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Married to the grave: Tanzanian women undergo ghost vows

Chelu Matuzya

Dar es Salaam-Not even death can undo marriage vows in Tanzania.

In rarer marriages, the till-death-do-us-part betrothals sometimes go beyond the grave-where the vows either start at death when a woman is forced to marry a dead man by his graveside.

Known as grave marriages or ghost vows, the practice ignites fresh debate on male chauvinism in the East African country and threatens to undo the gains made by the women rights movement in fighting gender-based violence.

This type of involuntary matrimony occurs when a woman is forced to take wedding vows at a grave as the deceased man’s new wife, and she will latter bear children with a male relative or blood brother of the deceased. Ghost marriages are held to ‘pacify’ the deceased, who would have died without being married. Children born out of such arrangement belong to the deceased individual, even though the departed is not the genetic father.

Targeted mostly are some of the most vulnerable women in Mara region the northern part of mainland Tanzania like women with disabilities. Most of them agree to this type of marriage because they have no other option as their tribe does not allow men to marry women with disabilities. Young girls who drop out of school because of pregnancy, lack of school fees or other reasons are also forced into grave marriages.

Forty-four-year-old Ester Itembe, a resident of Kyambai neighborhood, Uwanja wa ndege ward in Serengeti is one of the women who fell victim to such a custom while living with her father in Kyoruba Village, Tarime District.

In 1986 at the age 14, she was mutilated and the following year, she got married at a bride price of 15 cows with lots of cheers to Samwel Wangete.

The traditional marriage was celebrated even though the bride knew nothing about marriage due to her then tender age. However, she was told how lucky she was by her parents to be affianced shortly after being mutilated.

However, the handicapped woman was unaware that she wedded a deceased man.

“I remember it was Saturday evening, I was home with my father as my mum had passed away some years back. Three men came to our house, one of them was old, maybe around his 70s. They asked my father if I could marry their son and my elated father agreed. My father called me and  broke the news. I was not happy nor ready to leave home, I knew nothing about marriage.

“These men went and came back the next day with 15 cows and my father told me that I am marrying the son of that old man whom I never met in my life. I refused but then my father forced me to accept for the sake of the 15 cows which he was paid as bride price. I was crying, I didn’t want to go, but they forcibly took me. I didn’t get time to bath or change my clothes and i, sadly left home,” said Itembe.

“I had no idea that I was going to marry a grave. I stayed with the deceased’s brother and after having two children, he disappeared. My father in law told me that I should know that i was not married to him, but his deceased brother who was bitten by a venomous snake years back and died on the spot,” she said.

The grave marriages normally last for not more than three years; afterwards, the blood brother or close male relative of the deceased will leave that family and marry the wife of his choice, with whom he will have other children. The woman, however, is left to raise the “grave marriage” children on her own.

“I was emotionally wounded and up to now have not yet healed. I had nowhere to turn to, and i am still struggling alone. I am hurt because my future was spoilt. I really wanted to pursue my schooling”, Ester said, tears flowing uncontrollably down her cheeks.

Ester’s now 79 year-old father  Itembe Marwa said he did not know that he was giving away his daughter for such a ritual. Had he known, he said, he would never have consented.

“My daughter was born handicapped. When they told me that they affianced my daughter, I agreed with the groom’s father that my daughter shouldn’t be going to the farm. He told me that the young man marrying her will be farming for her.

“I was excited by the cows. So I gave away my child. I only knew of the arrangement later, but it was too late. I now regret everything,” Marwa said.

Now, Ester’s eldest son Emmanuel Wang’ete (23), born out of the forced marriage,  said until lately, he and his siblings never knew that they are not the biological children of the deceased Mniko Wangete.

“When my mother was married, she was deceived that the young man (Samuel) was going to be her husband but he wasn’t. My biological father is Samuel, and he has since deserted us. We grew up living a deprived and poor life. We stopped schooling halfway due to lack of fees,” said Emmanuel.

Ester is not the only woman to fall into this predicament.

Bhoke Mahanga, from the same area, said she also fell victim to such a queer marriage when was 15 years old.

“I was married off at 15 years  and told later that  ‘the grave is your husband. I could not refuse as my poor parents were silenced with some beasts,” she said.

Merry Mcharo, the Social Welfare officer in Serengeti District, Mara Region, said she has been approached by some of the victims seeking help.

“Several women who were forced into such marriages came to my office complaining,” says Mcharo, who added that up to now, no prosecution of the perpetrators of the oppressive cultural practice has started.

There are no easily available statistics from government as this ancient cultural practice is discrete and few women are bold enough to come out.

Outgoing deputy minister of Health, Social Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, Dr Faustine Ndugulile said she was unaware of these types of marriages.

“I am hearing this for the first time from you but it is a matter that we will investigate and government will see what action it can take. These kind of marriages help further spread HIV/AIDS,”  Ndugulile said.

However, a traditional leader from the area, Masonoro Marwa, said grave marriages were in the past considered to be good but with the advent of HIV/AIDS, society now frowns upon such arrangements.

“We used to consider them good marriages in the past for continuity of the deceased’s name, but we have seen it is not right and is tantamount to abuse and mistreating our our women, and their children they bear from such unions because they will be left to fend for themselves,” Marwa said.

According to the Tanzanian constitution, marriage should be consensual between a man and a woman. It recognises two types of marriages-monogamous and polygamous.

Tike Mwambipile, the director of Tanzanian Women Lawyers Association (TWALA), a non-governmental organisation that offers legal services and campaigns for women’s rights and equity, said such victims should report the cases.

“Marriages are a social contract entered by grown up individuals in agreement. The victims should speak out and report to the police,” she said.

Tanzania’s Inspector General of Police, Simon Siro, while launching the gender desk in Serengeti District, urged the locals to move with the times and disregard such a custom.

 “Its criminal (to engage in ghost marriages). You should adapt to the current times. We cannot allow such outdated things to continue,”  Siro said.

Jacqueline Mahon, acting Tanzanian resident director the United Nations said that such oppressive traditions have diverse impacts on women’s lives.

“We should eradicate all forms of sexual harassment and misleading cultural practices that suppress women and children ,” Mahon said.

Other societies in Africa for which there is documentation denoting the practice of ghost marriages are the Nuer and the Atuot in South Sudan.

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