Tanzania – Marriage, Family and Kinship

maasai wedding ceremony

Tanzanians still place great importance on traditional social organisation systems in their everyday lives, and systems of kinship provide a strong support network that is especially visible through all of life’s major ceremonies.


Usually, the traditional customs surrounding marriage vary with different ethnic groups. Overall, however, clan exogamy (marriage that takes place outside of the group or clan) is common with virtually every ethnic group. Traditional customs in Tanzania require a marriage to be organised by the bride and groom’s parents, however these arrangements are now less common, especially in more urban environments. In those ethnic groups which trace their descent through the male line, marriage customs traditionally include presenting a bride price, or dowry, by the bridegroom to the bride’s family. This may be in the form of money, livestock, local beer, clothing or some other item. The value of this dowry will be worked out in negotiations between the family of the bride and the family of the groom, and preparations may be extensive, often taking several months. Families who can afford it may have a separate ceremony for the dowry and then a second ceremony in a church a few months later, with traditional ceremonies following on. While Muslims and several other ethnic groups permit polygamy, this practice is becoming less popular, mainly because of Christianity’s influence, but also because of the cost of maintaining more than one household.

The Family Unit

In Tanzania, the structure of the family unit is an extended one, however development pressures have now started to lead to more nuclear family units, especially in more urban areas. Usually, the man will be the head of the household and will take all of the major decisions. The wife will earn respect by having children, and often will not be considered to have reached full womanhood until she has produced a healthy offspring. In the majority of ethnic groups, she will be called after her eldest child, e.g. Mama Kyaruzi. Children usually eat apart from the adults, and often with their mother. Today’s market economy has put a lot of pressure on the Tanzanian domestic unit’s stability and the viability of the extended family. Nowadays, wealthier family members frequently find they must supply resources to their less well-off family members to provide for their welfare and education. In areas where there have been many AIDS-related deaths, there is even more strain on extended families.


The laws of inheritance in Tanzania vary with different ethnic groups, and there are major differences between customary inheritance laws and those of the country as a whole which are settled in court. Generally, males are favored over females in customary law in order to keep the clan holdings together. However the way that land holdings are customarily divided has led to a lot of land fragmentation in regions where there is already a scarcity of arable land. Divorcees and widows are often not provided for adequately through the customary laws and therefore must take care of themselves or rely upon their children. This is now starting to be seen as discrimination and organised groups and lawyers are starting to challenge this.


In most ethnic groups, the clanship system is common. While the patrilineal system is popular in many clans, some groups trace their descent through the female line, for example the Kaguru. All clans differ in their function and structure, with some being dispersed and others being recognizable groups. Usually, one or more elders is responsible for settling any dispute in the clan and for carrying out ancestor veneration ceremonies.