Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Tanzanian polygamist's puzzle: how to stop six wives warring over 500 acres?

by Katy Migiro | @katymigiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 25 April 2017 13:00 GMT

Some of Tanzanian polygamist Kuzenza Magoso's family play outside their home. Photo taken Feb 27, 2017. TRF/Katy Migiro

Image Caption and Rights Information

Magoso's wives each have a title deed showing they co-own their land with him - something highly unusual in Tanzania.

By Katy Migiro

SHISHIYU, Tanzania, April 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With six wives, 16 children, 60 grandchildren and 500 acres of land, 80-year-old Tanzanian traditional healer Kuzenza Magoso worries his descendants could start fighting over his estate when he dies.

Family land disputes can turn violent in Tanzania, where property is traditionally passed on from one male to another without title deeds or written wills.

"To avoid conflict, I thought it was better for each wife to have her own house and property," said Magoso, a tall man with a white beard, wearing a red felt hat and an oversized jacket.

"I don't care what people say about me. What's important to me is to make sure I have done the right thing for my family."

Magoso's six wives each have a title deed showing they co-own their land with him. This is highly unusual in Tanzania where most rural land has not even been surveyed.

Recognising the problem, the government has announced plans to issue titles to 2.5 million people by 2020 to protect rights and reduce land disputes, lands minister William Lukuvi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Undocumented tenure, which the United Nations estimates accounts for 70 percent of land ownership in developing countries, is rapidly being replaced by individual titling throughout the world.

Women and the poor risk being left out, as savvy investors and elites better understand the importance of title deeds and how to get them, land rights experts say.

"If formalisation is going to happen, it's so important that it happens equitably and inclusively," said Jennifer Duncan, a lawyer with Landesa, a Seattle-based land rights charity.

"Land is still a critical asset of production for about 50 percent of the world."

Tanzania has been embroiled in a series of controversial land acquisitions, as foreign companies jostle for land that villagers and indigenous people claim as theirs.


Experts say giving women land rights unlocks enormous benefits for them, their families and the nation but they are often excluded because of culture, poverty and ignorance.

"It was not easy to convince a husband to own land jointly," said Haji Kihwele, programme coordinator in northwestern Tanzania for Oxfam, which has supported the issuance of more than 500 titles in five villages in the region since 2015.

"They said that women are property, so property cannot own property."

Women own one-third of the 500-odd titles issued through the Oxfam project, usually jointly with their husbands, he said.

The African Union is campaigning for 30 percent of registered land to be owned by women by 2025, which could reduce poverty and exposure to domestic violence as well as providing collateral for loans and security in old age, experts say.

Women with strong land rights in Tanzania earn up almost four times more income, according to 2011 research by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

"If they don't own the land, they don't make the decision on what they are growing," said Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, a researcher on women and land with Human Rights Watch.

Men tend to grow cash crops that are profitable and marketable, and may not allow women to plant slow-maturing foods, like cassava, she said.

Third wife Mayanga Lukanya is pictured at her home. Feb 27, 2017. TRF/Katy Migiro

The bigger challenge for Tanzania is to find the money to issue title deeds at all.

The East African nation has model land laws, drawn up after grassroots consultation.

"It's the best example in Africa... of how it could be done well," said Duncan.

"Under the legal framework, the communities should know where their boundaries are and have the right to decide what happens within those boundaries."

As a first step, most of the borders of Tanzania's 14,000 odd-villages have been demarcated and mapped, she said.

But only 10 percent of villages have completed the second stage of drawing up land use plans, according to Tanzania's Land Rights Research and Resources Institute, which must be done before title deeds can be issued.

Land use plans show what parts of a village are needed for agriculture, public facilities and conservation and, critically, what idle land could potentially be sold to investors.

"The government is still reluctant to promote this exercise, seeing as it's very expensive," said Kihwele, adding that the government requires 9 million Tanzanian shillings ($4,000) per village, although Oxfam has done it for half this cost.

"To make sure that food production is sustainable, this land should be legalised."

Lands minister Lukuvi said the registration process has been moving slowly especially in rural areas due to lack of operational capacity and financial constraints.

Tanzanian farmers whose land has been taken by the government and leased to mining companies and large-scale food producers have received minimal compensation, he said.

Seif Hussein, assistant administrative secretary for infrastructure in Tanzania's northern Mwanza region, acknowledges the problem but said local governments are short of compensation funds.

The government's budget is focused on developing land use plans for fast-growing urban areas to stop slums mushrooming, he said, rolling out a glossy Mwanza city plan on his office desk.

Mwalu Daudi, 41, a divorcee, is glad to be among the lucky few single women in Shishiyu village with a title deed.

Her aunt was macheted to death in an inheritance dispute.

"Women are suffering when their husbands die or they divorce," said Daudi, a solidly-built woman with plaited hair and a pink shawl around her shoulders.

"No one can come and disturb me."

The International Women's Media Foundation supported Katy Migiro's reporting from Tanzania ($1 = 2,230.0000 Tanzanian shillings)

(Reporting by Katy Migiro Additional reporting by Kizito Makoye; Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.