For richer, for poorer: marriage and casualized sex in East African artisanal mining settlements

For richer, for poorer: marriage and casualized sex in East African artisanal mining settlements

Migrants to Tanzania’s artisanal gold mining sites seek mineral wealth, which is accompanied by high risks of occupational hazards, economic failure, AIDS and social censure from their home communities. Male miners in these settlements compete to attract newly arrived young women who are perceived to be diverting male material support from older women and children’s economic survival. This article explores the dynamics of monogamy, polygamy and promiscuity in the context of rapid occupational change. It shows how a wide spectrum of productive and welfare outcomes is generated through sexual experimentation, which calls into question conventional concepts of prostitution, marriage and gender power relations.
 
Contrary to the view that women are parasitically dependent on miners’ economic support, financial interdependency between miners and their stable female partners is the norm. Most women are self-making in terms of constructing a livelihood combined with searching for a male partner. Viable emotionally and financially supportive sexual partnerships can and do form in a significant proportion of relationships despite miners’ temptation to seek the company of young good-time girls and their financial capability to have many girlfriends and/or marry frequently. Women who are strong, business-diversified, calculating planners with enduring marital relationships are rewarded whereas many others fall on exceptionally hard times, often dislocated from the material and moral support of their extended families.
 
Thus, men’s luck, skill and willingness to move to new mining strike sites are only part of the story. Many have female partners, be they informal wives or girlfriends, who facilitate their economic success. Reciprocal balance between men’s and women’s ad hoc sexual and economic partnerships is hard to achieve. Miners’ mobility can be enriching for men, but impoverishing for their female partners and the children they father. Nonetheless, women in Tanzanian mining settlements generally do not perceive or portray themselves as victims of sexual oppression. No longer subject to the control of their elders, they have migrated to the mining settlements, engaged in sexual relationships, and pursued productive and reproductive paths of self-making in or out of relationships with men.
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