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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.

 

 

Beautiful Women Hurt More Than Murder

As someone who has always been interested in people, it is little wonder I have also been unable to lay to rest my wanderlust. When I have spoken about countries I have wanted to visit or have visited, I have occasionally gotten the curious: “Why there?” The most organic answer I have always been able to come up with is: “Well, because there are people there.” Aside from eating my way through the region, my main reason for visiting most countries is to talk (as much as my limited knowledge of their local language allows) to people who likely had different experiences than my own, but essentially wanted the same things for themselves and their loved ones as I did.

This relocation to Rwanda is unique in that for the first time, I will be in a country for an extended period of time and I have come here with no knowledge of or addiction to its native cuisine. So, my desire to connect with people, to engage in sincere dialogue with them is less likely to take a back seat to eating my way across this lovely country like a ravenous dog.

Ironically, the one topic in which most would want to engage is officially off limits here in Rwanda.

For those of you who find it hard not to block out images of Don Cheadle defending his family and neighbors from machete-wielding rebels whenever you read the word Rwanda, you should know that if you visit here, talking about the genocide is taboo. Calling the genocide a war is taboo. Using words like Hutu and Tutsi is downright offensive. The official party line is the genocide happened two decades ago. We are no longer tribes; We are RWANDANS. We have rebuilt and will continue to do so. We remember and mourn as a nation during April, when there are memorials and ceremonies. Then, we promptly move on.

I have no burning desire to force potential friends to relive their pain just to satisfy my own curiosity, but it strikes me as odd that a defining moment in the history of a country that happens to have been the catalyst to the great country it is now becoming can not be spoken of in polite conversation. Nevertheless, I follow the protocol that has been laid out to me by my employer and the many blogs I have read since accepting this position. Do. Not. Bring. Up. The. Genocide. Keep your theories and opinions about who is to blame and the ramifications of the tragedy to yourself, bsese.

I am not thinking about the genocide or Don Cheadle when I call Eric, the taxi driver who my boss assured me would give me a good price to take me downtown. I am only thinking about an iron. Although I unpacked my suitcases quite some time ago, I have yet to actually iron any of the wrinkled dresses haphazardly thrown onto hangers in my closet. I need an iron and likely an ironing board. And also, a mop, which means I should get a broom. Which ultimately means I need a ride downtown and back.

Eric is such a friendly man. He not only drives me to T-2000, Kigali’s version of Dollar General, but he also helps me shop. When my few poorly pronounced phrases in Kinyarwanda do not result in any of the workers helping me find what I am looking for, he says things to them and then items that I need magically appear. Eric even encourages me to pursue my insane goal of meeting President Kagame by randomly showing up to his office one day and introducing myself. (“You should make an appointment first. He is a nice man. You might not get arrested.”) Eric even asks me how much certain items I am purchasing would cost in America, especially “New York City where you come from. I know it is quite expensive.”

Perhaps it is because our errand has turned into a friendly getting-to-know-you chat that I forget a key piece of advice new teachers were given during our recent orientation. “Be careful asking people about their families,” an Ex-Pat who has been here for over five years cautioned. “You could involuntarily bring up some horrific memory that the person may have preferred to stay buried.”

At some point in our shopping spree, Eric asks me why I chose to come to Rwanda. After I explain my reason for relocating, I ask him what seems like the most logical follow up question: “Are you originally from here or are you an Ex-Pat like me, too.” When he answers that he is originally from Rwanda, but spent some of his childhood in South Africa, I logically reply, “Oh, is your family still living in South Africa or have they managed to move back to Rwanda like you?”

The nonchalant ease in which Eric responds has a bizarre way of alerting me that I may have caused my first international incident.

“My family was murdered in 1994.”

There is no discernible change in Eric’s disposition. He is neither visibly angry nor does he appear to be on the verge of an emotional meltdown. He reveals he is alone in this world after his entire family was killed during a three-month massacre just as casually as he revealed the difficulty he has with saving money because he has a “huge problem” that comes in the form of beautiful women who expect beautiful things.

I quickly decide I will not turn Eric’s tragedy into my own campaign of guilt and pity. I do not get flustered and try to convince him that I am really a good person who does not intend to open wounds that have never fully healed. I simply say to him: “That sounds incredibly hard. I am sorry you loss your family and I apologize if I have made you think about something that you’d rather forget.”

Somehow, those words grant me a brief entry into the post-genocide pain of Rwandans who I am told don’t share much with the Ex-Pats who have invaded their country these last 20 years. “It used to be hard,” Eric muses, his disposition still remaining calm, assured. “I am sure you wonder how someone like me – someone who lost his mother and father at the age of 7 is not crazy. And you should know that some people are, by the way. Some might be yelling at you right now and just tell you to shut up.” Eric goes on to explain that he doesn’t see the sense in falling apart. He has had a good life. His life now is better than some of his friends who were already living overseas when the chaos started not so long ago.

“I drive a Mercedes and make a good living here in my country,” he tells me proudly. His chest protrudes at least 3 inches as he pronounces, “One day soon, I will buy a plot of land and build a house.”

“Why, aren’t you fancy,” I tease him. “I won’t be able to afford you soon.”

He chuckles and assures me, “You still have some time to get good prices with me. It will take me two more years to save before I have enough.”

I remember the problem he shared with me earlier. “Well, if you don’t do something about this dating beautiful women business, it might take you a bit longer.”

And THIS is when Eric looks truly beleaguered. Tired. Worn down even.

“I know,” he sighs. “But, it is hard. These women in Kigali nowadays…”

Then, his voice trails off and I see on his face the universal look of every man every where remembering the beautiful women they have captured as well as the ones they couldn’t convince to stay. I do not need an orientation to tell me I should leave well enough alone.

Much to my relief, the cashier finally summons Eric and me to the register.

Narratives That Give Love a Bad Name

Ever since I was a girl, I’ve fantasized about seeing the world. Even when I was a pre-teen, I knew that by seeing the world, I did not mean vacaying in swanky resorts that felt like a night at the downtown Hilton in any nondescript American city and going on cruises, choosing the snorkeling excursion to add some adventure. As an avid reader, my imagination ran wild and when I played that “what do you want to be when you grow up” game in my head, I knew my life would involve leaving American borders for extended periods of time, if not forever. Something has happened to me these last several months. Perhaps, it is because I am looking at a solid decade at a wonderful job which I love in the best city in the country, but I am also beginning to feel the soft legs and mushy muscles of a woman too comfortable and in need of challenge. Perhaps it is because I am gleefully approaching 40 and realizing that this grand number warrants a grand life shift to accompany it. I have decided that instead of the vague “sometime in the future when the time is right” non-deadline, NOW is the ideal time to put my childhood dream into adulthood reality. Around late October, I decided to take baby steps along the way to the next phase of Keturah: global citizenship.

I set an ultimate move date: Summer of 2015. Picked an area of the globe that spoke to my heart: Africa, with specific focus on South Africa, Ghana or Ethiopia. As part of my plan, I spoke this goal into being – telling friends about my impending move and networking with colleagues who could be helpful in job searches. I have even plotted out my auditioning of countries where I’d like to live, planning a trip to Ghana in July with the possibility of exploring other countries in West Africa as well. I’ve picked the brains of numerous Africans – both living in Africa and here in New York City – and spoken with Black Americans who have travelled extensively across the continent. By speaking this almost reality into existence, I have already felt the soft gauze of lethargy and monotony float from my person. I am excited about my move even though it is almost two years away.

Out of all of the conversations I’ve had these last few months, the ones that have been the most revealing are chats I’ve had with friends about “What will you do with your man?” I’ve explained to friends that while The Yankee and I are definitely in love, neither one of us feels that this love is necessitated by marriage. Since we are staying together, we obviously are perfectly content with the status of the relationship and have talked about revisiting and reexamining it when the time comes. Like me, The Yankee is also fighting his way out of inertia right now. He, too, has just begun a new journey in his life. His journey is not necessarily tied to a move to another continent. In two years, it still may not be, either. With that said, I’ve shared with friends that my move to Africa is imminent. It is a pivotal step in the next phase of Keturah. It will happen. I would prefer it happened with The Yankee. But, it will happen regardless of him.

Saying this in the presence of women “of a certain age” has been a little unsettling. When I have calmly spoken about planning my life around my desires and those desires are not attached to what will or will not become of my romantic relationship, I have been startled by some of the love narratives on which many women base their decisions about relationships.

Love Narrative #1: The Ring Trumps EVERYthing (and I do mean every single other thing that you, as a woman of a “certain age,” should want for your life)

“What if The Yankee proposed to you in 6 months?” My friend, Theresa, asked me this bizarre question after I had spent a good 15 minutes explaining how important this move was to me and how not fulfilling it would leave me with a sense of discontent.

“Huh?” I truly was baffled by this question.

“I’m saying, what if he asked you to marry him because he wanted you to stay and create a life with him? Would you still go?”

While the sentiment in this question is one of genuine love of a man for his woman, if you truly examine it, the implication is a bit insulting. So, what if your man wanted you so badly that he had to stop you from fulfilling a significant goal in order to keep you? I mean, you do get something out of the deal; he will marry you, after all. Why not just put that global citizenship business aside for later? Take the ring, Girl. Take. The. Ring!

I asked Theresa if she had been listening to anything I had just said. Unless The Yankee proposed marriage after he had decided on his own that an international move was something he wanted to explore, why would I even consider saying Yes to his proposal? I asked her if she would have married her husband had he shown a disinterest in having children or raising them in the Christian church. Both of these are values that are supremely important to Theresa. If she found herself in a relationship with a man whose idea of family so drastically differed from her’s, no matter how much she loved him, marrying him would make absolutely no sense as his preference in lifestyle was not congruent to her’s.

“I actually would find a marriage proposal from The Yankee under the context you have set up rather manipulative,” I explained to Theresa. “Why would a man who loved me want to keep me from my heart’s desire?”

“Girl,” she sighed. “Most women would be like: ‘I got me a good man who loves me. Let me make this work.’ You are on some other level.”

Which brings us to…

Love Narrative #2: The Scarcity of the Soul Mate (in other words, romantic love is so rare and so limited, that when you have something that even slightly resembles a soul mate, you must NEVER, ever, NEVER, ever let him go!)

Although Theresa is a good ole Christian gal, many women with diverse values and points of view truly believe the narrative underlying her “you got a good man; don’t let him go” comment. Narrative #2 implies that the universe has placed a glass ceiling on love. There are finite experiences. Limited amounts of potential partners. If you have one truly amazing, fulfilling relationship that results in mutual growth and happiness, the chances of your having that again decrease with each passing moment.

Not only is this a hyperbolic fear that is often implanted solely on the psyches of women, but it is also illogical and makes little sense. Much like I am not the first woman to love The Yankee, he is not the first man to love me. It stands to reason that we are rather lovable people. No, we did not find each other easily and there were some dreary crazies in between our love just like there were some dreary crazies in between our past respective relationships. But, we have consistently sustained loving relationships that have brought us benefit and joy. If we decided to part ways, don’t our past experiences predict that there is even greater love out there for BOTH of us?

This fallacy that we will only find meaningful love with “The One” perplexes me. While I am not a cynic, neither am I a woman who believes that love is anything more than a choice to grow with someone. That choice requires you to make a host of other choices as you create a partnership with someone who shares your values and worldview. If I am being love at every single moment of my life, why would I not attract it more than once in a lifetime?

Love Narrative #3: In Matters of the Heart, Women can not Engage the Mind

This last narrative insults me more than #1, actually. It has been a subtle assertion by more than a few who truly find it surprising that I could walk away from a man I loved when there was no “real” problem with the relationship.

“I hope he comes to his senses when it’s time for you to move,” a friend commented after I explained that The Yankee was not hearing the call of the Motherland like I was.

“We shall see,” I responded. “There is still time so things could change. If they don’t, then I’ll have to make a difficult decision.”

When I have spoken about this inevitable decision, I have presented it as one that is not terribly complicated. Either he will want to come or he won’t. If he doesn’t, then I will have to end our relationship. I will eat a cheese cake. I will shed some tears. The sun will rise in the east; it will set in the west.

I have been told I am strong and evolved for being able to even think about this possible dilemma so calmly. While I will never dismiss any compliment, I am disturbed by the notion that ending a romantic relationship is fraught with purely heart-wrenching emotion. A near-crazed woman who can not face the reality of her relationship because of intense emotions taking over her still seems to be the dominant image of a “woman in love” that plays on the subconscious of even the most progressive men and women.

Yes, if I have to end my relationship, there will be sadness. It is not a decision I will come to lightly or joyfully. But, if the reality of my life and its circumstances means ending it, I am more than comfortable allowing my brain to take over when my heart is ill-equipped to do so. I fully endorse raw, messy emotions being underneath decisions in love, but I refuse to believe I am the only woman who’s more than capable of using her head even while her heart hurts.

I am sure many women proudly live by at least one of these narratives. And some would even say it is BECAUSE of these narratives that they have found themselves in loving relationships that have enhanced their lives. However, it should be noted that at the root of each of these beliefs is fear. Is it just me who finds it problematic that something we all agree is deeply important to the human experience should be rooted in a belief structure that appeals to our lesser selves? Shouldn’t we cultivate love narratives that perpetuate the belief that romantic love comes from a place of power? A place within our greatest selves that has not given in to the fallacy that we are fearful, weak creatures. The best romantic love is empowering. Our belief system about it should mirror this power.

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