‘Nyumba Ntobhu’ in Tanzania: A marriage of convenience.
In many African countries, if women become widows and they don’t have any male descendants, they risk losing everything they own in favor of another man from their husband’s family, even if they’ve never met before.
This issue is especially relevant when it comes to land ownership in countries like Tanzania, where agriculture is still the basis of the economy and essential for people’s survival.
In Tanzania, women represent 51 percent of the agricultural workforce, yet only 19 percent of them are land owners. An increasing number of women of the Kuria tribe, in northern Tanzania, are resorting to a tribal tradition callednyumba ntobhu.
Nyumba ntobhu (meaning “house without a man/house of women“) is a traditional form of non-sexual same-sex union among Kuira women of the Mara Region of Tanzania; the partnerships are formed between older, usually widowed women without male descendants and younger, childless women, known as mokamööna (daughters in-law).
As part of the relationship, the younger mokamööna bears a child from an external male partner. The elder woman serves as a grandmother to the resulting child, thus securing her with an heir and ensuring the continuation of her lineage.
Nyumba ntobhu marriages, like traditional Kuira marriages, are secured through the payment of a bride price in the form of cattle; in the case of nyumba ntobhu relationships, the bride price is provided by the older woman to the family of the younger partner.
Among the Kuira, nyumba ntobhu couples make up an estimated 10 to 15 percent of households.
Nyumba ntobhu relationships have become increasingly common within recent years. Many younger Kuira women enter the relationships as a means of gaining increased agency in choosing their sexual partners and avoiding domestic abuse and female genital mutilation.
According to Dinna Maningo, a Kurya reporter with leading Tanzanian newspaper Mwananchi, nyumba ntobhu is an alternative family structure that has existed for many years. “Nobody knows when it started,” she says, “but its main purpose is to enable widows to keep their property.”
By Kurya tribal law, only men can inherit property, but under nyumba ntobhu, if a woman without sons is widowed or her husband leaves her, she is allowed to marry a younger woman who can take a male lover and give birth to heirs on her behalf. The custom is very different from same-sex marriages in the West, Dinna adds, because homosexuality is strictly forbidden. “Most Kurya people don’t even know gay sex exists in other parts of the world,” she says. “Especially between women.”
It’s not uncommon for women to be prohibited from inheriting property in Tanzania. Initially, the culture of women marrying women was practised as an option for barren women. It enabled them to claim the children borne by the other woman as their own. This was a way of providing security for their old age.
But now it’s not only for those unable to have children. Some women choose not to marry a man because they say they want to avoid domestic violence.
These same-sex marriages in northern Tanzania are unique in many ways: they are not of sexual nature—even though the couple lives together—and they allow women not only to keep their property, but also to feel more empowered in their relationships with men, as well as safer —in northern Tanzania, over 80% of women have experienced domestic violence by their husbands, the highest figure in the country.
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. It is said that 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 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”.
In some cases, nyumba ntobhu can be a polygamous marriage. The older woman will marry two younger women, who will both bear her children.
But nyumba ntobhu does not always save women from domestic violence. Take the case of Jesca Peter (25). She experienced domestic violence and humiliation even from her nyumba ntobhu husband.
“I was married to Nyambura, a 63-year-old woman. She had paid a dowry of six cattle and I moved into her compound. Within a few years of that marriage, Nyambura demanded that I have to look for my own food,” she says.
She says her union with Nyambura was unhappy and she was used “as a slave to just work and produce on her farm and look after her cattle”.
“She wanted children from me, which I bore her, but the relationship was unfriendly. “We lived like a cat and dog. I was simply a slave for her,” says Peter. She fled from the marriage and her parents had to return the cattle paid as a dowry.
Tanzania’s Minister of Information and Culture Fenela Mukandara says gender violence is prevalent in the Mara region, which is why nyumba ntobhu is becoming more common. “When women decide to marry each other and live by themselves, it means there are extremely violent acts in that place.”