Every summer, newly married couples with an adventurous spirit head to places like Serengeti National Park in Tanzania for their honeymoon. They can sleep in luxurious tents surrounded by elephants and giraffes, and enjoy dinner as the savanna turns orange at sunset—an unforgettable way to start a “happily ever after” love story.
On the other side of the mountains of the Serengeti, marriage can mean something completely different. Robi Matiko, 54, and Busina Samir, 26, have been married for two years, but they don’t share the same bed or wear any rings. The two women live a few kilometres north of Serengeti, near the border with Kenya. Every morning, they wake up at sunrise and dig the fields together. In the evening they cook and bathe their four children. A fifth is on the way, but Busina won’t stop digging despite her pronounced belly.
In Tanzania, same-sex marriage is illegal and, in the last two years, homosexuality has been increasingly persecuted by the government. Matiko and Samir’s relationship, however, is not romantic or sexual in any way. Instead, they are married under the auspices of a unique Kuria tribal tradition called nyumba ntobhu (“house of women”). It allows an older widow who does not have any male descendants to marry a younger woman who does have—or will potentially have—a son. That way, the son will inherit the older woman’s land, and ensure that her lineage does not fade away.
This tradition has existed since ancient times in the Kuria tribe, explains village leader Mwita Wambura Nsabi, but it was rarely used. As the Kuria population grew, nyumba ntobhu became more common. “Starting in the 70s we saw an increase of nyumba ntobhu,” Nsabi says. “It is not a bad thing, because the community does not stigmatize them.”
“It will continue to increase,” he predicts.
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Matiko and Samir’s union might not have anything do with what you would usually picture as marriage, yet it strikes a key question about its essence. Is marriage about romantic love? Or is it about empowering and supporting each other?
According to traditional laws, in Tanzania—as in many other countries in Africa and the Middle East—women are not allowed to own or inherit any kind of property. In rural areas, not owning land means not being able to eat, let alone earn any money. It means not having a home and always depending on men.
Marriage is, for many rural Tanzanian women, the only way to find shelter. Matiko and Samir belong to the Kuria tribe, a deeply traditional community that affirms harsh patriarchal customs like female genital mutilation (FGM) and polygamy. Girls often marry as young as 13 years old, and their bride price is nine cows.
But being married does not provide long-term security. Women are at risk when their husband dies. Many African tribes rule that a widow belongs to her husband’s family, and they get to decide her fate. It is common for the widow to be asked to marry another man within the family—her late husband’s brother, cousin, uncle.
Matiko used to have a good relationship with her husband’s family. After he died in 1998, she started feeling their pressure. They kept asking her for money to grind corn. Then they upped their demands and wanted to grab a patch of her late husband’s corn and millet fields.
Eighty percent of Tanzanians depend on agriculture for a living. National laws stipulate that women and men have equal rights when it comes to land ownership. “But before these laws, we had our own customs,” explains Beatha Fabian, the program manager at the Land Rights Research & Resources Institute of Tanzania. “So there is a challenge in terms of implementation of these laws, because in our country, in most cases, the customs were not giving equal opportunity between men and women.”
In Tanzania, women represent 51 percent of the agricultural workforce, yet only 19 percent of them are land owners. “Women are the ones who actually work on land in most cases. According to statistics, they are the ones who are really meant to be the highest producers,” Fabian adds. “The problem is not access and use—that is available. The issue comes with ownership.”
In January 2007, Matiko’s brother in law hurled a stone at her during a land dispute. He broke her right leg and some ribs. “I was severely hurt and for one month I just stayed at home hoping to get better, without getting any help to go to the hospital,” Matiko explains as she rubs her right thigh. “The pain was so severe that I decided to go to a witch doctor to see if he can help me get a cure for my leg. He succeeded to fix my leg, although not properly, because I still feel the pain and I cannot run or walk for a long distance.”
Matiko had four daughters, but they were already married. Who would take care of her now? Enter nyumba ntobhu.
The age-old tradition has become an unexpected lifesaver for another big problem among women of the Kuria tribe—domestic violence. The Mara region, where the Kuria tribe is the majority, has the highest spousal domestic violence rate in all of Tanzania. According to government and UN data, 78 percent of women have been sexually, physically, or psychologically abused by their husbands.
Samir was one of those women. Before marrying Matiko, she was married to a man as his second wife. She was forced to work without any food: “Whether you had a baby or not, you would take the child and go to the grazing field. If you don’t go, you will be beaten.”
She needed to escape. Matiko needed someone to take care of her. Now they have been married for two years. “Before marrying nyumba ntobhu I was living so lonely, but now I feel happy being surrounded with people at home,” Matiko says.
“I no longer suffer,” adds Samir. The women now share the crops they harvest and use them to feed their family. Soon, they will be seven at home.
Nyumba ntobhu has provided safety and support to many Kuria women struggling in a community where women have next to no rights. But some couples are not as happy as Matiko and Samir.
Robi Ester is 35 years old and has been married to Robi Werema for almost 10 years. They live in Nyakanga, a hilly village south of Lake Victoria where corn dries quickly and harvest is often scarce. Werema does not know what year she was born. “I might be 80 or 100,” she guesses. Over the period of their marriage, Ester has given birth to four children—one boy and three girls—from two different men.
In a nyumba ntobhu marriage, the younger woman is free to have sexual relationships with men. She is expected to bear children that will belong to the older woman’s family. The biological fathers of the children have no right over the kids.
Ester looks for her own male partners, and decides when to end the relationship. The father of her first two children was abusive. “He was an alcoholic and dysfunctional,” she explains. “Whenever he got back from drinking he would beat me up. I could not take it anymore. I said, ‘Let me find peace, I am tired of being beaten.’ I asked him to leave.”
Two months later, she found another man. “He is a grown man with a sober mind,” Ester says. They had two children together, though he is married to another woman. Ester is used to criticism from her community: “They say women who marry nyumba ntobhu steal other women’s husbands.”
But Ester did not decide to marry a woman—she was forced by her family. She was the sixth of eight children, and girls are an economic burden for poor families. Getting a dowry is often a way to keep the family afloat, and Werema offered five cows for Ester.
Ester tried to escape, but her father found her and beat her with a bike chain. She still bears the scars on her knee. Her eyes get wet when she remembers those early days: “When I came there was no house. There was only a small hut that we all shared. I used to sleep on that raft mat. I did not even have clothes. It was grief.”
She took on multiple jobs to maintain the family: cutting wood, making local alcohol, frying little fish for salel. Ester does not wish her daughters—or any other woman—to marry nyumba ntobhu: “I am the sole provider and caretaker. I have to take care of my children. If this woman [Werema] gets sick, it is on me. If my children get sick, it is on me.”
Nyumba ntobhu is an imperfect solution to the issues that Kuria women face, and it does not result in happy marriages for all of them. The root problem remains: Women are still not able to own land and must depend on men economically.
Many NGOs and academics are critical of nyumba ntobhu marriages because they replicate some of the abuses women are subject to when they marry men. “It denies the [younger] woman who marries her fellow woman any rights to inherit property, making her useless later,” explains Emmanuel Clevers, a lawyer at the Centre for Widows and Children Assistance in the Mara region. “The children will be taken away from her; they are not hers, and she still won’t be given anything that can sustain her.”
In some cases, the younger women are forced to have sexual relations with whoever the older woman wants her to, says Clevers, which increases the risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. “So a man may come and bring with him terrible diseases that may lead to the death of the woman, who will leave behind children without a mother nor a father.”
At the end of the day, it will be Ester’s son, Werema, who will inherit Robi Werema’s land and the two small brick and mud houses Ester built with the money she earned. The young man is now 17 years old and every morning he helps his mother cut firewood to sell it at the village market. A bale is worth less than a dollar. “He is still young and I am teaching him,” Ester says.
She is afraid of Werema growing up around alcohol. “Boys around here wake up drinking,” Ester explains. “Their buddies are drinking all day and then when they get home they are demanding food from their mothers.” If he wanted, he could even kick her out of the house one day, Ester says.
As the sun goes down, the corn fields around the home she built turn orange. She sorts the corn that has been drying out under the sun over the dusty tarmac. Ester’s marriage to another woman did not have a “happily ever after” ending other Kuria women may have had. But if she had the chance, Ester would not marry a man either: “I would wish not to get married.”
Her eyes spark and she grins as she dreams of independence: “I would stay at home and run my business. I would find land, farm corn and sell it, go fishing and sell the fish, and spend the money on my children.”
Additional reporting by Carmen Vidal. This story was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the Innovation in Development Reporting grants’ program, a media-funding project operated by the European Journalism Center, and the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.