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On having a ‘wife’, and Tanzania

I haven’t read Annabel Crabb’s new book The Wife Drought but I’ve read a couple of articles she’s written on the same premise, that is, that men with big careers are only able to do so because they have a dedicated support staff, a ‘wife’ at home doing the unpaid work that keeps their life and family running. Crabb says, one reason women don’t get ahead in the same way is that they don’t have a ‘wife’. While career men are freed up by their wives to be single-minded, career women are expected to juggle.

Soph asked me about how this works in Tanzania and I figure others might be interested too in light of my characterisation of the ‘good’ Tanzanian woman as a strong woman (i.e. uncomplaining omnicompetent) and my recent comments on parenting and the SAHM.

Tanzania has a very sophisticated form of ‘support staff’ – it’s just not the wife! The household is made up of more people than just mum and dad and the kids. Every Tanzanian family I know has more people than that living in their home. It’s most common for there to be at least 2 other women living with the family. They are often but not always relatives, sometimes paid. They keep house, cook and look after children. While the wife is most often responsible for managing these people, there’s a tremendous load that they take from her, freeing her to work full time. In other words, the job of Annabel Crabb’s ‘wife’, the support person who enables the career person, is neither the father nor the mother in the family. It is someone else altogether.

When I talk about being at home with Elliot, people immediately jump to saying, ‘Why don’t you have a nanny to look after him? Then you could work!’ The assumption is that someone else will be the ‘support staff’, not the ‘wife’. Because Tanzania is not tied as strongly to the notion of the self-sufficient nuclear family, there are more resources to draw on in this regard.

Before you think I’m suggesting that Australian society should re-structure itself to be more like Tanzania, there are things about this that are not good for women. Some men, for example, are tempted to be lazy, because the women of his household are both breadwinning and keeping house, yet their laziness in turn only increases the burden on their wives. Yet the men don’t always see it that way: one male friend who’s been away from home a lot for study speaks of feeling like a minor in his home because it is not his domain, and his wife is so capable he wonders why she needs him.

You’ll notice that I’m largely couching this in terms of money and contribution to finances. That’s because work in Tanzania is rarely about personal fulfillment. It’s about income generation: survival for the poor, and ‘getting ahead’ for the middle class. People don’t ask, ‘What do I want to do?’ or ‘What am I good at?’ so much as, ‘What can I do to earn money?’ I wonder whether at times this means that women’s personhood is neglected, particularly when it comes to their maternal desire. One friend of mine wishes she had the opportunity to stay home with her baby rather than returning to work after 3 months, but there seems little reason for her to do so because the support structures are there.

Categories: Tanzania Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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