Nyumba ntobhu is a traditional form of non-sexual same-sex union among Kuria women, especially of the Mara Region of Tanzania. The tradition allows older widowed women without male descendants to marry younger women known as mokamööna (daughters-in-law) who do have or will potentially have a son. That way, the son will inherit the older woman’s land and other wealth and ensure that her lineage does not fade away. She would also find someone to take care of her. Some also practice it to escape from abusive marriages and Gender-Based Violence(GBV).
As in other traditional marriages, a nyumba ntobhu marriage is secured through the payment of a bride price, usually in the form of cattle. It is the older woman who pays the bride price to the family of the younger woman.
The two women do everything a married couple would except having sex, thus distinguishing it from lesbianism. They live together, share a bed as a couple and bear children in their union.
Women married under nyumba ntobhu usually hire a man to bear children and pay him when the younger woman falls pregnant. The hired man has to agree with both women that he will not demand paternal rights to any children born out of the agreement.
The older woman becomes the guardian of the children, and they usually take up her surname. The man who impregnates the younger woman is usually paid with food or a goat. There are, however, rare cases where a man may return to claim a child, but this is always prevented by choosing a man who is not known in the village or who is known to be irresponsible.
It is interesting to note that in some cases, nyumba ntobhu can be a polygamous marriage. The older woman will marry two younger women, who will both bear her children.
In as much as the practice is common in Tanzania with nyumba ntobhu couples making up to about 10% to 15% of households, it is important to note that the marriages are only recognized in tribal law and not Tanzanian law.
However, nyumba ntobhu has been termed as an imperfect solution to the issues that Kuria women face, as the root problem of women not being able to own land and depend on men economically remains.
It has been criticized it replicates some of the abuses women are subject to when they marry men. The younger woman who marries her fellow woman does not have any rights to inherit property, making her useless later.
Sikira, A. N. (2012). "Women to women marriages (nyumba ntobhu): Violence among infertile women in Mara region, Tanzania". Tanzania Journal of Development Studies. 12.