6 January 2013

Tanzania: That Under-Age Marriage!

WE arrived at Kowaki close to sundown. The trip from Kuruya to this remote village had taken an hour although Haruna had been driving the Cressida like a maniac.

On one occasion, the car skidded and nearly keeled over when Haruna slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a goat. We were in Kowaki to attend a wedding ceremony. Our friend Kimbo was marrying off his elder daughter to someone we didn't know yet. We had never met Kimbo's daughter either. As we had expected Kimbo's compound was already crowded with joyous relatives and invitees.

Traditional makumba drums were throbbing with a resonance that reverberated across the village. Kimbo came to meet us as we alighted from the Cressida. We were very important guests. We exchanged greetings and hearty pleasantries with Kimbo as we shook hands.

He ushered us into a tastefully decorated hut that he had reserved for revered clan elders. Ten elders, including Matonya, Haule and Kanumba were in their seats. The elders rose up to greet us extending their hands for handshakes. Then, we settled down on round stools. The elders continued sipping a local brew with tendril straws that sunk into a large common pot.

The pot had been planted in the earthen floor with only the neck and mouth showing. The brew appeared to pack a powerful punch. Matonya got high after gulping down a few more mouthfuls. Kimbo's junior wife, Ghati, came to greet us. She went low on one knee as she greeted.

She addressed us as "fathers of the clan". This was the kind of greeting expected of her as she was hardly twenty. We responded to the greeting calling her "daughter of the clan." Feasting started immediately. There was plenty of food. Everyone ate and drunk to his fill with Matoya, a despised glutton for food, going for the largest maize-meal helping. He dunked fistfuls of ugali in the fatty mutton gravy holding a T-bone in his left hand.

However, no-one seemed to care. When everyone was satiated Kimbo walked in followed by a teenage girl. He introduced the girl to the visiting elders as Susi, the bride. He mentioned her suitor as Mbawala, an elderly cattle keeper who lived in the village of Baraki . Haruna and I exchanged confounded glances. We knew Mbawala very well. He was a rich cattle keeper who had a harem of five wives!

He was in his late sixties! Susi greeted the elders shyly, going down on both knees. Then she shambled off walking on wobbly feet. She looked too young and too naive to be anyone's wife. It was a pity that Susi was being married off to a man much older than her own father. But wait! I have seen many much younger girls being married off to older men. "Susi's bridegroom," the elderly man seated next to me said, "was born soon after the Second World War."

"He is 68 years old; she is 15," the elder said, shaking his straw to remove knot of dregs that had clogged it. Haruna, who was listening to the elder with profound dismay, cleared his throat but remained silent. One of Kimbo's twin sons brought in fresh straws. He handed them to Haruna and I.

Drinking roared on. A few moons back I saw a girl aged 14 getting married to elderly man aged 64. So, Susi's case didn't shock me. Dozens of under-age brides are often married off to men in this prosperous country where rivers flow with milk and honey. I was thinking along these lines when Haruna stood up. He clasped my hand and led me out of the hut. We got into the car and settled down in the seats.

Haruna sat in silence looking tired and dejected. Then, he began firing with his mouth. He said early marriage was a serious social problem. "Hundreds of girls are married off to husbands before the statutory age of 16. But even this so-called statutory age is wrong," he said. "The most appropriate age for marriage should be pegged at 18, the age of majority.

It should be expressly understood that a girl aged 16 years is not biologically ripe to bear children. She may be tall and robust but unripe. She may even look heftier than her own mother." There was a hiatus as Haruna watched a woman chasing a stray dog, pelting it with stones. The dog had stolen a chunk of meat from a cooking pot.

Then, Haruna ranted on,"The reality is that a teenage girl is unripe for the task of managing a pregnancy, excruciating labour pains and delivery," A girl aged 15 is expected to be a student somewhere - not someone's wife. So you may have seen why I treat the practice with the contempt it deserves," he retorted. Unknown to Haruna, my wife Agnes was 16 years old when we got married.

"Of particular concern is the large number of pregnancy complications among young girls whose bodies are not yet ready to bear children," he breathed. "Women who have obstetric fistula are often the very young girls who are married off at a tender age." "In most cases these girls are too poor to attend health services. They often try to deliver at home. Apart from being poor, these young mothers are often ignorant about motherhood.

"Fistula can occur because the woman's pelvis is too small and the baby's head is too big. "Sometimes the baby is badly positioned. In some cases the woman remains in labour for five days or more without expert medical help. In most cases the baby dies. If the mother survives, she is left with extensive tissue damage to her birth canal that renders her incontinent. "Her bladder or bowel fails to function properly.

This is the beginning of a medically pathetic situation for the young mother. This irreparable damage wrecks the life of the woman. At the level of the family trouble for the woman starts at this juncture. "The husband who took this unfortunate girl-bride in the first place will often turn his back on his wife, appalled at the smell and her inability to control her own motions.

Eventually, the marriage fails to work. "Many such women grow old childless in a tribal setting where motherhood is the essence of a woman's value. A childless woman is seen as a social misfit. A total outcast," Haruna said as he started the car. He shot out of Kimbo's compound. We drove back to Kuruya in silence.

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