Tag: relationships

Black, successful and single

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

I’ve gotten used to being invisible.

At night I go out almost as pretty as I may appear in pictures and as I watch people drinking, flirting, exchanging numbers and agreeing to meet up soon, I feel a strange loss of corporeality when my self-possessed smiles and quick rejoinders are met with nervous laughter and clumsy goodbyes as men begin to look through and beyond me.

At something simpler, intrinsically sexier and over my shoulder.

For me this is nothing new.

I’m a 29-year-old black woman and I’ve never been asked out on a date or for my number in any way that would suggest the slightest view towards twin tombstones.

My black and white male friends tell me it’s because I’m too intimidating when reduced to a bullet point list.

I’m passably pretty. I have a great job. I’m affable, educated and articulate. I live in a swank apartment, my sexual reputation is squeaky clean and I’ve recently taken a shine to flying across the world to eat, explore and be mute in monasteries.

Even more repulsive is the fact that I speak a little too well, white, meaningfully and much.   Couple this with the ability to afford my own hair, home and gambols across the globe and the reality is that while I’m obviously “a catch,” I’m also the least desirable fish in the sea.

To many white men who date black women, women like me are a little too white.

We’re great for pulling up with at parties and talking to until the wee hours but as a fleeting fancy once told me: White men want their black women ‘black’.

They want them with ‘political hair’, ostensibly insatiable pussies and with just enough Africa in their accent to remind the rabble that they’re profoundly progressive.

Then, of course, there’s the sex. And the hypersexualisation that precedes it.

Reduced to forbidden fruit, blowjob lips, bouncy buttocks and thick thighs in film, literature and life, many black women are approached by white men with largely erotic expectation who will generally skip what appears to be an open mind above closed legs.

After all, what’s the point of dating a black woman if you can’t talk about her stereotype-supporting abandon in bed? If you can’t salaciously suggest that she’s a lady in the streets but a freak in the sheets to all your high-fiving friends who know her kinky hair mirroring kinky ways will never meet your mother?

To plenty of black men, black women like me are whole other bag of bad news.

Many have grown up in households were men rule the roost and women work at cooking, cleaning or killing time at a job  that pays just enough for them to remain compliant.

So black women like me – black women with our own money, our mouths and our minds – we’re erudite abominations. We’re traitors of tradition and pariahs of our place which is no further than somewhere far below a man by the simple virtue of him being one.

Lucky for them, there are black women in abundance.

Women who like being kept in clothing and under the thumb and these women will do until they don’t. Until they demand one too many weaves and shopping sprees, the feeling of being used becomes mutual and jaded black men dismiss assorted black women as being gold-diggers by nature, if not harpies and whores.

The irony is that while they complain, cuss and call us all names, most black men would never date black women like me.

Not when we’re unperturbed by the threat of unpaid bills and unkempt weaves so we’ll be swift to leave liars, beaters or cheats.

When we don’t sleep around and they can’t call us sluts because the pot is only as free as the kettle.

When we maintain ourselves just as highly as we please and speak up and out about double standards, patriarchy and the misogyny inherent in ‘our place’.

When they insist that we deserve better, swear they’re unworthy and they can never see their way to stepping up to the challenge.

When we’re not angry, slutty or anything else allegedly innate in being female and black and walk a strange and steadfast line as neither Sapphire nor Jezebel.

Though they’re quick to lament black women’s so-called superficiality and lack of intellect, most black men would never date black women like me.

Not when we can hold our own in all kinds of conversation as we jump through educational and professional hoops to get beyond our caricatures and our kin.

Not when we aren’t impressed by a string of baby mamas waiting in the wings with children who will only half know their grudging fathers balanced precariously on their infuriated hips.

Not when everything we’ve worked hard at is seen as a minus on some lazy list because most middle-class black men would rather be a part of something limping and loose than take a chance at dating an equal who is willing and able to share their bills, their lives, their torments and their triumphs.

Not when most black men would rather ignore successful black women entirely than be bothered to take an interest in a black damsel who is not in distress.

When, much like them, we want to chase our dreams and pursue our talents as far and as wide as they may take us because we’ve been given an opportunity denied to an African many.

When we’re a little occupied and exhausted because every day is a clash; a fight fraught with defying stereotypes and making the world more accepting of ambitious black women through sheer necessity and precedent. Though, the reward is as pyrrhic as: you’re too good, you’re too talented, walk alone.

Not when they assume our Western-style accomplishments dictate that we don’t date black men but the reality is no man has ever actually asked.

At least not me.

Except one.

Aptly, a man named Courage. A local comedian who grins at me from the stage at a Valentine’s Day-themed comedy show at Jojo’s Music and Arts Café and doesn’t invite me out but asks:

“Martha, why are you still single?”

It’s a good question and just facetious enough to make everybody laugh.

They do.

And I don’t blame them.

On paper, I’m “a catch“.

But my love life’s a joke.

Martha Mukaiwa is a  freelance arts, entertainment and travel writer as well as a weekly columnist living in Windhoek, Namibia in-between short, spirited sojourns in South East Asia. She is an avid coffee drinker, spring cleaner and cinephile with a love for all things hobo and happening. Follow her on Twitter@marth__vader

Fish sperm potions and camel’s milk concoctions keep love alive in Nigeria

(Pic: Flickr / Ani Thompkins)
(Pic: Flickr / Ani Thompkins)

Has your love life lost its spark? Too tired after long days at work? Or maybe you suspect your partner’s eye has been wandering?

Zainab Usman, a Muslim from northern Nigeria, says she has the solution for all these problems. Walking through a room lined with jars, bottles and gourds, perfumed air trailing in her wake, she ticks off each remedy on delicately manicured fingers. Out come a stream of names that sound like a cross between children’s sweets and street slang for class A drugs.

There is the “wonder wand”, a vial of peppercorn-sized pills that promise to enhance intimate experiences. Zuman mata, which translates as “woman’s honey” in northern Nigeria’s Hausa language, is guaranteed to “keep a man coming back”. Or how about tsumi, a herb and camel’s milk concoction that Usman has nicknamed “cocaine” which, if its effects match up to the claims, is best taken only if the user has several days spare to recover?

This is the world of kayan mata (“women’s things”), a five-century-old practice in northern Nigeria and neighbouring Niger aimed at keeping married couples’ love lives lubricated, so to speak. Handed down the generations by women, the creams, scrubs, perfumes and tablets are made using local herbs and roots that grow in the arid north. Traditionally meant to prepare a bride for marriage and ensure social stability by keeping couples happily married, they are growing in popularity.

Men have their own version, called maganin maza (“men’s potions”), which includes chilli-infused foods.

Neither country particularly needs a helping hand in the sex department: 11 000 babies are born every day in Nigeria, the world’s eighth most populous country, while Niger has the world’s highest birth rate. But the centuries-old kayan mata is one of the few times when sex is openly discussed amid an otherwise decidedly old-fashioned approach to discussing physical intimacy and its consequences.

“In the north, girls start learning about it at a very young age,” said Usman, whose female in-laws presented her with a kayan matagift box on the eve of her wedding. It accompanied the equally traditional gara – a gift of kitchen utensils as the couple started a new home.

“The south is a good market for me because it’s still new here, although I’m not sure Lagosians are ready for this,” says Usman, who has started selling her wares in Lagos, hundreds of miles south of her home city of Sokoto.

As two giggling friends visit Usman, a third hovers disapprovingly nearby, though not so far as to be out of earshot.

“Do you have ones that uplift breasts?” the first friend asks.

“Of course,” replies Usman, pouring a thick liquid into a tiny jar. For good measure, she adds a green powder called danagadas (“the one from Agadez” – a city in Niger’s Sahara desert). “I can’t use this one very much, I’d be too tired,” she adds.

What happens, one of the women wants to know, if you stop taking the herbs?

“Your husband will notice a massive difference straight away,” Usman says, snapping her fingers. The two friends look at each other and fall about laughing.

“You guys are making me feel uncomfortable,” Usman says, a hint of reproach in her voice. “I’m trying to help you. It’s not a big deal – women have been using this for ages.”

The ingredients of kayan mata have changed little over 500 years except, perhaps, that dried camel’s milk is now preferred to fresh as the goods travel longer distances. Typically, products have a base of rice, honey, millet and tiger nuts. Fish sperm and manatee fat are sometimes thrown in. Key, though, are the roots of the desert-growing jujube, baobab and catchthorn trees, which have long been used medicinally across the Sahara. Some herbs are so localised English translations are hard to come by.

“There’s no reason to suppose that there’s not some interesting ethnopharmacology behind the use of these remedies,” says James Moffatt, a senior lecturer at St George’s hospital, University of London.

Nevertheless some may be placebos similar to the western perception that oysters are aphrodisiacs, he says. “If dim lights, mood music and a plate of molluscs do it for one culture, why not camel milk and dates for another?”

Business is certainly booming. Big-name dealers include one of the wives of former president Ibrahim Babangida.

In the labyrinthine streets of Wuse market in the capital Abuja, Umar Mohammed, 56, sits in his booth surrounded by imitation gold jewellery, intriguingly named fake perfumes, sequinned headscarves and incense burners.

But at a word from two visiting customers, he springs into life and throws open a cupboard full of the familiar vials and powders. “Why didn’t you say [what you wanted] right away?” after two elderly women in hijabs spend 15 minutes apparently poring over a single stick of incense.

He tries to sell them a dust-covered box of products whose extraordinary price is justified, he says, as it came from Malaysia. “When a woman uses these products, she will look and smell like a flower, which is how it should be.”

African women and the marriage question

(Pic: Flickr / David Precious)
(Pic: Flickr / David Precious)

If you’re a single young woman, there’s one question that you’ve come to dread. It comes up at family functions, social events and random interactions, over and over again.

“When are you getting married?”

In the Somali community, this question creeps up on you as soon as you’ve turned the ‘appropriate’ age of 19. My dad regularly reminds me that people will have certain expectations of me once I begin to enter my mid-20s. One of them happens to be marriage. And, at 23, my stock is apparently plummeting by the moment. My mother was younger than me when she married, and was my age when she had me. I am clearly out of sync when it comes to the process of matrimony. What started out as “We won’t put any pressure on you about this” quickly turned into casual jokes about when my mom or younger sister are going to take out their nicest dirac (traditional Somali dress) for my wedding.

Here in Canada, after you graduate, you are expected to begin to worry about savings, retirement, and health insurance – not marriage. You start spending your money on plates, pillows and new tyres as part of your new independent lifestyle. It’s interesting to see how western culture dictates that there is no particular right age or time to get married – it happens when you are fully ready. There is no concern with getting a spouse by a certain age. Yet, being raised in an African household, our traditions tell us something else. Personally, being wedged between two very different cultures has left me feeling really confused.

The reality is that my generation seems to be marrying, buying houses and having kids later than the previous generation; in clear contradiction to the ‘traditional’ African experience. Yet here I am, like many other diaspora Africans, fearing the expectations that come with being older.

I continuously ask myself “Where is my career going?” rather than “Whom will I end up with?” The world I live is extremely different from the one my parents were raised in. The reality is that we cannot be expected to fit old-fashioned moulds of what we should have achieved or who we should be with or how many kids we should have by the time we are 23/27/30/40 years old.

It seems like the expiration date on marriage is non-existent for African males living in the west. They are expected to become financially stable before the topic of marriage is even broached. They can get married whenever they feel comfortable and ready and yet the emphasis is placed on the female to be married before it’s ‘too late’.

Personally, I can’t help but remember why my parents migrated to the west. They wanted us to enjoy the comfort of better education, opportunities and standard of living. Now, to be able to truly obtain their goals, I feel that I must follow their guidelines and succeed rather than feeling guilty about being too old to ever get married.

When we hear our relatives, family friends or even parents tell us that we must get married young ‘because we are Africans’, we must remind them that culture of marriage is only as good as its purpose to people. And, that if we continue to look at marriage from a linear perspective without allowing it to evolve, it will simply become another worthless detail about our civilisation in history books.

Many African women seem to have romanticised the ideology attached to marriage rather than marriage itself. And that, to me, is problematic. How can we uphold the dynamics of family within an African context if we romanticise the ideology rather than truly grasping the responsibilities and expectations that come with it? Marriage involves sacrifice, compromise and all those nice-sounding words that are difficult in practice – it’s not a decision one should make based on a romcom or a persistent parent.

I believe that ever-changing views on marriage have always been a matter of generational differences that affect women regardless of their racial or ethnic background. In fact, one could even say that this is a global phenomenon that isn’t explicitly tied to African women. Here in the west, marriage is not a must-do, it’s a matter of personal choice. As it should be, for women across the world.

Iman Hassan is a specialised political science student at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

African men don’t do feminists

Ask an African man what he thinks about feminists. Go ahead, and record their answers so you can email it to me later. I like a good laugh to start my mornings. If he is like 90% of the African men I know, his answer will be around the lines of, “You mean those white women who don’t like to cook?” or, “Those single women who can’t have babies?” or my personal favourite, “You mean LESBIANS?”.

Feminism, as many of us daughters of Africa know, is taboo on the continent. I would define feminism as a woman who takes gender seriously and addresses discrepancies between the sexes throughout her everyday life. She is a woman who will not conform or adjust her beliefs for the sake of a man’s (or society’s) comfort. Still, throughout Africa our brothers and sisters tie feminism to western voodoo, a type of evil cult that tells African women it is okay to be unmarried, focused on your career and not on procreation, or that the institution of patriarchy in Africa may actually be – shocker – detrimental.

So imagine the struggle of being a self-proclaimed feminist, raised and educated in the US, now living back on the continent, trying to date African men. The struggle has been real. It seems as though African men on the continent, even those who’ve returned from university or work abroad, have an image of their perfect woman, and she is definitely not a feminist. I’d say she’s more of a maid. Let me explain. First, every African man wants a cook, like his mama. Meaning girls, be ready to chip that manicure-peeling cassava and you better pick up his plate when dinner is done. And how can you expect a grown man to dish his own rice? Don’t be foolish now! Next, he wants a personal assistant. A woman that will check on his family, make sure his mom has all her prescriptions, remember his little sister’s birthday and ensure that his favourite suits are ready for that business trip the next week. You know, the usual tasks we women went to university for. Finally, he wants a nurturer, a woman ready to become a mother as soon as possible. African men want kids, usually lots of them. They want a woman who will take pride in bearing multiple children, along with the breastfeeding, potty training, washing, burping and, in general, 24-hour babysitting.

Now, are the aforementioned tasks and attributes a sure sign of being anti-feminist? Not always, but sometimes I feel that when dating African men there is not too much room for compromise on the woman’s side. It’s all or nothing with African men. To say that you hate cooking, will be no one’s assistant for under $70 000 a year, or that you are not interested in being someone’s mother is romantic suicide on this continent. Many African men love “strong” women, but to be overly vocal about how sexism is negatively affecting women, for example, can turn you into a bra-burning radical that rejects traditional notions of marriage and doesn’t shave her legs. And what African man is supposed to take this kind of woman home to meet his African mother? Again, don’t be foolish!

Even me, an opinionated over-analyser who quotes Pumla Gqola on my Tumblr blog, would get nervous during a first date with a tall, dark and handsome African man who my mother would call “ozzband” [husband] material”. As the two of us would sit there getting to know each other, he’d hit me with the boom early on and say something like, “I mean the first thing I look for in a woman is her cooking skills, I like traditional women you know?”.  I would cringe, smile and respond, “Yeah, cooking is important, having a traditional marriage is not the worst thing in the world.” But the whole time I’d be thinking, “What the hell Stephanie, there’s nothing traditional about you besides the fact that you like to eat foufou and sauce with your hands.” But because African men don’t do feminists, I always felt the need to dumb my ideals down a bit as to not scare these brothas away.

African men have set and continue to set the dating tone on this continent, and since many still want that cook/assistant/nurturer/superwoman, it has left us self-proclaimed feminists in a box, a very lonely box where we watch as friends get married and we end up being that guest sitting in the back discussing bell hooks’ Feminist Theory with no one in particular.

So I ask the African men out there: Is it true? If a woman walked up to you wearing a T-shirt with the words “African Feminist” on it, would you be intrigued or intimidated? Curious or concerned? Do you not do feminists? Or am I over-generalising?

Stephanie A. Kimou was born in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire and raised in Washington, DC. She is a blogger by night at A Black Girl in the World and a programme manager at a women’s social enterprise in Tanzania by day. She holds a masters degree in international affairs from Georgetown University in DC, and has studied at the African Gender Institute in Cape Town and the University of Paris in France. Her mother has told her she has two years to get married, or else. Writing is the way she deals with this stress.  

I wanna hold your hand: Bro-love in Uganda

A friend visiting my hometown recently was quite shocked at the male-on-male affection he had received and witnessed since being in Uganda. As a heterosexual and somewhat macho male, he was uncomfortable with the hand-holding attempts made towards him by his Ugandan male hosts, coupled with the fact that he was completely caught off guard since he’d pegged Uganda as an ultra-masculine country as a result of all the anti-gay media reports. While the affection he was referring to has nothing to do with homosexuality or masculinity, it did make sense to me that an African-American 30-year-old male from New York would feel confused by a guy trying to hold his hand. I suppose I overlooked bringing up this cultural custom in my tourist guidelines for him, but I can see that it is noteworthy to mention, most especially to those with a more Western approach to same-gender PDA.

As a woman, observing male behavior from mannerisms to ego makes for interesting viewing – just as men enjoy peering, prowling and poking fun at our occasional feline cattiness and the mysticism surrounding us going to the bathroom in pairs. When you walk on Kampala’s streets, it isn’t uncommon to see two male friends walking hand in hand, peacefully and jubilantly swinging their hands in the basking sun or grown men greeting each other with a handshake that lingers into a hand interlock that lasts for a substantial part of the conversation. It is a very effortless and comfortable display of friendship, respect and affection. When I was younger I was embarrassed by my male family members holding hands with other males when greeting, most especially when they would do so with men of a different race, culture and background who were obviously uncomfortable and trying their level best to free themselves from the situation.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung)

Western culture regards adult hand-holding as effeminate, romantic, something that generally takes place between a man and woman, a romantically involved couple, not between two heterosexual, non-feminine, virile African men. Once one gets rid of these preconceived and often fear-induced interpretations, it becomes obvious that these displays of affection are actually actions of good nature, solidarity and hospitality, not romantic fondness. In a debate with said African-American friend, I defended the affections he received from Ugandan males as no different to his regular greetings with his American friends. The only difference is that their actions have been adjusted and have conformed to fears and preconceptions of straight vs gay behaviour. I argued that their masculinity is increasingly being defined by rules and definitions of appropriate male behaviour in fear of seeming gay and ultimately fear of being gay, especially among black males. Same-gender affection is a normal part of life; our children do it naturally until they too become molded by ‘acceptable’ behavior, stereotypes and fear.

“I guess it’s an African thing,” he said.

I wasn’t going to let him get away with a conclusion that easily, most especially because I know many other cultures are less inhibited with expressions of bro-love. And I was right. Parts of Asia, the United Arab Emirates and other African countries tend to be more comfortable with male-on-male PDA, but just because it is uncommon in America now doesn’t mean it has always been that way.

I came across some 19th century American photography that proved my point. At the time it was quite common for men to go to a studio with their best friends and pose in seemingly affectionate and loving poses. They held hands, sat on each other’s laps, intertwined their hands and legs … I rest my case.  This was before homosexuality was termed such so perhaps the boundaries for homosexual behavior were less narrow and prejudiced. Men could hold hands because they liked each other, because they felt like it, because it wasn’t wrong to do so. This is all quite similar to 21st century Africa, where we aren’t yet as hung up with creating boundaries between heterosexual and homosexual behavior, although perhaps we are at the early stages of doing so.

When my African-American friend’s favourite basketball team celebrates a win or do whatever it is they do that drives them into a chest-bumping, ass slapping, hugging situation – that behavior isn’t equivocal to homosexuality, because it has been deemed appropriate by the powers that be, because it’s sports, adrenalin, basketball players or any other reason one could concoct, then it is acceptable? I guess so.

My friend felt assured and I suppose relieved that people weren’t making constant passes at him, but he wasn’t sure if he could return the love, and I get that. We can respect the cultural practices of others without having to conform to them. One needn’t feel forced to kiss another man on the cheeks because he is in Rome or walk the streets hand in hand with their buddy in Uganda but, as I said to my friend, if he does he’ll still be a ‘real’ man afterwards – I promise.

Melinda Ozongwu is a writer based in Kampala, Uganda. She writes television scripts and regular opinion pieces on the subtext of urban culture in African countries. Her blog SmartGirl Living is a cocktail of thoughts, recipes and advice for the modern African woman. Connect with her on Twitter