January 18, 2013
BAI KUKE, CAMEROON – Frida Nembe, 61, is an eloquent and smart woman in Bai Kuke, a village of the Balong tribe in southwestern Cameroon. Several years ago, she became a “female husband.”
“I met my wife a few years ago, proposed to her and married her,” Nembe says.
Nembe is not a lesbian. She merely wanted an heir for her property.
She says that her only child with her late husband died, and she was no longer able to get pregnant. So she became a husband herself, a female husband.
“When I got married to my late husband, I gave birth to one child who died a few years later,” Nembe says. “It is for this reason that I married my wife so that she will bear a child who will inherit my property when I die.”
Nembe says she performed all the traditional rites that a man would perform to marry a woman in order to marry her wife, who was from another Balong village.
“I went to her village, met her people and paid her complete dowry,” she says. “I then brought her to my house to live with me and bear children in my name.”
She says that Balong tradition allows women to marry to other women in cases where women are barren or have no children. Even women who want additional children but are unable to conceive them may marry other women.
Nembe says that the women adhere to traditional gender roles. The childbearing woman becomes the wife in the marriage, while the other woman acts as a female husband.
“My wife was supposed to stay in my house, make children for me, help me in housework and farmwork,” she says. “She is supposed to serve me like a wife should serve her husband, and I will in turn treat her like a husband should treat his wife. I am supposed to take responsibility of her needs.”
Both wives and their female husbands have the freedom to date men outside the marriage. But Nembe says that a respectful wife should be selective about the men whom she dates as well as be open about them with her female husband, who will become the “father” of any children that result from her wife’s extramarital relations.
“Women married like this have the freedom to choose any man that they admire and get pregnant,” she says. “But, these women do not have to tell the men they sleep with that they are responsible for the pregnancy, in case they become pregnant, because the child will become the child of her [female] husband.”
She says any man who claims to be the father of a child must contend with this tradition. Children take the surnames of their female fathers.
“If for any reason a man comes up to claim that such a child is his,” she says, “he has to pay back the complete dowry of the woman concerned.”
Nembe’s wife left her after less than a year, before she was able to give her any children.
“My wife came to house and told me she will not be able to stay with me,” she says. “She told she wants to go back to her people. I let her go, but I don’t think she is still my wife because she is no longer in my house, and she is delivering children at random in her village.”
Nembe says that she doesn’t consider those children as hers because her former wife gave birth to them outside of her home with unknown men. She says she regrets marrying her.
“I should have investigated very well before getting married to this girl,” Nembe says in a low tone. “I should have gotten married to a woman who will respect me at every given time. I regret falling into the wrong hands.”
She squeezes her hands as she laments having no heirs to her property.
“It feels so bad to think that I will die without having a child of my own to inherit me,” she says. “My property will all go to my extended family.”
While the practice of heterosexual women getting married to women is fading away gradually among the Balongs, female husbands and village elders say that it is the best option for women without biological children to have children of their own to inherit their name and property. On the other hand, some adults born of such unions say that it is a complicated practice that leaves them confused. Outsiders denounce the practice as a violation of women’s rights and perpetuator of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Legal practitioners say that this form of marriage is unknown in the Cameroonian legal system and must be erased.
The practice of heterosexual women getting married to women is a longtime custom among the Balongs, who live in the Southwest region of Cameroon.
Barren women and women who don’t have children can marry to any woman of their choice who will then bear children in their name. But in Bai Kuke, and in neighboring Balong villages, the traditional practice is dying down.
There is no data on the number of women who still partake in it. But Andrew Etuke, 71, a member of the council of elders in Bai Kuke, says that its practitioners have declined by more than half.
Etuke says he is in full support of the practice of heterosexual women marrying women.
“If a woman is unable to have biological children,” he says, “she should pick the option of marrying a woman who will bear children in her name.”
Etuke says every woman has the right to have children and to decide how she will go about having them.
“No one should live without having children,” he says, “unless he or she decides not to.”
He says that marriage between women is a common practice among the Balongs, even today.
“This practice is very normal with us here,” he says, “and we encourage every woman who cannot bear biological children to go ahead and pick a wife that will give her children.”
But he says that the practice is dying down because modernism and education influence people to view the practice as primitive.
One wife to a female husband living in a Balong village hails from the Northwest region of Cameroon.
“This kind of marriage is not common in my area,” she says, declining to be identified. “If people in my village finds out that I am married to another woman. It is going to be the talk of the town.”
She says her husband died, so she was living in her parents’ house. But this living situation caused problems between her and her mother.
Then, a woman from her community living in one of the Balong villages in the Southwest region came to the village and told her that there was a woman looking for a girl to marry.
“When Mama came to marry me, I was in a desperate situation to leave my village,” she says.
They got married among close family members only because the practice was not common in her home community.
“It wasn’t an open marriage in my village,” she says. “It was a secret thing.”
She says that her female husband treated her with all the respect she deserved.
“Mama loved me like a daughter,” she says. “We worked together like mother and daughter.”
She fulfilled her female husband’s wishes, giving birth to three children in her name. Her female husband died in 2006, making her a widow.
“I regret that Mama died,” she says. “She was kind to me.”
The children she gave birth to for her female husband will inherit her property as they grow up.
“Mama left cocoa farms and a house,” she says.
But some children born of these unions say it causes personal and social problems for them.
One 25-year-old man, who requested anonymity because of his rejection of the practice, hails from Bai Manya, a Balong village. He grew up with a mother and a female father.
“That practice is one of the many bad practices that exist in Cameroon,” he says.
He says it is impossible for a woman to father a child.
“Where on Earth can a woman produce sperm to father a child?” he asked. “There can never be a female father to a child.”
He says he lived with the stigma of being fathered by a woman all his life. His primary school friends teased him with jibes such as, “You get papa?” which is pidgin English for, “Do you have a father?” and, “Woman di born pickin?” which means, “Can a woman father a child?”
“I came to realize that those insults were not for nothing,” he says. “I then embarked in knowing who my real father was after the death of my female father.”
He says he inherited his female father’s cocoa farms and houses when she died, but he gave them up for the peace of getting to know his biological father.
“I pressurized my biological mother, and she told me who my biological father was,” he says. “It was such a joy to me.”
He says his biological father accepted him with respect.
“My biological father was very happy to see me,” he says, “and today, I have had the peace that I didn’t have for a very long time.”
He says even though he has lost all the property that his female father had willed to him because he chose to identify with his biological father, he doesn’t regret it.
“Knowing my father is far more rewarding to me than owning property worth millions of CFA from a fake father,” he says, referring to Central African francs. “I have found peace at last.”
Others outside the Balong community call the practice aberrant.
Martha Mamua, lives in Kumba, the headquarters of Meme, the division where the Balong villages are located. She says she has never heard of this practice.
“Unbelievable,” Mamua says, clapping her hands in disbelief. “How can a woman get married to a woman in Cameroon? Unbelievable. Does that really exist?”
She says such a practice is bad and should not be encouraged.
“The world is evolving for the better,” she says. “Old and bad traditional practices should be dropped for new and good ones.”
Vivian Emade, 43, works with the divisional delegation of the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family in Meme. She says that this practice is another form of women exploiting women.
“Women should desist from oppressing and marginalizing their fellow women,” she says in anger.
Emade says that if a woman marries another woman, the female husband is encouraging promiscuity. Wives often don’t wear condoms when they engage in extramarital sexual intercourse with men because they enter into the marriage in order to provide children for their female husbands. Moreover, wives sleep with various men so that no man can claim to be the child’s father, which increases their exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
“It is a very bad practice, especially in this age of HIV/AIDS,” she says.
She also says that women with low incomes are the main victims of this practice. As female husbands have amassed wealth that they are looking to pass on to offspring, they can afford to pay their wives’ bride price, which can help the wives’ families.
She says the ministry must do something to fight this silent ill.
“We are going to embark on sensitization missions to such areas to sensitize people on the ills of such practice,” she says.
Roger Otang, a barrister at Fraternity Law Firm Kumba, says that this form of marriage is illegal.
“Cameroon law does not recognize that form of marriage,” he says.
Otang says Cameroon law only allows heterosexual marriages – one man to one wife, or one man to two or more wives. He says women should consider the rights of children when considering marrying one another.
“Every child has the right know who his real parents are,” he says. “Every child has the right to bear the names of his real father irrespective of the physical or financial situation of the father. In effect, no child should be deprived from knowing his or her father.”
Otang calls on all children born of this union to strive to know who their parents are. He says the legal system is ready to assist them in cases that parents or mothers are refusing to tell them who their biological parents are.