In Musoma region in Tanzania, a woman who has wealth (measured in cattle) but no husband or son who can look after her as she grows old, can take one or several young women as wives. Such a family is called “nyumba ntobhu”.
The practice is prevalent in western Tanzania. It is a traditional form of same-sex marriage. The two women share a bed as a couple, they live together, bear children in their union; they do everything a married couple would, except have sex.
In the Mara region, nyumba ntobhu allows older women to marry younger women in order to have children of their own and assist with the household chores. Women say nyumba ntobhu also helps them overcome problems of gender-based domestic violence.
It is also an alternative family structure for older women who do not have sons to inherit their property and whose daughters have moved away to their husbands’ villages. It offers a form of security for elderly women so they do not live on their own.
Mtongori Chacha (57), who is married to a woman, Gati Buraya (31), says the traditional practice arose as a result of male violence against women.
Chacha and Buraya have three children. Chacha says she decided to marry Buraya because she was unable to have children in her previous marriage to a man, who she says physically abused and tortured her.
To bear children, women who are married under nyumba ntobhu usually hire a man and pay him when the younger woman falls pregnant.
The hired man will also enter into an agreement with both women that he will not demand paternal rights to any children born out of the agreement.
The older woman is the guardian of the children and they usually take her surname.
Chacha says the man who impregnates the younger woman is paid with food or a goat.
In some rare cases, a man may return to claim a child, but Chacha says this can be avoided by choosing a man who is not known in the village or who is known to be irresponsible. These men are known as “street men”.
“I decided to run away from my marriage as I was humiliated and sometimes beaten nearly dead. At 45 I was not able to have children and I had to look for a new family to give me an heir to my property,” Chacha says while she feeds two of her children.
She says she could not accept the fact that she would die without children of her own. Her parents were rich and had many cattle so she chose to marry another woman who would give her children.
There are many faces to this kind of marriage especially in an area where early and forced marriages are prevalent and there are cases where poverty and greed have made minor girls victims.
THE ‘MARRIAGE’ CONTRACT
In this tribe an elderly woman without children will pay a bride price to the parents of a girl in order for a ‘marriage’ to take place between them. Under this kind of ‘marriage’ arrangement the girl is then said to be an ‘mkamwana’, meaning daughter in law, of the sonless woman. After a nyumba ntobhu marriage has taken place, the elder woman allocates a man, usually from her clan, to the ‘bride’ and children born of this relationship will belong to her. The children are referred to as the ‘grand children’ of the elderly woman and it is believed that nyumba ntobhu marriage brings social security to the elderly women in patriarchal Wakurya society. The marriages are contracted in a customary rite and wedding ceremonies and are sometimes very flamboyant with the childless woman paying the cost incurred for the ceremony.
Arranged marriages are part of the culture of Wakurya, the tribe is also unfortunately known to be notorious for wife beating. In a nyumba ntobhu marriage the ‘wife’ is used by the old woman for production and reproduction. She perform duties such as rearing cattle, milking cows, cleaning, growing food crops and harvesting crops.
Bertha Johannes, now 14, was only eight when she was forced to get married to an old woman who lives in Rorya District.
In the Kurya tribe, a woman can marry a girl to bear her children.
Narrating her story, Bertha, who completed Standard Seven in September 2013 at Mkiringo Primary School in Butiama District, says that she was forced to get married by her mother after the death of her father.
She says that her father died in 2006, leaving behind her mother and three other children. Then life became so difficult that they couldn’t afford their daily meals.
In 2008, her mother told her that she would be going to live with an old woman named Ghati Marwa in Rorya District.
“I didn’t know why my mother decided to send me away from my siblings,” says the teenager.
Bertha says that when she asked her mother what her decision meant, the answer was simple; the mother wanted to get cows from Ghati; which she badly needed to raise her children.
“I didn’t know that I was going to be someone’s wife; and the bad thing was that I was too young to get married no matter who I was to marry,” she narrated with tears in her eyes.
And when she finally arrived at Ghati’s home, the old woman told her that she was a married woman. She was thus supposed to obey her as her husband.
Bertha says that she experienced difficulties during her stay with the woman.
“Life was miserable, as most of the time Ghati was bringing home
different men of different ages to sleep with me,” she narrated.
Bertha says that the men would spend nights with her leaving her with little money that was to be surrendered to the old woman. Refusing to sleep with them was followed by a punishment.
“She brought different kinds of men of different ages to sleep with me, so that she could get money…due to my age, it was difficult to do that, so she would beat me up and chase me away,” she said adding; “Since I had nowhere to go, I would come back the following day.”
According to her, the situation continued for two years until her mother came to rescue her.
“She took me back home in 2010 after the intervention of Umati [a
Tanzanian family planning agency],” she narrated.
Her mother, Nyambura Johannes, 42, says that she decided to force her daughter into an early marriage due to the hardships she faced in raising her family after the death of her husband in 2006.
She said that she thought the option would help her address her
financial problems. Bertha’s mother said Ghati gave her four cows as dowry, but the cattle only increased her problems.
She said that she realised that her daughter was also facing
difficulties when she first visited her at her home. However, she had no means to rescue her until 2010 when the Umati team visited her village and decided to intervene and rescue her daughter.
FAR FROM LESBIAN MARRIAGE
Though nyumba ntobhu, is translated as ‘woman marrying woman’, it is quite different from Western lesbianism, which together with gay marriage, have been hotly debated in Africa.
A Canadian visitor to the region was surprised to learn it was not all it was made out to be by advocates of same sex marriage.
“I expected to see a young beauty romancing with an older woman the way it is done in the West, but what I have seen here is quite different from what I thought,” Canadian Steve Mulligan told The Citizen on Sunday Newspaper in remote Hekwe, one of the villages that widely observes same-sex marriage in Serengeti District.
Mr Mulligan said he couldn’t believe his ears when he found that same-sex marriage was not about romance and sex, rather an overwhelming need for children, especially boys, sought to inherit family properties and other businesses.