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Traveling Solo: An Impromptu Marriage Proposal

One of the privileges that comes with being a childfree single woman is the ability to travel unencumbered by the constraints of partner discomfort or childcare availability. Added to this privilege is possessing an American passport and having the expendable income of an educated person with an advanced degree. Because of this, I have had the great fortune to travel solo throughout the world since I was in my late 20s. I am often intrigued by people’s reaction to me – a Black American woman with no husband or children in tow – either wandering the streets of Mexico City alone or being driven around and escorted to temples in Kolkata, India by a local man whose job is to both ensure her enjoyment of the city and her protection from it.

No matter the place or the people or the context of the conversation, the first question I am always asked is: “Are you married?” It is followed by the standard: “Where are your children?” I relish these conversation starters because the discourse that normally ensues reminds me of what much of the world expects of me. More importantly, I am reminded of how the story that these strangers write about me in their heads does not likely resemble the one I have chosen to write about myself.

My driver in Ethiopia is curious about my story. We are less than an hour into our drive from Bahir Dar to Gondar when Webunte turns to me and asks: “What is it like…?” He pauses and I can see him searching for the correct sequence of English words to finish his question. “As a lady. As a single lady in a foreign country? What is it like for you?”

I am not sure of the question. Is he asking me if I am able to enjoy myself without having a travelling companion or is he asking if I ever feel unsafe? I decide to answer both questions. “It is fun. I always look forward to my next adventure. I do think about my safety, too, though. This is why I normally hire someone to drive me around or when I am out site seeing, I will sometimes get a male guide to show me around.”

Webunte says men get the wrong idea sometimes and I should be careful. “They will think…uhm…they might think sinful things. They might think you do sinful things with them.” I chuckle and confirm that yes, I am aware that many men in the countries I visit see me as an easy lay and might try to take advantage. “In the states, we refer to it as ‘running game.’ I know how to handle men who try to run game, Webunte.” Webunte reassures me that he will not let these men take advantage of me here in Ethiopia. “You no worry while you are with me. No bad men will bother you.”

I thank him for his protection and tell him he is an honorable man. I continue to take in the rolling mountains and cattle being herded by families outside my window. A few minutes have passed before Webunte strikes up another conversation.

“Keturah,” he begins. “I have another question for you.”

“What is it?”

“Would you like to marry me?” He laughs, but waits for an answer.

I laugh, too, and tell him that I am not in the habit of marrying strangers.

“Stranger? We not strangers? Yesterday, I take you to my village…”

I interrupt him to remind him that he did not “take me to his village.” He actually took me to see the water fall that EVERY foreigner goes to see when in Bahir Dar. “The Blue Nile River just happens to be in the village where you grew up, Webunte.”

“Oh, okay…that is true. But, you like the village, no?”

“Yes, I liked the village, but I do not want to live there. And I do not want to marry you.”

Webunte assures me he will give me anything I want. He says he understands that I might not love the village at first, but “after some time, you could change the way you think.” He lets me know that he no longer lives in THAT particular village. Where he lives now there are lots more goats and he has built a new house and all he needs now is a wife and children. He paints this elaborate picture of all of these children running around and goats doing all sorts of things goats do and the two of us drinking beer and me loving it all.

“Uhm…no…I will not take care of goats. I will not have children. We can drink beer later, but I will not be your wife. Thanks for offering.”

Eventually, I convince Webunte that I will not change the way I think. He will have to find a nice Ethiopian girl to have his children and care for his goats. He accepts that there will be no marriage, but offers another proposal.

“We have sex.”

For some reason, this suggestions cracks me up. I burst into laughter and have a hard time putting words together to respond to this latest ridiculous idea from Webunte.

“Didn’t you just say you would protect me from bad men?”

Webunte looks confused. “Yes, I protect you from bad men.”

“Yet, you want me to do sinful things with you? Webunte…come on, homie. Are you not running game now, Bruh?”

Webunte shakes his head furiously. “No run. No game. I offer you to marry. You say no.”

“So now you offer me sex.”

“Yes. You want?”

“No, Webunte. I do not want to marry you nor do I want to have sex with you.”

“So, no marry? No sex?” He shakes his head and wonders aloud what DO I want. “I will give you whatever you want,” he repeats as if I did not understand him clearly the first time.

And THERE is the story that Webunte has written in his head. In the absence of a respectable woman seeking marriage lies the whore seeking an outlet for her sins. A woman who is eschewing marriage is obviously only interested in meaningless sexual encounters. If she does not want one, she must want the other. If she is looking for neither…well, then…what the heck is she looking for, by golly?

“Here is what I want: I want to make it to Gondar alive. So, you can give me that. Stop turning around here to plead your case and keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the steering wheel.” I give him epic side eye and tell him he will grant me this wish ONLY.

He gives me exactly what I want. Periodically, he checks in with me to see if “you change the way you think.” I let him know that there have been no reversals in my responses to either proposal. He pretends that he is hurt and pouts before moving on to other topics.

By the time we get to Gondar, Webunte and I have become family. He insists that I am his sister now and tells me the reason why he wanted to marry me (or have sex with me) is because I am beautiful on the outside and the inside.

“You are like Ethiopian woman. But, you are really American. It was fun to make joke with you. Because you look at me like African woman when you do not like joke.”

Now, here is a story on which Webunte and I can both agree. I am American, yet my natural response to tom foolery is VERY African.



Mission: Fighting the Theft of Girls’ Voices

Anyone who knows me well knows why I became a teacher. A decade ago, I did not get the call to simply teach public school students how to write essays. 10 years ago, I got the call to teach the black and brown students at The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem (TYWLS). From its genesis, the road I paved to become a literature teacher merged intricately with the road the universe paved for me to make the world safer for women, children and people of color. While my tenure at TYWLS taught me a lot about the particulars of a single sex school environment, I underestimated how starkly different girls carried themselves when they were educated with boys.

Joining the teaching staff of The International School of Kigali -Rwanda (ISKR) ignited a few assumptions on my part. Generally, my largest assumption was that I would have the most difficult time adjusting to teaching the children of the haves. A career dedicated to the children of the have nots provided me with an arsenal of skills that I assumed would have to be reworked in this new environment. I have found that assumption to be totally unfounded as my current students, who come from all over the world, behave all too predictably like the ones I taught in East Harlem. And their parents seem to ask themselves the same question after 3 p.m. that I ask myself before 3 p.m. If I were to strangle this child right now, would the world judge me harshly or would it understand?

I was only vaguely cognizant of my second assumption: teaching in a co-ed school would seem odd to me for the first several months at least. I did not even consider the difference in the girls because…well, girls are girls are girls. My only assumption was: Teenage boys might get more bored and disruptive in a literature class than their female counterparts. After two months, I am surprised at how often I reflect on all those professional development workshops the Young Women’s Leadership Network sponsored during my teaching career. No matter the topic, each workshop had as its foundation this simple premise: SINGLE SEX EDUCATION MATTERS. Teachers must make concerted, calculated effort to ensure girls do not fold themselves into that dangerous box of polite silence the world will insist is the most appropriate space for them. I do not recall many times in my classroom at TYWLS where I felt myself bubble into a mild rage because my girls refused to own their voice. I talk myself out of a fit of uncontrolled rage at least twice a week at ISKR.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, I teach the 8th grade. On Mondays and Wednesdays, 6 boys from 5 different countries seat themselves on one side of the large conference table. 6 girls from 6 different countries seat themselves on the opposite. I instruct all students to write down the day’s critical thinking question about the text we are reading and answer it thoroughly. I watch the 6 boys hurriedly jot down the first thing that pops into their heads. I watch the girls think for a moment, write, erase, rewrite, call me over and ask the same question in at least a dozen different ways: “Is my answer good enough?”

When I ask for volunteers to share their responses, the boys’ hands go up immediately. Sometimes, they don’t even wait for me to ask for a volunteer; they just start talking. More often than not, the responses that come from the boys’ mouths are shallow and barely scratch the surface. I turn to the girls, who have written (in the most painstakingly neat penmanship) the most insightful observations about characters and connections to texts we read weeks ago. I watch them erase their answers. I watch them continue to write long after I have announced we are moving on, as if perfection can indeed be attained if I just allowed them 10 minutes to draft an answer instead of a measly 7.

“I want to hear from this side of the table.” I turn to the girls, ignoring the two eager hands waving in the air.

The girls remain silent. I start to feel the rage bubble in the bottom of my belly. I have made it clear to at least two of these girls that their responses are not only thoughtful, but are more correct than I was even hoping for.

Why are they silent?

I put one of them on the spot. “Yara.” She looks startled and irritated. “Let’s hear your answer.”

She averts her eyes at first and begins her answer the way so many girls here do. “Well, I don’t know if I am right…”

The bubbling makes its way to the middle of my stomach.

“Well, nobody knows how right you are either. The only person who knows the right answer is the author and since he’s dead, I guess you’re gonna have to speak for him.”

She smiles and looks back down at her paper. She begins to speak again.

“Well, uhmm…well, I think the tone is…”

It is only two brief seconds that Yara pauses to gather her thoughts. However, Joseph steals those two seconds with agility and precision.

“I think it is like the tone of the last poem we read because…”

The rage rises to my throat. Not because this impulsive 13 year old boy could not control his vocal cords long enough to wait for his classmate to finish her thought. I can barely contain myself because I am baring witness to Yara’s conscious choice to have her voice stolen. I see in her face the same irritation that I and her classmates feel as Joseph the Interloper casually grabs the mic I explicitly gave to her and only her as if he has a right to it. As if it is better suited to his hands. I see Yara half way open her mouth. I see her close it and lower her eyes to the table.

“Yara, were you done with your comment?” I encourage her to look up at me as I ask her the question again.

Her eyes remain lowered. “Joseph, I appreciate your eagerness and I will get to you in a moment, but we are interested in what Yara has to say now.”

Yara remains silent.

“Let’s hear it,” I insist.

I wish I could connect this trend to a specific country or a specific age group. Perhaps my fits of rage would be assuaged if all of the girls who offer up their voices to be co-opted by entitled males were poor village girls from “developing” countries. If only I could simply say, “Yara is only 13. Maybe Dutch girls are just more dainty.”

But Makeda is not Dutch. She is not 13. She is a 17 year old Ethiopian who introduced herself to me via her I am poem with: “I am a feminist.”

When Makeda whispers to me that she wants to withdraw her name from the ballot as representative on the student council, the bubbling in my stomach that is becoming so familiar I barely notice it shoots through me with a fierceness that is surprising.

“That is unacceptable. Your name will remain on the ballot.”

Makeda does not understand why I am angry. Like Yara, she doesn’t understand why I cannot let her simply choose to fade into the background. After all, it is her choice. It is only an insignificant extra-curricular activity.

“I didn’t know we’d have to give a speech,” Makeda tries to explain as if this will make me understand why she needs to momentarily turn herself into a mute.

“I cannot allow it, Sweetie. This might be selfish of me but I cannot allow an almost 18 year old who is going off to university to major in Women Studies in a year to stand here and tell me she plans on cowering in front of 20 people she has eaten lunch with for the past three years. I will allow you to make your speech last, which gives you a few minutes to jot down something on this napkin. But you will be telling your inzu why you are qualified to represent them on the student council.”

I do not know what to make of Makeda or her friend, Ariana. A 16 year old Italian with two parents who work for the embassy, I am baffled by Ariana every time she opens her mouth to announce the play she has written “is really stupid. I can’t believe the drama class actually has to perform it.” I watch her watch me as I peruse the snappy dialogue she puts in her characters’ mouths and the sophisticated way she uses stage directions to paint the picture of a family who is grappling with a host of problems.

I bite my tongue each time she disparages her stellar work and plan my moments to transform the rage into calm encouragement. In those planning moments, though, I watch her classmate, Kito, very closely. As Ariana consistently dismisses her obvious talent, Kito continues to nonchalantly turn in incoherent, grammatically torturous scenes rife with gratuitous violence that follow no clear plot line or dramatic structure. I talk him through rewrites in which he respectfully defends his choices. When he capitulates to my advice, however, it is only a humble, “Okay. I see what you are saying now.” Not once has Kito denounced these hot ass messes as “stupid” and unworthy of sharing with anyone else.

While I am certain that my girls at TYWLS were not immune to self-deprecation and self-doubt, I struggle to recall many memories in which either of these self-defeating notions were the norm. Girls being anything and everything but afraid in their class discussions. Girls fighting over whose turn it was to speak on behalf of the school at some event. Girls admitting that laziness is the reason why their work was below my and their own expectations instead of attributing poor quality to inferior skills. These seemed to dominant my daily experiences at TYWLS. I took for granted the reassuring comfort of such an environment. I allowed myself to believe that what I and my colleagues had created was the standard.

In this new environment, I decide every day to replace the grumblings of rage with commitments to gratitude. I remind myself to appreciate that my work to mold girls who are blind to their own power into women who are committed to their mission will be more challenging. Isn’t that the exact reason why I left my beloved TYWLS in my beloved New York City in the first place? If I am to continue my mission, I must accept the new shape it has chosen to take and adapt myself to it. The bubblings of rage will not likely subside. I am thankful that they won’t.

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