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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.



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