In our trip in Tanzania we visited few tribes, one of them was Datoga. We were accompanied by our guide and driver Ema (short name from Emanuel) and Mohammad, our translator from Datoga language to English.
While travelling to the Datoga family that Ema, we had time to tackle. Ema updated us with Datoga’s traditions and customs. A Datoga man is considered rich if he has many cows, wives and kids. More he has, richer he is. They buy wives with cows. He did not mention how many cows they have to pay for a wife, and that was a mistake, as I will find out latter. Since the trade is cows for wives, the Datoga men are looking for women that could have daughters (since they sell them for cows, and more cows mean more wives); they pay shamans to check if the girls they want to marry will have boys or girls. Well, after a Datoga man has the wives, he need kids, and as Ema told us, if the men cannot have enough kids, asking help from other family members is not a shame.
The family we were about to visit was having a compound (called boma) about fifty meters in diameter, surrounded by a two meters high fence made of shrubs full of thorns. The boma had a tree inside (good shadow) and a house (looked like made of mud) with two rooms; one was the bedroom, the other one for everything else. The family we visited consisted of five wives, and the owner was not home; as we were told he was visiting one of the other boma’s of his, nobody could tell us how many bomas he had. When I saw the big fence, I thought that it was to stop the wives from running away, but that proved to be completely wrong; the fence was protection against wild animals, the wives had all the freedom in the world to go out and come back in whenever they wanted.
We stepped out of the car, all four of us; Mohammad first, close by behind my wife and I, followed few steps back by Ema. The gate to the boma was wide opened, seemed to me they knew we were coming.
The five wives were out, and when they saw us, they formed a line, greeting us. All of them had long robes with a lot of adornment incrusted. Girls prepare the wedding robe for many years, and after marriage they wear that robe all their life. They must have been done very well, since the older ladies still have those robes in good shape. There were no kids around; they were all out herding the animals…
One of wives, the oldest, stepped forward with a welcoming smile. She was obviously the leading lady, maybe the first wife, at least in that boma. Then when we got closer, she raised her hand and unexpectedly she bent her hand up, like for a STOP sign, and said something, looking straight into my eyes. As far as I understand human behaviour her attitude was that the conversation was between the two of us.
Mohammad translated. “How many cows did you pay for your wife?”
For a split of a second she eyed my wife, then, returned her gaze to me. Everybody waited for my answer. Mohammad did not intend to help me with any number, and I had no clue what a good number could be; and Ema already returned to the car outside the boma. I tried to gain some time smiling, hoping someone will make me a sign. Did not work, everybody was in waiting mode. The other four wives had many meanings smiles, seemed to me kind of someone is in trouble here.
“There are different customs in my country” translated Mohammad my answer.
Mohammad translated both ways, and he did not try any tricks to have a side conversation with me, that would have been observed; and he did not want to interfere in any way.
“No,” said the first wife, “everybody has to pay to have a wife.”
In that moment I realized that her authority was on the line, the other wives waited to see if the first wife has the knowledge to find the answer from me, or she does not deserve her position. So, I had to answer on her terms and I am welcomed, or I refuse, and, well, maybe we have to return to the car, I was not sure. In this moment just saying a number was not enough, at least in my mind. And what could be the number? 5,10,20,50?
My mind worked with the speed of light. Since I do not know a good number of cows to be paid for a wife I will choose something else… yes, goats. And should be different that Tanzanian custom since I already mentioned that.
So, here was my story to the waiting crowd: “In my country is the other way around, the parents of the girl are making the donation, happy that their daughter will merry. The parents of my future wife gave me eight goats. I had my light truck with me. I loaded seven goats and my future wife back in the trunk, and the most beautiful goat on the passenger seat near me, tying her with the security belt. And so I brought home my wife.”
Mohammad was reluctant to translate that, looking to me with questioning eyes, if I do not want to change the story; but not a muscle flinched on my face.
My wife was in shock, but I understood from her demeanour that she liked the story, and I am forgiven, it is a lie the two of us will remember for a very long time. She will find out soon the immediate consequences.
Mohammad had no choice but translate my story.
The first wife almost exploded with joy, it was an immense success for her; finally, she found out about some customs in those remote places where the tourists are coming from; and the other wives had no choice but to agree to her achievement. She grabbed my hand and ordered the other wives to come around. When the group was as tight as it could be, she made a sign to my wife to take a picture; and my wife did it as quickly as she could, she was afraid the five wives will suffocate me.
The first wife wanted to show her gratitude for my honesty and ordered one of the other wives to go to a nearby boma and fetch more women for the party she planned on the spot; three more women came in.
We were all invited in the house. The first wife started to explain some of the customs in her tribe, mostly how they prepare food, the most important job for them.
When explaining how they do flour from wheat, one of the wives actually started doing it, grinding the wheat between two stones, manually, bent on her knees over the primitive tool. Then the first wife asked the worker-wife to stop, turned to my wife and invited her to try. My wife almost jumped to do it, she kind of waited to be invited, it was a challenge she really wanted to try.
All eight women surrounded my hard-working wife, and clapping their hands started a very entertaining and rhythmed song. It was like a dance, and my wife was very much into it, synchronizing her back and forth movements with the song’s rhythm. Everyone enjoyed it, the Datoga women cheered a lot, my wife felt the vibe, and I liked the song.
I approached Mohammad and asked him to translate what the song’s words were. He refused politely but asked me how I came with that number and animals, eight goats for the trade with my wife’s family.
“Just came out of the blue, I had no clue what else to say,” I answered.
“Well,” said Mohammad, ” for a nice wife they pay about twenty cows in this tribe.”
Uhhhh, my God, I thought, so these Datoga ladies think now that my wife was much cheaper than themselves, and now they evaluate her performance as a house worker. I expected some penalties from my wife when we will return home, telling her Datoga deals to buy wives. As I found out later I was wrong again, my wife enjoyed it, laughing with all her heart finding that piece of news.
My wife stopped when she was exhausted, and the song stopped as well. But the first wife was not done yet. She made a sign to my wife and Mohammad to come closer; she had something to share…
“What was that first wife told you?” I asked my wife on our way back to our lodge, staying comfortable on the back seats in Ema’s car.
“She told me her honest opinion, and that is, I should advise you to buy more wives; she was sure that you have cows as well, not only those goats from my parents… and you can afford to buy a good performing wife.”