20 February 2014

getting married in tanzania: an outsider's perspective.

Going to the chapel and we're gonna get ma-a-a-a-a-rried...

"Heyyyy, you guys are already married!"

True. This happened. And we loved it.


What about Tanzanians? How does marriage work over here? Well, good news! I'm about to tell you. 

Michael and I have already told you a bit about how each week at our language school, our teachers focus on a certain cultural theme that is integrated into our language learning. Last week, the theme was marriage ("ndoa") in Tanzania but honestly, because Michael and I are a married couple, it's a constant topic of conversation between us and locals. 

Disclaimer: Since Michael and I are residing in northwestern Tanzania, where the majority of Tanzanians are Christians, I can only contribute to a conversation on traditional Christian marriage. Since I have not yet been exposed to the traditions of an Islamic marriage in East Africa, I will skip that for now, although I fully acknowledge this conversation on Tanzanian marriage is only partially complete! 

Let's get it started! First things first, what does the lead-up to the wedding day look like in Tanzania? Increasingly, in urban areas, you find a honey, you fall in love, and you decide to get married. In rural areas, where up to 70% of the population lives, you may have more of an arranged marriage between families, largely decided by your parents, or at least, within your tribe. (And there are over 120 tribes in Tanzania!)

Additionally, you would be much younger than your American counterparts. Although exact statistics aren't available for Tanzania, I would make an educated guess of 21 years old for females and 23 years old for males. Compare that to the U.S. of A.: In 2013, the average American male was 29 and the average American female was 27. (Looks like Michael and I were babies! I was 23 and Michael was 24.)
If you've discussed the possibility of marriage with your future spouse and you both seem coo' wid it, that's pretty much it. Between the two of you, at least. There is no formal question. No getting down on one knee. And no engagement ring. If you're the guy, you have way more important things on your mind like... 

Future in-laws' approval and dowry

"Say whaaaaat? Are you talking dowry like back in the Middle Ages when European women had some kind of chest where they saved fancy jewels and such?"


Well, not really. It is a fo' realz thing here. But like many cultural traditions, because of the modernization of East Africa, it's slowly changing. And it's not paid by the bride, it's paid by the groom.

Flashback to our Tanzanian couple: They're happy and they want to get married. The guy will approach his parents with the plan of attack. "Hey, Mama and Baba! I want to get married!" If they approve of the girl, which seems to be based on a mix of religion, education level, profession, and work ethics (we'll get to that later), they'll either give him their blessing or go with him to sit down with the woman's parents. 

When they all get together, the first and most important topic of conversation will be dowry. 

So, why is there dowry at all? 

If you ask a Tanzanian, many will explain that the man is obliged to thank his in-laws, for taking such good care of their daughter, providing her with education, and raising her well. When you in turn ask why the woman shouldn't thank her future in-laws with a dowry, for raising a son well, they respond that the woman's gift will be in her work. 

"Her what?"

Yes, her work. Because after the day she is married, she is considered a member of her husband's family and less a member of her parent's family. If her in-laws live nearby, she is expected to do much of their cooking and care-taking in addition to the duties of taking care of her own children. This also serves as a partial explanation for why sons were (and continue, to some extent, to be) more valued than daughters: Sons are the children who take care of you, as a parent, while daughters will likely become members of other families. 

Yike-a-roni. (But I am an outsider in this, so I'm sure there are countless cultural nuances I'm not fully appreciating here. And, to be fair, when I've spoken with women about this, they don't seem to mind the tradition of dowry. Although their thoughts on its cultural implications may differ.)

This brings us back to dowry, which can vary in size and cost. We've heard it can take up to a year for a Tanzanian man to save up the money he will spend on a dowry, but that's just anecdotal. If your in-laws live in a village, they will ask for a certain amount of animals, usually cows and goats.


If your in-laws live in a town or city, the dowry will simply be a set amount of money.


This is where it gets really interesting. By and large, regardless of tribe, Christian Tanzanians cannot get married in a church until the dowry is settled and paid in full. Unlike Americans, this does not stop the future bride and groom from living together and even, having children. 

So different, right? 

In Tanzania, the law states that if a man and a woman co-habitate for three months or more, they are legally married. No contract. No witnesses. Nothing like that. But immediately upon being able to prove that they've lived with their honey for three months, they will receive the same tax benefits as everyone else. 

But this is just the first of three marriage hoops that Tanzanians jump through because we've got your government marriage, your tribal marriage, and your religious marriage. 


Let's say our Tanzanian couple's conversation with the parental units went well. Their future daughter-in-law is a member of the same religion. She shares a similar education level and socio-economic rank as her husband, which is quite important in conservative Tanzanian culture. The dowry has been decided upon but the groom cannot yet pay. In the meantime, the bride and groom decide to live together before they get married in a Christian church. Unlike in the United States, there is very little stigma attached to this decision, as long as there is a plan in place to pay the dowry. 

Once a man is able to pay off the dowry, the union can be officially blessed by the women's parents. This, in effect, seals the deal on Numero Two, the tribal marriage. The couple will now be considered married by the custom of their tribes.  

Finally, Christian Tanzanians will be allowed to wed in the church. Why? In Tanzania, if parents do not agree to the union of their son or daughter, the church will not bless the wedding. History has shown that culturally, the obligation that children feel to their parents in Tanzania is too great. If either set of parents do not approve of the marriage, it will not last, which is especially painful if children are already involved. Thus, marriage in the Christian church is the last step.


Phew! Once we've gotten here, the Trifecta has been reached and everyone is happy. Until two years passes, at which point you better have kids. Or the in-laws will start asking questions. 

But maybe I'll leave that for another post. 

1 comment:

  1. Hello, thanks for the post, but I would like to make some other quetions on the subject

    ReplyDelete