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Husband as overseer in Tanzania

In speaking with my friend about the wellbeing of women, we got onto gender roles in marriage. I wanted to push him on the idea that however you configure hierarchy, women are still vulnerable. Everything for them depends on the goodwill of their husband if he is over them in the hierarchy.

The first thing my friend wanted to point out to me was that traditionally self-determination has not been available to most people in Tanzania. He gave an example of a young girl in a village being told who she will marry. The same applies to the young man, but not even her parents and family may have a say. In the case he was talking about, it was the elders of the clan or tribe who would determine it.

Appeal to those who are in power is thus not something that only women do, but something that almost all people do. If those parents are not happy with the elders’ directive, their only option is to appeal to them, the same as a woman’s only option is to appeal to her husband. There’s a comfort or a resignation with not getting your own way here, one that I suspect makes us westerners with our preference for self-determination seem like petulant toddlers saying, “I want it my way,” or a primary-aged child whose constant refrain is, “But that’s not fair!”

He was not denying the vulnerability, yet as I have seen time and again in Tanzania, the solution he proffered was not to overturn hierarchy, but to encourage kindness from those who are in positions of power.

To that end, he spoke about a husband’s role being that of ‘mwangalizi’ rather than ‘bosi’. Mwangalizi loosely translates as ‘overseer’ or leader, but it can also be seen as ‘the one who watches out for the family’. This, he said, is how the church teaches headship.

A husband who is an overseer rather than a boss does not expect his wife and children to be his slaves. He talks to his wife and finds out what her needs are. He welcomes his children into his space, playing with them and tolerating them. He does not give orders about how things are to be done. Instead, he offers his preferences and waits for the family to take them up. (The example he gave here is that instead of telling his wife, ‘You must always cook rice,’ he says, ‘My dear, I really prefer rice to ugali.’)

These sound like small concessions to me but he explained that it’s a big shift in posture. The husband and father has chosen to be involved with his wife and children, rather than keeping himself separate from them, as if they are there to serve him, or to maintain his comfort and peace. He does not treat them as if he is above them; he has relationship with them. This relationship enables his better understanding which makes him a better leader who is able to seek the good of his family. It’s a head-shift because it requires that he lower himself to their level and concern himself with their concerns, so that he can use his position effectively.

To that end, his big piece of advice was about walking together — literally. Because men and women are often in different spheres in Tanzania, their different tasks require different timings. A wife may precede her husband to where they’re going to prepare things in advance, or to remain behind and follow after so she can prepare things at home. This means that husbands and wives operate separately, without the opportunity for sharing and communication. However, to walk together and have that time to talk and to share is a powerful mechanism for understanding one another.

Categories: Grassroots theology Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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