“If I like you, I will wait for you to be alone, maybe when you are herding the cattle. I will come for you, I will pick you up on my shoulders and take you with me, so you will marry me!”
This was the answer from our Datoga guide to my question on how do the Datoga arrange a marriage. I think I must have frozen for a few seconds, terrified with the idea! It sounds like… well like kidnapping to me! However, it is a normal practice among this tribe in the north of Tanzania.
Once I picked up my chin from the floor, I continue with my interrogation. As he further explained about marriage beliefs I found myself half startled, half marvelled by their way of dating and managing things like cheating and pregnancy outside the relationship.
ARRANGING A MARRIAGE
Marriages must happen with women of different clans and there are in fact 3 ways to arrange a marriage. A boy and a girl like each other and mutually accept to get married. There is “the arranged way”where the parents arrange a marriage out of convenience. Or the “I-like-you, I-take-you” sort of way.
As our guide explained, just carrying the girl away on his shoulders does not seal the marriage. The boy has to keep the girl hostage with his clan for a few days before he takes one of her garments and drops it at her village. Her family is then aware that someone will visit soon to propose the missing daughter.
Days later, an elder member from the boy’s clan visits the clan where the girl comes from and arranges to speak to her father. They expect the father to be very angry and he can give a punishment to the boy’s family: for example 3 cows!
Once the punishment is agreed, they discuss what is the girl worth: a very beautiful girl is worth more cows (e.g. 7) than another not so pretty one (e.g. 3). The family of the boy must pay this value to the father of the girl to finalize the marital negotiations.
And voilà… the wedding can be organized. Dancing, rituals, chanting are accompanied by honey beer, the drinking of preference for celebrations and to give good fortune to the newly weds.
Once the girl is married she must wear a special skirt made of thin leather strips, which is symbolic of fertility given by a Goddess to the Datoga houses.
MORE COWS, MORE WIFES
The Datoga are a semi-nomadic pastoral tribe. Among their livestock, the cattle are the most valuable one! The more cattle a Datoga man owns, the richer he is. The richer he is, the bigger is the need for more wives in order to help him look after the cattle.
So the Datoga are typically polygamous, where wives rank in order of marriage. Wives are given an equal number of livestock and sent to lands further away to look for fertile soil.
A man with many wives sometimes doesn’t visit all the wives that often, and sometimes a wife he hasn’t seen in over a year turns out to be pregnant…
CHEATING AND PREGNANCY OUTSIDE THE MARRIAGE
Our guide explained that the Datoga are believers that whatever is born under their house belongs to them. So when a man finds his wife pregnant from another man, her baby automatically become his, because she lives under his roof.
He will call the baby his own child and he will be happy to have a new son or daughter. After all, every Datoga man gains prestige and influence with the birth of every additional child. He will never enquire about what happened or who was she with. Looking for the truth behind the growing round belly of his wife would mean disrespecting his tribe, as most likely it was one of his own brothers. And this is widely accepted and somehow expected.
The same way if they divorce, anything she owned and brought to his house, belongs to him after the marriage. So if she leaves, she owns nothing, not even her own kids from another father.
What’s yours is mine, what’s mine is mine.
WHAT ABOUT “PURITY”?
Fully aware that female mutilation (however illegal) is still common practice for “purity”reasons in Tanzania, I took my interrogation even further and asked if being a virgin is a valuable characteristic among the Datoga tribe.
Yes, a single Datoga girl is forbidden to have sexual interaction. But female mutilation is not a tradition among this tribe and lately the physical checks for virginity done by an elder woman are falling out of practice.
So the number of girls found pregnant outside wedlock has increased. What do they do then? I asked. The answer is nothing but a practical one once again: firstly, the father will try to arrange a marriage as soon as possible for the pregnant daughter and she completely looses the input in the marital negotiations. If negotiations are unsuccessful and the baby is born under her father’s roof, his grandchild “becomes” his son, and when his daughter gets married, she will not take her son with her.
There is however some degree of stigmatization of the child and his mother that will remain through their lives.
When the husband of many wives dies, a meeting among the clan is organized and usually brothers of the deceased will step in and take care of his cows, his children and his wives.
They call it “inherit their brother’s wives” and by that means acting up like a husband is part of their new job as care takers.
Confusing?! I was puzzled at such practical way of resolving these relationship issues. But hey, isn’t culture diversity fascinating?!
The sexual relationships within a clan are actually even more complex than I am allowed to explain on here without confusing you and myself. It is full of rules, rituals and punishments if trespassed. They don’t call themselves clans lightly!
Nowadays, the ancient nuptial traditions of the Datoga tribe are being challenged by the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, risking killing a whole family within a few years. Promotion of awareness already started to take place around 5 years ago. They are encouraging the use of condoms (totally foreign and highly inaccessible at this side of the world) or encouraging the practice of monogamy, which goes substantially against their culture.
However, some Datoga converted to Christianity, adopting a monogamous lifestyle and even started to send children to school.
We are upon a time of change for this tribe, who resisted the political pressure from the Government for centuries. Now I guess only time will tell what will happen to the traditions of these friendly people.
I found a very interesting video of awareness for HIV/AIDS, made by Health Workers for the Datoga people. If interested, it has English subtitles and I leave you the link here: “Datoga, let’s beware AIDS”