17 November 2014

when are you going to have kids?

Okay ladies, by the title of this blog post, you can probably tell this one is for you. But gentlemen, I'd love for you to weigh in on this as well, as this issue - the issue of bringing little human beings into the world - is an issue that affects all of us.

After we got married, Michael and I would often get asked if we were going to have children, when we were going to have children, and how many children we hoped for. Well, at least, it felt like it was often. We would vent about these conversations in the privacy of our own home, as we didn't appreciate such intimate questions coming from anyone and everyone.

I would like to go back and tell that Ashley that those questions were nothing compared to what she would experience in Tanzania.

For Tanzanians, procreation appears to be the goal of all adult men and adult women. As of 2014, the average birthrate was just shy of five children per woman, 17th in the world. (To put that in perspective, the good old U.S. of A. ranks 123rd.) And walking around this country, the high birthrate is pretty evident. Young children and pregnant women are in abundance, pretty much everywhere you go.

It's not only that children are important. Tanzanian adults, particularly men, determine each other's worth based on whether they're married and whether they have children.

Last week, I had a fascinating conversation with my coworkers, which demonstrated the extent to which men place value on women, depending on their marriage and child status. Two Tanzanian men and two Tanzanian women, plus myself, were involved. We're all about the same age. None of us have children. Only myself and one of the Tanzanian men are married. Enter scene.

It all started when one of the women asked me how long Michael and I have been married. When I answered with four years, the conversation took a quick turn towards children, but to my surprise, only for the men. The women congratulated me on four years of marriage while the men were shocked.

"What have you been doing?" they asked me. "Zaa! Procreate!"

You see, to Tanzanians, four years of a marriage without children is basically not a marriage. Most Tanzanian relationships begin with children and end with marriage, whereas traditionally for Americans, it's been the other way around. Tanzanians want to make sure they can have children together before they settle into anything long term. Otherwise, what's the point, right?

I think about it like a Tanzanian prenup. For Americans, a prenup means, "Hey, I love you now, but you know, if things don't work out, I get the savings account, you get the house, and we'll call it even. Deal?" For Tanzanians, it's a lot simpler, more like four kids in the span of eight years. Or else.

When I explained my belief that the act of deciding to have children is probably the biggest decision you will make in your life, it was as if I was speaking in a different language. (Well, I was, but you know what I mean.)

I told my male coworkers that children are not only a lot of work, but a lot of money. They then turned on one of our female coworkers, who is 30 years old and hasn't married. When asked why she's not married, she simply states that she hasn't found anyone yet. Yet to the men, this is not a valid reason. They told her she'll soon be too old to have children and worse, even if she does have children, they won't excel as much as children of young parents.

My unmarried male coworker tried to convince her that they should get married, since she's getting old and desperate. Ladies, I'm sure you've never heard a pick-up line as good as this one. Anyone? Bueller?

I like to think that I can use my position as an outsider in Tanzanian culture to shed light on perspectives and ways of thought that need changing, much like for decades, immigrants to the United States have been reshaping the way we think, for the better. "What about people who can't have children?" I asked my male coworkers. "What about the importance of women being good sisters, wives, daughters, and friends?"

They were adamant, making it clear that being a mother is the most important role a woman can have. Done and done.

Honestly, when it comes to issues surrounding women in Tanzania, I become particularly discouraged. I see myself in my two female coworkers and I wonder how different my mindset would be if I had been born a Tanzanian. Would I value myself for who I am, not for how many children I have? Would I judge other women by their character or by the size of their family?

I wasn't able to convince my two male coworkers that they have it all wrong. Unfortunately, I don't think I got anywhere close but I am thankful for my two female coworkers, who are the next generation of Tanzanian women. They're waiting longer to get married. They're making their education a priority. And they see that children do not define a woman's worth.

I pray they pass it on.


  1. Very interesting that they have children before they get married. Is that really the norm? That might point to another way in which women are repressed, because marriage often acts as an insurance that the man won't run away.

    I have to quibble a little with you here:

    "I like to think that I can use my position as an outsider in Tanzanian culture to shed light on perspectives and ways of thought that need changing, much like for decades, immigrants to the United States have been reshaping the way we think, for the better."

    But immigrants to the United States have actually been procreating much more frequently than native citizens. If immigrants have influenced our thinking on this, they have probably made us more likely to have children. Immigrants have tended to average around 3 children per woman, compared with the native-born U.S. level of 2 (right at replacement level). But one wonders if without immigrants we'd be more like Western Europe, somewhere between 1 and 2?

    1. Hey Michael, thanks for the comment! Yeah, children before marriage is very much the norm here, for a couple of reasons. First, according to Tanzanian law, after living with someone for 90 days, you can be considered legally married, so the religious marriage becomes more of a formality. Second, the children are seen as a type of retirement plan for the woman. Even if the man leaves her, the children will stay and she can depend on them to take care of her in her old age.

      I agree with your quibble! I actually didn't mean that immigrants shed light on this particular issue in the United States, but I meant the statement more broadly. (For example, immigrants have helped us re-think our issues regarding immigration laws, diversity, lack of learning foreign languages in our education system, etc.) Sorry for the confusion!


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