Bi Mkami’s skin is withered and plastered in a map of scars. She walks with a heavy limp and the tiredness of her body is distinct in each measured movement. In a video by Maweni Farm Documentaries, the old woman points out the jagged raised scars from being stabbed with a spear, which wind around her legs and form bulbous ridges around her shaved head. She talks about the time she was beaten so brutally that she gave birth to a baby with a crushed skull. Poignantly, she murmurs: “My life story is about giving birth to children who die.”
After years of abuse and violence, she was finally able to escape the punishing clutches of the husband who frequently beat her senseless.
“I started a business of selling booze there. My daughter had a kiosk and sold food. She cooked rice, tea, [and] mandazi while I sold the alcohol. She wanted to build a proper house for [sic] the money we made. But I told her that I should marry a woman to help her instead. I went and married this one,” Bi Mkami said as she spoke about her wife.
More and more heterosexual women from the Kuria tribe of Tanzania are turning to the centuries-old custom of nyumba ntobhu or ‘house of women’ to save themselves from domestic violence and abuse, child marriages, and female genital mutilation. The government and UN estimate that 78 percent of women from the Mara area – which largely comprises of the Kuria people – have been sexually, physically, or psychologically abused by their husbands.
Bi Mkami’s young wife, Bei Ng’ombe, a pretty girl with a silky complexion and arched cheekbones explained: “Here at home, I saw how my father and his wives clashed all the time. I thought… no! I saw other women living well together and they had babies too. But to be molested by a man? No man has hurt this body since I was married. Never. I don’t know how a man’s beating feels. Look – where are my scars? None. I’ve never been cut with knives or molested. That’s why I live with a woman. I was so afraid of being cut that I chose to be married to a woman.”
In this androcentric society, women do not often own land or have the same rights to assets as men. If an older woman is widowed or her husband has left, and she has no male offspring, she stands to lose everything she owns. She is, however, able to safeguard her position by marrying a younger woman who already has – or potentially will have – a son.
Women often have little say about the men selected for them, but in this case, the young wife can find a male partner of her choice with the intention of giving birth to a son, who will then act as a male heir for the older woman. Generally, only men can inherit properties so, in this way, the older woman can protect her possessions and the family home.
Same-sex marriages in Tanzania are illegal and homosexuality is frowned upon. In 2018, the World Bank revoked a $300 million loan to Tanzania in response to the country’s controversial laws. It became illegal to question official statistics and having “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” – which generally relates to men having sex with other men – can denote being imprisoned for 30 years or more.
Unlike same-sex marriages in Western countries, however, the marriage between both women in nyumba ntobhu relationships is non-sexual and exists purely on a business-like or platonic basis. And as such, it is socially acceptable amongst Kuria tribes.
Yet, nyumba ntobhu is still not a remedy for what festers at the root of the problem. It does not necessarily correlate to a happy marriage since the women have exchanged one restriction for another. They still remain deeply subjugated by a patriarchal culture – where they continue to not have the same rights or standards of living as their male counterparts.