By David G Maillu
There is not a country in traditional Africa where the iweto woman-to-woman marriage was never practised.
On the face value, iweto (Kikamba term for something ‘lightly-talked-about’) is a young woman ‘married’ to an old woman not for sexual relations (lesbianism) but for survival of the family. What qualifies the old woman to look for an “iweto” marriage is that, first and foremost, she has no husband either through misfortunes such as death. Besides, she lives alone, either because her daughters, if she has any, are married and they live with their husbands. Secondly, she has no son through whom the family can have children, putting into consideration the fact that in her world children are crucial social insurance for the family.
Now, in order for her to have someone to take care of her and give her a family lease through offspring, she goes out looking for a young woman who would accept the term that she would not have a husband in that home other than men friends who could father her children for the home. The old woman pays up the full bride price for the girl just like any other fully married woman to a man. It is a benefit to the old woman if the girl is already a mother brings home a child or children.
The young woman takes full care of the old woman until her death All the children born to the young woman would bear the family name of the old woman. The young woman would be the only heiress to the property of the old woman whom she would always address as ‘Mother’ but not as ‘husband’.
The iweto marriage should be understood under the licence that there were no children for adoption in traditional Africa. The only option left for the adopter was to adopt a fertile woman to bear children for the adoption. Many polygamous marriages fall within the adoption scheme whereby, if a husband is married to a barren woman, he can only adopt children by adopting-cum-marrying a fertile woman with him to have children for the adoption.
The social situation has changed today because there are free children for adoption without their mother; hence, the “iweto” scheme is outdated in many ways by modern events. But while it lasted, it was a noble thing. However, what remains in fashion today is still for a man to engage in polygamy because he wants to keep his first childless wife but he must go for a second wife in order to bless the family with the needed children