I have a good friend, let’s call her Bahati. Bahati is a strong woman, she lost her parents at the age of 19 or 20 and as the oldest sibling, she had to leave school to take care of her younger brothers and sisters. When they were well under way, she returned to secondary school, finished with flying colours and proceeded to university, where she’s in her third year now. She’s vivacious, generous and extrovert and she gets along with people easily. She’s also really pretty, by the way.
Bahati has been in a relationship with a guy, let’s call him Emmanuel, for 9 years, and finally they’re talking about getting married. Emmanuel is a colleague of mine, which is how I got to know Bahati in the first place.
What puzzles me to no end is that when it comes to Emmanuel, who’s nothing out of the ordinary, this extraordinary strong and independent woman turns into a doormat. Whenever he calls, she cancels everything and follows his command. She even cancelled coming to see me while I had malaria because he asked her out for dinner. I was really sick, and the strain of malaria they have here is lethal. If it hadn’t been for other people who were more concerned about me, I wouldn’t have gotten anything to eat that day. What kills you is anaemia. You lose your appetite and you need to eat to recover. I was completely incapable of going anywhere on my own and she knew it, but still decided that the call of her boyfriend was more important than the recovery of one of her friends.
Finally, I asked her about it. Her explanation was: “He’s my man. You know him, he’s very difficult, but I really love him and I don’t want to lose him.” I was wondering what kind of love would force an otherwise independent and self-sufficient woman to be so submissive?
I tried to explain this to some male friends one drunken night, but the only response I got were 2 completely blank stares and one comment along the lines of “She’s really committed to her man, and so what?”, until I explained that that kind of behaviour wouldn’t be acceptable in a Danish woman. She wouldn’t be respected by her friends or by her boyfriend if she let him walk all over her like that. Then they offered that she might be afraid of losing him. And again, I was astounded. If I had a man who demanded that kind of submissiveness, I wouldn’t be afraid of losing him. I’d walk away myself.
They proceeded to say that it is really hard for a woman to get married in Tanzania these days. So if she has a man who’s willing to marry her, she’d try anything to keep him close to her. If she insists on keeping her appointments with her friends, he might just tell her that then she can marry her friends instead of him.
I wondered why being married is so important that a woman would be willing to sacrifice her friends, her freedom, her independence to get that piece of paper in her folder and that piece of metal on her finger? Of course, in Tanzanian culture, a woman is a girl and a man is a boy until they have children, no matter if they have to live in a crowded 2 room uswahilini “apartment” without water or sanitation owned by one set of grandparents because both newlyweds are unemployed. In my culture, you’re a child until you can provide for yourself. Children or none.
My male companions of that konyagi-soaked night got more and more drunk and implored me to not be bitter about Tanzanian men. “A lot of us lie, it’s true,” they confided. “But did you consider that maybe when they meet you, they find something in you that they’ve been looking for all their lives, and if they tell you the truth (usually that they’re already married), you’d turn them down and then they’d not get what they need?” They were on the verge of being to drunk to discuss with, but I still ventured: “What about what I need? I need a man who’s honest with me!”
This is a discussion that repeats itself endlessly in Africa. It isn’t always about lying about your marital status. Sometimes it is other things that people lie about. The general African sentiment seems to be that lying is ok if telling the truth means that you won’t get what you want. I had a friend who crashed my hired car in Cape Town. He’d told me he had a driver’s license so I let him drive because the left hand side driving can be quite tiring for me. After crashing my car he admitted that in fact the license he had was a learner’s. An expired one. I asked him why on earth he’d said he had a driver’s license and he replied that I wouldn’t have let him drive if he’d told me the truth. I retorted that if he’d told me the truth I’d have known that he doesn’t know how to drive and then the car wouldn’t be bent around a lamp post right now…
Back to the discussion about lying about being married if you want to get into the pants of some woman. The sentiment of “getting into someone’s pants” is unpalatable to most Africans, they call it love. And no matter how hard you try, you cannot convince them that love isn’t deceiving a woman into having sex with you by telling her that you’ll marry her, you want to take care of her, that you love her, when in fact you’re already married and have no plans of leaving your wife. They don’t even seem to understand the sentiment that if the deceived woman in question actually wanted a serious relationship, you’re just wasting her time by pretending that you’re going to give her what she wants when you know that it’s never going to happen.
And it seems to be completely out of their mental vocabulary to consider that it is wrong to deny her the choice about becoming involved with a man who can never be her spouse.
In all fairness it must be said that African women are the same. Their ends are usually not to have sex, but to get prestigeous things or a comfordable lifestyle. Countless are the African women who have engaged in relationships with sugardaddies. Countless are the African women who have lied about already having children to get a man. Countless are the African women who have approached a male Swedish friend of mine to try to start a relationship, not because they wanted him or liked him or found him attractive (though he's quite goodlooking in his own way), but simply because they thought that a white guy would provide tthem with a shortcut to the sweet life. The notion of a true, romantic love is something you can only afford when abject poverty isn't a constant threat in your life, I guess.
Africans live very much in the present. From moment to moment. If you can successfully push something away right now, so that it won’t affect you for the next few hours or days, then they consider the problem solved. When it crops up again, you just push it away again. Eventually, it will probably become somebody else’s problem. Even if this is akin to being irresponsible or having no sense of perspective, I don’t really think you understand it right if you understand it that way. It’s simply a more stationary, less linear, less process-oriented understanding of life. However, it also means that things that need to change stay the same. This lack of movement, of mobility, of belief in your role as an agent of change is one of the reason’s why Africa stays so under-developed, in my humble opinion. A civil society that doesn’t believe in itself can’t step up and stand up for its rights.
My increasingly drunk drinking companions (I tried to stick to the one-glass-of-water-for-each-2-glasses-of-alcohol rule and managed to stay relatively sober, at least in comparison) went on to declare that an African man must show that he has “a chest and not breasts”, which is to say that he will always protect a woman. So when he lies about his marital status, his HIV status, his state of unemployment or whatever state he’s in that he lies about, it is to protect you. Not to get what he wants, not to escape the consequences of his earlier choices, not to deny you the choice about how much you’re willing to risk in terms of your health or your emotions, but to protect you.
Sure, if he doesn’t tell you he’s married, he protects you from the offence of being offered a dick with no legal rights attached (which is offensive to an African woman, even if it is quite ok for a European one as long as she’s offered the choice). If he doesn’t tell you he’s HIV positive, he protects you from the fear of contracting HIV from him or from having to argue about safe sex when he tries to coerce you into not using condoms. If he doesn’t tell you that he’s unemployed, he protects you from the heartbreak of loving a man who can’t provide for you. And so on. And so forth.
To me, it’s all open shows of blaring disrespect. But those friends, who are otherwise kind and generous and quite reasonable guys, really do believe that they’re being protective when they lie. And they really do believe that otherwise pretty, intelligent, strong and independent Bahati isn’t being trampled underfoot, but is just showing commitment, when she cancels on a seriously sick friend with half an hours notice because her boyfriend snaps his fingers at her.
I don’t know how to bridge that gap.