Author: Elsie Eyakuze

Legalise polygamy for both men and women

(Graphic: Flickr / charlesfettinger)
(Graphic: Flickr / charlesfettinger)

By now you will have heard,  in the most recent instance of testicular politics,  that Kenya’s Parliament recently passed a Bill that will recognise what they call ‘polygamous unions’. Apparently there haven’t been any real legal provisions for this form of marriage to date, except for citizens of the Muslim faith through the Kadhi court system.

What makes this Bill notable is the fact that the male legislators – the majority – managed to get rid of a clause in the Bill that would require consent on the part of current spouses before a man could bring another contracted partner into his domestic situation. If the Bill is signed into law, wives who have enjoyed a legal monopoly on matrimonial benefits are going to lose their security of tenure just like that. Take note: Kenyan women can’t legally marry multiple men.

If I had a suspicious nature I would imply that judicious pillow-lobbying on the part of shrewd girlfriends and concubines probably explains the enthusiasm with which the Bill was passed. But did they have to turn the contract of marriage into a form of Russian roulette for all other women while they were at it? Of course this Bill deserved a protest. So I stand in solidarity with women of Kenya in terms of opposing this law.

I am disappointed to have to do so because I am very much in support of legalising polygamous marriage and have been for much of my life. Freedom and fair play, say I, and if people have to sign a legal contract for reproductive purposes then let’s at least offer every citizen the same range of flavours.

How did I get so corrupted? Simple, really. Catholic Mathematics.

When I was growing up in one of those delightfully cosmopolitan yet shockingly conservative “middle-class” families, I learned about the birds and the bees and the morality thereof. One man plus one woman plus some love equals legitimate offspring, full stop. Real life, though, didn’t make this lesson convincing. I highly recommend that all children supplement their social education by eavesdropping on their mothers’ conversations with her friends.

Sifting through rants about husbands’ secretaries who wear miniskirts and suchlike, I realised that things were not adding up. All unmarried women were chaste, married women were faithful and men couldn’t keep their zippers closed. Catholic Mathematics? I might not have been in secondary school but I could do addition and percentages. Someone wasn’t being forthright about these birds and bees.

The one who truly sank me, though, was the Zanzibari gentleman who moved next door when I was about eight or so. He had two lovely spouses: a plump older light-skinned one and a slim, shy, dark-skinned younger wife. Not only did they smell deliciously of incense and pilau spices, they seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company and any opportunity to lavish food and attention on anyone who walked through the door. They seemed happier and healthier than all the desiccated diplomatic wives who darkened our doors with gin and bitterness.

So I thought: yes. People grow up aspiring to their fantasies of fulfillment, be it financial security, fame, power, whatever. Me? Two husbands, maybe three. One to go out and make some serious bacon and wear bespoke suits with great ties to feed my craving for some alpha male. One to stick around at home and make sure the kids get to bed on time and we’re all eating enough greens and bully me into getting a pedicure. One to be the Saturday night special: excitingly undependable, prone to adventures that might land us in jail, entirely too charming and handsome for his own good.

What will I be doing? Well either recovering from a night out with Number Three or chairing a board or simply co-ordinating and popping out and loving the United Colors of Benetton offspring of our unconventional family. I said it was a fantasy. But when these things take root in your formative years, there’s no getting past it.

To lay the Catholic Mathematics to rest, I had to figure out a moral basis for it that works for me and it has to do with polyamorous principles. Turns out it’s entirely possible, and also sane. As usual the laws and legal system are not keeping pace with the progressive nature of our contemporary society. I am only angry with Kenya because this crusade is personal and they have made it difficult for everybody for chauvinist reasons.

Polygamy, mostly polyandry, has always been around and in principle I have no beef with it. But the point is, and always is, to be fair when it comes to legislation. You can’t refuse people rights because of their race, their religion or their just about anything unless you’re unspeakably heinous. So why is it still okay to get gender politics wrong?

By all means, let us condemn this silly Kenyan polygamy Bill and all that it represents. In the meanwhile, though, if anyone is writing up a real progressive alternative please swing it my way. There are guys out there to marry simultaneously and this woman is trying not to run out of time and available options, not to mention patience.

Elsie Eyakuze is a freelance consultant in print and online media from Tanzania, working mainly in the development sector. She blogs at Connect with her on Twitter.

Car shopping with the help of Dar Es Salaam’s taximen

It may be that nothing brings out a man’s emotional side quite like helping a woman buy a car.

A few months ago I lost Maggie, my trusty chariot of several years. She was a big-hearted Suzuki Jimny that could never go above 60kph, but had enough 4-wheel drive muscle to pull cars three times her weight out of bogs. I named her Maggie, like Thatcher, a solid name for a tough can-do broad. Even the rainy-season potholes of Dar were no deterrent to her. While thousands driving lesser cars got stranded in the suburbs at the slightest tropical downpour, Maggie would confidently navigate the dangerous rapids at Shopper’s Plaza bridge, not to mention the deceptively deep Lake Millenium towers – both on important tarmac roads connecting to the city.

But she’s gone now. While I know that nothing will ever feel as perfect as her gearshift cupped in my hand or the way her engine growled on cool mornings like a smoker waking up, I can’t help trying to look for a car that has some of her spirit. Good news came recently – one of my taximen had found another fiesty little Suzuki that I might be interested in.

Let me explain a little bit about the real taximen of Dar es Salaam. They are amazing. In the course of a couple of years, you can build relationships of trust usually only enjoyed between a client and her lawyer or a patient and her doctor. They’re the guys who will pick your kids up from school, buy your utilities when you run out, deposit cash at the bank and never charge your Mama when she sends them on an emergency trip because they know to bring the bill to you.

Nothing is beyond them, not a 3am am pick-up at Julius Nyerere International nor a hunt for an affordable apartment in the mixed neighborhoods off the Old and New Bagamoyo roads. I put out the word about a month ago that I was in the market for a new ride. My taximen understood what kind of car might pass muster as a replacement so when Tony called me about a potential candidate, I knew I was in safe hands.

Little did I realise how much my knights in shining motor vehicles would invest in the quest! Or how dramatic they can be. As I took the potential purchase for a test drive it was impossible not to smile at the guys – two taximen and a mechanic – who came along. They preened over my familiarity with a manual transmission. You’d think I had performed cardiac surgery.

(Pic: Flickr/Daniel Oines)
(Pic: Flickr/Daniel Oines)

Yet within hours of kicking the tyres of this potential purchase I had to counsel Tony, who was having a meltdown about hidden costs. The next day I had to calm down Mwinyi who could barely speak through his tears because he couldn’t get hold of me for two hours in morning to warn me about the hazards of a V6 engine. I was in a meeting for goodness sake! If these men weren’t so damn cute with their concern, this would be a very vexing situation.

What does a feminist like me do with such chivalry, when I have always considered it the other side of the chauvinism coin? I don’t know what kind of women they hang out with – all the best drivers I know are hardcore stick-shift women who drive like girls and thus keep their beloved cars roadworthy and unscratched for decades. I usually take my cue from these capable dames, but in this situation it just seemed churlish not to let my taximen lead the way. Hysteria included.

Because no matter how hard I tried to detect any condescension or outright patronising I just couldn’t. Mwinyi taught me everything I know about preventing salt-air corrosion in the car body, the regular replacement of spark plugs, fan belts and oil seals. They are inordinately proud of my independent lifestyle – especially the part where I can drive a stick shift. Haji and Saidi debate politics with me and have helped me out of more than one tight spot in life. If getting a little unhinged in their zeal to help me secure a new car is part of the deal, what’s a bit of craziness between friends?

It is not just the taximen in Dar who are crunchy on the outside and squishy on the inside, which is secretly one of my favourite Swahili Coast quirks. I’m not crazy, I do like a man who is in touch with his inner mother hen. But when you actually have to deal with that from your male support group? Eish. It can be overwhelming. I don’t know if the sale will go through, the owner is a tough but fair businesswoman and we’re facing off over the last couple of hundred thousand shillings. Wish me luck. No seriously, wish me luck. The mental health of my friends is hanging in the balance, bless their sweet and sensitive souls.

Elsie Eyakuze is a freelance consultant in print and online media from Tanzania, working mainly in the development sector. She blogs at Connect with her on Twitter.

Beyond Nollywood: Africans through the lens

I have always wanted to claim some kind of artistic savvy, the more so now that I write for public consumption. Alas, that is not the case. I live on a steady diet of DVDs and genre fiction, driven entirely by an insatiable appetite for entertainment that feels good. There is perfectly enjoyable high-brow stuff out there, but somewhere between having Salman Rushdie and Catcher in the Rye thrust upon me I learned discernment. I mostly read historical romance novels now, with a very light sprinkling of titles that are more admissible in public.

Up until three or so years ago, I cheerfully consumed Hollywood products. Something has happened to Hollywood, though, hasn’t it? These days only Robert Downey Jr., Star Trek and 007 will get me anywhere near a Cineplex. There is always a silver lining and in my case it has been the expansion of horizons. Now that I don’t care what Tinseltown does to itself, I am present enough to notice some of what is happening closer to home. Turns out that there are diamonds in my backyard after all.

I grew up in Brazzaville, Bujumbura, Mbabane and Dar es Salaam in the eighties and nineties on state broadcasters and the very occasional video that was deemed age-appropriate by the adult mafia. My parents especially made substantial contributions to the Disney empire. There wasn’t any opportunity to even imagine that the culture I consumed might reflect me in any way. The African female audience member? Laughable notion. The closest I ever came to relating to any character was the youngest Huxtable kid, and that was a stretch.

The thing is, no matter how open a person is to the range of human creativity, deep inside she craves the familiar. Everyone wants to see themselves on the page, on the screen. We want our stories told.


About ten years ago, a particularly involved conversation with an African American about depictions of black people in popular culture prompted me to dedicate my senior thesis to exploring depictions of Africans by Hollywood between 1930 and 2001. The only good thing I can say about this exercise is that I met a man from New York with an excellent collection of African cinema. The rest was tears and horror.

Things have changed – there was nowhere else for Hollywood to go but upwards. Nonetheless, the experience left me with a rather unfortunate prejudice: the idea that only Africans can make competent movies about Africans.

Well, I was wrong. There is no explanation for Nollywood products and their unfortunate imitations throughout Anglophone Africa. I tried to find something palatable in those eye-rolling, garish, tasteless and superstitious cretins that pass for “characters” and failed miserably. The depths of loathing that I reserve for Nollywood can only be matched by how I feel about stepping barefoot into a pile of thorn-laden, fermenting excrement.

Development cinema saved the day for me, since it is always too long between good pieces of African cinema. Listen, I am horribly surprised about this, and embarrassed. We’re all Africans here, we know the deal. The NGOs and the Breton Woods and the savior-complex poverty tourists equipped with cameras and an internet connection have been framing us, selling us and commercially spreading the gospel of their cause for years. Sweet ancestors: are these people for real?

But then one day there I found myself alone with YouTube and a link to some locally produced, externally funded efforts. Twenty four hours later I was sold on the television series Siri ya Mtungi. It had so much that my soul needed to see: gorgeous Tanzanian women who look like the plumptious, dark-skinned, beautiful, complex and intelligent people I know. Men as venal and stupid and morally bankrupt, as delightful and gentle and wise and generous, as I have ever encountered. Conflicts that I can understand. All to the tune of an excellently curated local soundtrack.

There is also lots of sex. We’re all Africans here so let’s tell it like it is. Our sex is always depicted as exotic, deviant, or fraught with danger and disease. Like I said: tears and horror.

Siri ya Mtungi  is not exactly innocent. It aims to change the sexual behaviors of Tanzanians in order to curb the spread of HIV/Aids infections. Refreshingly though, there is no fire or brimstone here. Just good old fashioned storytelling spiked with provocation. They’re trying to throw condoms at the viewer, in the hopes that she might catch one like an unplanned pregnancy.

I literally watched my favorite uncle die of the slim disease in the nineties, slowly and painfully. Don’t need any additional behavior-change messaging, thank you kindly. Condoms come as naturally to me as eating my vegetables. Consequently I am not watching the series to learn anything new – I have a natural immunity to messaging – but I am very interested in the depictions of our sexuality.

Sex is a great lens through which to examine life. When someone gets your sex right, they get you right, donor-funded or otherwise. I hooked onto this series simply because it  showed me … well, us. The smiles were familiar. The cadences were familiar. The  settings are enchanting, the women feisty, the men handsome kinds of bad news. Finally. I can tell Hollywood and Nollywood to kiss my bountiful African posterior, for I have found some satisfying measure of truth on the screen.

Elsie Eyakuze is a freelance consultant in print and online media from Tanzania, working mainly in the development sector. She blogs at Connect with her on Twitter.

Is my skirt too short or too long?

As we walked down a street in Grahamstown recently after a long day of learning about the fundamentals of social accountability, I observed my companion tracking the women around us on campus with his eyes. They were flaunting carefully selected fashion-conscious outfits. Bountiful pear shapes were hugged by skinny jeans and stretchy colour-block dresses that swished to the rhythm of their gait. There really are few things more delightful than the sight of a woman flouncing about in an outfit that makes her glow with confidence.

“No wonder the rate of rape is so high in this country,” he said. Just like that, my bubble of enjoyment burst. My own invisible blanket of security shriveled in the cool, sunny air. Danger lurked everywhere and male menace strode right next to me, ruining a pleasant stroll. What had just happened?

A lot of ink has been spilled over the politics of hair for women of African descent. There are basic conventions to follow. Every morning as I wrestle my fierce afro into submission with the help of coconut oil and a Black Power metal-toothed comb, there is no confusion in my mind as to what it will communicate to the world at large. But when it comes to selecting an outfit, I find the social calculations harder to make. The fact that nudity is not an option is vexing enough. Figuring out where the lines of propriety lie in new situations can give me conniptions.

Every day I face the gauntlet of choices about depilating and deodorising and re-odourising and taming my natural curves. Absolutely no detection of my menstrual cycle is allowed in public, hence a battery of products to manage the regular shedding of my uterus lining. Restrictive garments for the bits that move when left loose, and outer garments to conceal whichever parts of me are out of public favor. Shoes heightened to tilt my hips back and thrust my bra-shaped tits forward – often paired with items that, confusingly enough, help me maintain the requisite amount of sexual aloofness. We haven’t even talked accessories yet.

And woe betide me if I get the balance wrong. If my skirt is too short for the social gathering it will say the wrong things about my sexual mores, and if it is too long it will still say the wrong things about my sexual mores. How long a hem does a girl need to attract the attentions of the right kind of guy? Is it three-inch heels for “I’m ready to settle down in a spiritual union if you are” and nine-inch heels for “bring the whiskey, I’ve got the handcuffs and we can take turns playing the naughty police officer”? Or is it other way around? I forget.

But most importantly: what’s the rape signal, exactly? Because I would hate to send a “please attack me, traumatise me, and destroy a part of my soul” signal by mistake when I only meant to say “it’s a little hot today”. Maybe I should have asked my companion on our walk. The weight of male irresponsibility that women’s garments are made to bear is heinous, and it is depressing how the threat of sexual violence is used to enforce the rather restrictive concept of female respectability.

A protester at a Slut Walk march held on September 24 2011 in Johannesburg. The Slut Walk initiative serves to protest against the perception that the way a woman dresses can justify rape and sexual violence. (Gallo)
A protester at a Slut Walk march held on September 24 2011 in Johannesburg. The Slut Walk initiative serves to protest against the perception that the way a woman dresses can justify rape and sexual violence. (Gallo)

Since I choose to believe that the roots of this “respectability” business are firmly planted in patriarchal fears of the sacred feminine, among other things, I put some effort into avoiding its strictures. My home, Dar-es-Salaam, is cosmopolitan, the beneficiary of centuries of cultural intercourse, and it shows in the range of ways residents choose to dress. There is plenty of secular space to work in, even if we have to make allowances for our Muslim sensibility and our Bantu Christian conservatism.

The default rule in the performance of respectability is that the more you cover, the higher you score. In a city where the humidity rarely drops below sticky and the heat ranges between miserable and suffocating, one must employ a little sense when selecting a daily outfit. It can be hard not to resent the shirtless men cooling off their skin whenever they please, but since most of them work in physically demanding jobs there are visual compensations.

Years of navigating and negotiating Dar’s particular combination of expectations has taught me that it comes down to the nuances of a given environment or, more specifically, the weight that is accorded to the male gaze, even in women-only spaces. Not enough ink has been spilled over the politics of dress for women of African descent, at least none that avoids the profit-seeking of the fashion industry on one hand and the sexists on the other. Figuring out where the lines of propriety lie in new situations might be challenging, but I can’t help but be fascinated by the political aspect of it.

There are benefits to mastery, the primary one being physical safety. I like to think that I have become a seasoned politician in this arena. Although a nudity-embracing society remains the unattainable ideal, I do enjoy a wardrobe that includes neck-to-feet gowns, plunging necklines and a little red string bikini that I am rather fond of – all without incident so far. For the most part all is well with the world except for those times when I stray outside the familiar, and a handy chauvinist reminds me that the lines of propriety have shifted, giving me the horrors in pretty little Grahamstown.

Elsie Eyakuze is a freelance consultant in print and online media from Tanzania, working mainly in the development sector. She blogs at Connect with her on Twitter.