In Tanzania, a Different Kind of Same-Sex Marriage

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Sept. 4 2013 11:17 AM

In Tanzania, a Different Kind of Same-Sex Marriage

Wives in Tarime, Tanzania
A picture taken on June 29, 2010, shows Munge Gati, 62, sitting at her compound with wife, Masero Gati, 20, and their children at a village in Tarime, Tanzania. While much of Africa outlaws same-sex unions, elderly women of a small northern Tanzania tribe, the Kuria, marry younger women to bear them children and provide domestic care for them thanks to an age-old tradition.

Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

Over the last few years, reading feature stories about marriage equality has been an enlightening experience for gay and lesbian Americans. Some journalists have approached the “news” like anthropologists discovering remote tribes. Who knew that people of the same sex can live together, sleep together, raise children together, and promise to stay together, just like two people of different genders!

I had a better understanding of how those straight reporters felt, though, when I read about another model for living in a story in the Citizen of Tanzania this weekend. According to the article, several Western visitors to the Mara region of Tanzania were surprised by the specifics of the local practice of nyumba ntobhu, which is known in English as “woman marrying woman.”

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In what reads like a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications, a Canadian visitor is quoted as saying that nyumba ntobhu didn’t live up to his expectations. “I expected to see a young beauty romancing with an older woman the way it is done in the West,” he said, “but what I have seen it here is quite different from what I thought.”

Indeed, nyumba ntobhu doesn’t appear to be a sexual relationship (though I wouldn’t rule it out—there’s little incentive for women in small, traditional communities to be completely frank with outsiders and journalists). Instead, it is an alternative family structure for older women whose daughters have moved away to their husband's villages and who lack sons to inherit their property. In the Citizen story, 63-year-old Agnes Robi describes her decision to marry 25-year-old Sophia Bhoke Alex—she paid a dowry of six head of cattle to Alex’s family to “get” her—after her six daughters moved away: “She has given me one baby girl already while we are still praying for her to get a baby boy who would take over this compound when I die,” Robi said.

There isn’t much information about the practice of nyumba ntobhu on the Internet, but a story from 2004 describes it as a way for women to get away from violent husbands. As the Citizen conceded, the “nyumba ntobhu system will lose its stronghold if men turn away from violence and start treating their wives well.” In other words, this particular same-sex family structure is a choice—and from the sound of it, often a wise one.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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