These Women in Tanzania Are the Change We Need in the World

Boy, bye


On my bad days, I like to pass around this video and talk about how we all probably need to be more like the female praying mantis. When it comes down to it… just how useful are men, anyway? “Thanks for the kid(s), dude. See ya!” I’m kidding, mostly, but whenever I stop and think about my life and the lives of my friends, it seems like women are actually running the show in even the most egalitarian households. My male partner is incredible, and yours probably is too (if male partners are your thing)… but are they vital? (Rest assured, APW: I do love my husband lots.)

It seems like a lot of Americans tend to think (to put it bluntly) that the way life is lived in America is the best. No exceptions, no misconstruing it, just a blatant “what we’re doing here is the best for everyone.” Of course, this ignores the fact that life is lived many different ways in America (which is kind of what makes it amazing, if you ask me). Also, it assumes that societies we consider “less developed” (like, say, the entire population of the continent of Africa) are living their lives in a way that we could never consider, and that women are suffering for it. So today, I invite you to step back and take a look at a tradition I just learned about—and see if we all can learn a thing or two.

In Nyamongo, a village in northern Tanzania, the straight women within the community have taken a novel approach to life partners: they’re marrying each other. In other words: boy, bye.

As members of the Kurya tribe, a cattle-herding community with a population of roughly 700,000 spread across northern Tanzania, Juma and her wife, Mugosi, 49, are married under a local tradition called nyumba ntobhu (“house of women”). The practice allows women to marry each other to preserve their livelihoods in the absence of husbands. Among the tribe—one of more than 120 in the country of 55 million people—female couples make up 10 to 15 percent of households, according to Kurya elders. The unions involve women living, cooking, working, and raising children together, even sharing a bed, but they don’t have sex.

The best part? This type of relationship isn’t anything new. No one remembers how it began, but straight Kurya women have been marrying one another for basically… forever. According to Kurya law, only men can inherit property—unless a woman is widowed or her husband leaves her (and she doesn’t have sons, naturally). Then she can take a younger wife, who can, in turn, take on a male lover and give birth to heirs for her wife. Y’all:

There is no shortage of men keen to sleep with women in all-female marriages, so Juma is in a position to be picky. “They think it’s easy sex,” Juma says. “But I am choosing carefully because I want a man who is kind and reliable.” She hopes to find a lover who is willing to be the biological father of future children. “Mugosi and I would like at least three more children to expand our family,” she says. “In our culture, the more children you have, the richer you are.” Nyumba ntobhu marriages are not recognized in Tanzanian law, only in tribal law, so any man who fathers the children must agree to honor tradition and give up all paternal rights. “He has to respect our household and not get jealous,” Juma says.

The Kurya are quick to point out that this relationship is different from same-sex relationships and marriages in the Western world, but that’s mostly because homosexuality is illegal. As such, a lot of Kurya don’t know that LGBTQ relationships happen, and the idea of two women having sex is not a consideration. Instead, according to the original article on Marie Claire, these marriages give the women and children the types of lives they want to lead, complete with stable households, and lower the risk of female genital mutilation, domestic abuse, and child marriage. Plus, everyone is more than welcome to take a male lover when moved to do so… so it’s kind of the best win-win.

These pairings offer other benefits: Abigail Haworth (author of the original piece) writes about Juma and Mugosi, two women who opted to marry one another after a series of useless men abandoned and/or abused them. Juma escaped marriage to a fifty-year-old man (she was thirteen at the time) and took her young son with her—and then had two more children by boyfriends who didn’t stick around. Mugosi’s husband left her because she was infertile. Mugosi and her husband never actually divorced, and when he died she inherited his property. Since she didn’t have kids, Juma’s sons are now Mugosi’s heirs. Boom, boom. Problem solved nicely, ladies.

“We divide everything equally,” Mugosi says. “We both have peaceful natures, and so far we haven’t had any arguments.” While she is no longer interested in romantic relationships with men, she’s happy for Juma to have an independent love life. “Anastasia is still young, so it’s natural for her to want a man to keep her company at night,” Mugosi says. “I won’t interfere with her choice of boyfriends. That is up to her.”

In my life, I don’t have to contend with female genital mutilation, an abusive husband, or needing an heir (I mean, my son can totally have all my books… and that’s about all I’ve got), but I love this solution to a world ruled by male-created rules and outdated modes of thought that need to be challenged.

Plus? Women finding ways to circumvent the patriarchy and burn that mother down? YAAAAAAAAAS.

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