Michelle Kaufman is a researcher that focuses on sexual behavior in the developing world. She globe trots regularly, conducting ethnographic work all along the way in order to inform both the quantitative and qualitative research that she conducts. Recently, Michelle spent time in a country she visits often—Tanzania. Her research there focuses a lot on multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships.
There has been a lot of talk in the American media recently about a perhaps more “evolved” form of love in which people have open or multiple relationships—polyamory. Tanzanians have a history of this practice through polygyny (having multiple wives), which is rooted in the Bantu tradition.1 In fact, polygyny is permitted for up to 4 wives in Tanzania, with the permission of the first wife.
Although polygyny has been declining in Tanzania due to social modernization, the practice continues informally because many men have “outside” wives who their legal wives know nothing about.2 Or, some men have a wife and then as many girlfriends as they can afford. In fact, Tanzanians have slang terms for these girlfriends, such as “nyumba ngodo,” or “small house,” which is a woman a man takes care of financially in addition to his own wife.3 I’ve talked with many men about this practice. Some say the reason they themselves don’t have extra girlfriends is because it’s too expensive. Others say they have multiple partners because the more women a guy juggles, the higher his status seems to be as a man.
But men are not the only ones who have additional partners. Women often acquire extra partners out of necessity—having transactional sex with multiple men (sometimes much older men4,5) so that they can have someone buy them everything they cannot afford themselves (i.e., from eggs and rice to cell phones and makeup). Other women say you need “mafiga matatu,” or “3 cooking stones” to balance a pot—one man for financial support, one for sexual pleasure, and one for emotional support.1,3 Finally, some women (and men) have told me they take on extra partners because they figure their partners are or will do the same at some point, so they try to beat them to the punch.
What does all of this mean for relationship satisfaction with any of the multiple partners? I have met few Tanzanians who seem genuinely happy in their love lives or who are not longing for more when it comes to romance. In my couple of years of working there, I have seen men forced to marry women with whom they are not especially in love because their families approve of her as an acceptable wife for their son. I’ve also seen women forced to marry the first mediocre man with a steady income that makes them a proposal. A woman has to eat, after all! Once these business-like marriages are complete, instead of trying to strengthen such relationships, many seek (mostly fleeting) satisfaction elsewhere. But when the main partner discovers these other partners, the rage and jealousy causes all sorts of drama.
In worst-case scenarios, I have seen men try to sabotage another man’s romantic relationship so that he can attempt to steal a valuable woman for himself. Mate poaching is especially likely when a woman is attractive and smart, and it is not uncommon for her boyfriend/husband’s friends to proposition her or plant ideas in her head that her man is not treating her right. If this sounds like an episode of a soap opera, you’re absolutely right, as this creates not just love triangles, but whole complicated sexual networks.
Obviously, this all has a huge impact on HIV risk, as correct and consistent condom use with all partners is not the norm.6,7 The group that I work with at the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs in Dar es Salaam and their implementing partners run a nationwide campaign addressing this issue with funding from USAID. The campaign encourages people to avoid the sexual network with the slogan, “Tuko wangapi? Tulizana!” (“How many are we? Settle down!”). Commercials from the campaign show a heterosexual couple in a car or at a restaurant or in a bed (see below for these videos!), and when all of their partners join them, the car, dining table, or bed break from the weight of all of the partners. I wore a t-shirt advertising the campaign on occasion during my stay, and the amount of interest it generated in discussing sexual networks was incredible. This is an issue that touches most of Tanzania (and much of the world, for that matter).
So what is the correct approach—polyamory or a monogamous social norm? There is no correct form of love, and different approaches work for different people. The important thing is being safe, regardless of the number of partners. Because in addition to some soap opera-like drama, sexual networks can spread HIV. And in a country where HIV incidence in some regions is as high as 16%, the health risk is a major downside to the thrill of multiple and concurrent partnerships.
The contents of this posting are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.
1Harman, J.J., & Kaufman, M.R. “To have one wife is to be one-eyed”: Polygyny, power and HIV in Tanzania. Manuscript under review.
2Sa, Z., & Larsen, U. (2008). Gender inequality increases women’s risk of HIV infection in Moshi, Tanzania. Journal of Biosocial Science, 40, 505–525.
3Harman, J.J., Kaufman, M.R., Aoki, E., Trott, C.D. (under contract). Sexual network partners in Tanzania: Labels, power, and the systemic muting of women’s health and identity. In H. Pishwa & R. Schulze (Eds.), Expression of Inequality in Interaction: Power, Dominance, and Status. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
4UN Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS. (2010). Global Report: UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic 2010. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4cfca9c62.html
5Kaufman, M.R., Mooney, A., Modarres, N., Mlangwa, S., McCartney-Melstad, A., & Mushi, A. “They can give you whatever you want, but by the time you are sick they won’t be there”: A qualitative study of Tanzanian perceptions of cross-generational sex and the men and women involved. Manuscript under review.
6Tanzania Commission for AIDS (TACAIDS), Zanzibar AIDS Commission (ZAC), National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Office of the Chief Government Statistician (OCGS), and Macro International Inc. (2008). Tanzania HIV/AIDS and Malaria Indicator Survey 2007-08. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: TACAIDS, ZAC, NBS, OCGS, and Macro International Inc.
7The United Republic Of Tanzania. (2009). National Multisectoral HIV Prevention Strategy 2009-2012 – Towards Achieving Tanzania Without HIV. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Tanzania Commission for Aids (TACAIDS).
Dr. Michelle Kaufman – Science of Relationships articles
Michelle conducts research on sexual health and how power in heterosexual relationships influences sexual risk and family planning. She has conducted research in South Africa, Nepal, Tanzania, and Indonesia, and teaches a course on Qualitative Research Methods at Jimma University in Ethiopia.