 years been married to Emily Joseph Mwita, a woman 35 years her senior. They have three children together: Joseph, who is 10, seven-year-old Eweline, and Miriam, three.
They are the only female married couple in their small village – Kesaka, near Tarime.
Emily and Margaret have a harmonious marriage, working, cooking and raising the kids.
“I would never have thought of marrying a woman,” comments Emily. “I got married to a soldier in 1965. Shortly after that he was sent to an army unit stationed far away from home. I waited for him for many years, but he never came back or made any signs that he was alive. We didn’t have any children. Getting married to a woman was the only solution for me, otherwise my property would have been taken away, and I would have had to work for neighbours.” She paid 15 cows for Margaret.
“It was a bit strange at first, but soon I got used to the situation. Only sometimes did I wonder what it would have felt like to have a husband, like my sisters,” says Margaret, who is wearing a Western-style striped blouse and a floral patterned kanga.
“I have a man who lives in our village. He has his own family, and he sometimes visits our children,” she adds.
According to the tradition, a young woman should have only one man, , who is chosen for her by the older woman’s clan.
“However, with time, women became more independent. Some of them decide whom they want to sleep with, and have children with one or a couple of partners. A lot depends on the position of the older woman and her relationship with the clan,” explains Dinna.
Rehema was not allowed to choose a man. For many years, she has had to sleep with the one who was chosen by Veronica’s relatives. This is 45-year-old Chacha Nyanswi, who gives me a suspicious look. When I talk to Rehema, he is always near and is listening attentively. He lives nearby. He has a wife and four children, and his wife is expecting their fifth. “Isn’t your wife jealous?” I ask him.
“She knew from the beginning that I was chosen by the clan, so how can she be jealous? Besides, every time I spend the night with Rehema, I tell my wife about it. Women in our tribe know that a man can take another wife at any time. This is our tradition,” he explains.
Although he is not married to Rehema, this relationship is as important to him as his marriage. “If she is sleeping with another man, he will be considered as a thief,” he stresses. Rehema has attempted to leave him several times, but he always refuses. “I don’t know, maybe I’m that good in bed,” she smiles for the first time when we are talking. “I need someone independent to take care of us. He has his own family and so it happens sometimes that he doesn’t bring us money. And when the children are sick, we need to sell something to pay for doctors. Whatever he earns must be divided between two families. Am I jealous of his wife? We know each other and we live in peace most of the time, but there are some arguments of course, mainly about money,” she says.
Chacha admits that he barely makes ends meet, and according to the tradition, he has no obligation to take care of the mother and children from a nyumba ntobhu marriage. However, Chacha wants to help. “I love my wife, but I also love Rehema, and all my children the same way. If I had more money, I would find another woman and have more offspring with her,” he says.
The number of children in a family indicates how wealthy it is. However, men have no rights when it comes to children born in nyumba ntobhu marriages. The children take the surname of the older woman and they belong to her. The wives also sign an agreement with a future or prospective father, that when the younger wife gets pregnant by him, the man is paid off and loses all rights and any claim to the children.
Although some men, especially the younger generation, are increasingly opposing nyumba ntobhu, many young women who have grown up seeing their own mothers endure frightening domestic abuse by their husbands prefer this alternative to marriage. Many refuse to marry local men for the fear of the routine beating of many wives by their husbands.
The Kurya region has the highest rate of domestic violence in Tanzania. According to a report published in 2011 by the Ministry of Health, 72% of women aged 15-49 were victims of physical violence, while nationwide the percentage was 44.
For the past three years, Paulina Mukosa, who is 21 years old, has been in a same-sex marriage with Mugosi Isombe, who just happens to be Veronica Nyagonchera’s first wife. As a child, Pauline not only witnessed her father abuse her mother, but also grew up seeing her female neighbours suffer the same fate at the hands of their fathers, husbands and brothers.
Mugosi allowed Pauline to choose a man with whom she wanted to have children with for both of them.
Customary law prohibits wives from inheriting any possessions, including those left by a deceased husband. When a widow has no sons, their husband’s male relatives have the right to divide what is left among themselves. To stay in their houses and keep theirs and their late husband’s land, many are forced to marry another woman, in the hope that the woman will bear a male child to inherit the property
“Men can’t beat women who are in a nyumba ntobhu relationship, because they don’t belong to them,” explains the village leader, Boniface.
But sometimes nyumba ntobhu marriages also turn out to be a nightmare. “Such marriages are not free of domestic abuse. Older, as well as younger women can be the oppressors too,” says Dinna.
And according to the Tanzania Media Women’s Association (Tamwa), as many as one in five girls marrying older women is less than 18 years old. A local newspaper, The Citizen, once published a story about an eight-year-old girl who was sold to an older woman for six cows. The older woman forced her young bride to be a prostitute.
And then there are the dangers of HIV/Aids, of which local authorities attribute the rise to the nyumba ntobhu tradition, as women in such relationships are sometimes made to sleep with a number of different men and spread diseases. Nevertheless, the HIV epidemic itself has contributed to the rise of the popularity of nyumba ntobhu marriages.
For 47-year-old Robi, a female marriage was the only guarantee that she would have someone to look after her in her old age. Her husband died 20 years ago. She gave birth to three children, but they all died too. When she was young, she was bitten by a snake, and she had to have part of her right leg amputated. As she is getting older, it is increasingly difficult for her to walk and work. That’s why she decided to find a wife. She married 22-year-old Boke Chacha a year ago.
“We lived in the same village, I’ve known her since she was a child, I watched her growing up, and she’s like a daughter to me. Her father agreed to this marriage because he understands I’m in a difficult position,” says Robi.
Boke, a petite, big-eyed girl, agrees. “I sympathised with ‘mum’ Robi, I didn’t want her to be alone,” she says.
The couple rent two small rooms in Tarime. They moved to the city because Robi is a seamstress and most of her clients live there. She is happy at last, as she now has a family and is almost never apart from her one-year-old daughter.
“We are still waiting for a son, who will inherit the small property we have,” she adds.