When I first met Nora, in 1991, she was a 29 years old single mother living at her mother’s place in Meru together with her two children—from different fathers. Ever since Nora, at the age of 14, gave birth to her first born child out of wedlock, she has supported herself and her children through various forms of petty trad­ing.

Like most unmarried women who give birth at home, Nora was strongly urged to fend for her child herself. She recalls how difficult it was: “My daughter was hardly four months old when my father forced me to ‘try my luck’ in business. Who else should care for my child and me? If I were to rely on my father, I would still be wearing the same dress!” Like a few other young and unmarried women in Meru at that time, Nora purchased goods in Kenya or more commonly at Na – manga, a fast expanding town at the border between Tanzania and Kenya, and re­turned to Arusha where she sold her goods for a good profit. During the late 1970s and early 1980s the most common goods, such as soap, butter, flour, sugar, and factory textile products such as kanga and kitenge, for women’s clothing, were hardly available in Tanzania. Since most people were in need of such commodi­ties it was easy to make a profit, but since this business was illegal it also had a high risk. Thus, Nora has several times returned home empty-handed after the police confiscated the goods she had purchased illegally.

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Later, when the border reopened, in 1985, Nora began to trade in sugar, an­other scarce commodity, by buying it directly from the sugar-factory at Moshi. Here Nora met a man, a young and unmarried Pare [i. e. an ethnic group originally from the eastern part of Kilimanjaro region]. “We planned to have a child togeth­er and soon I conceived.” The man wished to marry her, but when Nora dis­cussed it with her mother, the mother gave her a clear-cut answer: “If you leave me alone, you will be called home very soon [i. e. to bury me].”[121]

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Nora‘Prostitutes’ or Modern Women? Negotiating Respectability in Northern Tanzania

Although Nora maintained the relationship with her son’s father, she had ad­ditional short-term affairs at the same time. Recalling those days, she explains:

I used to be a malaya [a sexually promiscuous woman, sometimes used synonymously with ‘prostitute’] and I ‘moved around a lot’ [meaning that she had ‘many lovers’]. Before AIDS, life was not so complicated. If you quarrelled with your boyfriend, youjust left him for anoth­er. These days, however, it is difficult because of AIDS and other sexually transmitted dis­eases, and I was therefore forced to change my life. You see, in 19881, along with some other unmarried mothers in the neighbouring village, was accused of having AIDS. The rumour said that we were malaya with AIDS. My boyfriend at that time insisted that I should de­fend my reputation. Along with the two other women I brought the case to [the local] court and we got some compensation.

The person spreading the rumour was fined a total of Tzs 25,000, which was dis­tributed among Nora’s clan elders. The offender also had to slaughter a sheep ‘to ask forgiveness’. Although Nora won her case, and thus regained some respect, the rumour still circulated. She had lost weight and people questioned her health condition; some remained convinced that she was infected with AIDS.

Because of the AIDS incident and the rumours about her, plus the fact that Nora considered herself too old to have sporadic and multiple love affairs, she de­cided to take on another life. Towards the end of 1989, she had a relationship with Mal who worked in Arusha town as an accountant when they first met. When he and Nora met he was married, but later he divorced his wife. Due to a poor salary, Mal quit his job and like many others in this area he initiated, more or less suc­cessfully, small income generating activities, including a poultry project, mining and trade in gem-stones. Mal openly told Nora that he had a wife who now lived in Dar with their five children. He did not, however, tell Nora that he was in­volved with another (informal) ‘wife’—living some seven kilometres from Nora’s home—and that they had two children together.

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As mentioned above, Nora and her children were living at her mother’s place. For Nora, as for most unmarried (Meru) women, to live at their parents’ is rarely a good solution. Once the parents die, brothers will inherit the land and often force out their unmarried sisters. For single mothers, like Nora, this means very few opportunities for economic survival. Thus, fully aware of her situation, Nora managed, through Mal, to obtain one acre of land close to her natal home. She began growing vegetables for sale and also began to build a house. Thus, with ad­ditional support from her lover, Nora was now in a position to plan a life eco­nomically independent of her brothers and their wives. Nora was fully aware that this represented a unique opportunity for her and her children. Through her re­lationship with Mal she could strengthen her position both economically and so­cially and, more critically, she could remain with her children as well as care for her old mother. There was, however, one big problem with Nora’s plan. Mal [122]

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