The long rains are ending in Kenya, and Shela village, the tiny outpost of Islamic fundamentalism and Eurotrash, is open for business.
Blinking like a naked mole rat in the sun, I awkwardly greet people I didn’t remember that I knew, often feeling surprisingly warm toward them. Intimate conversations spring up like volunteer plants; unexpected and alive.
Before the rains, I had met a delicate-featured, very pretty Ugandan girl of twenty-seven who is living with a much older British man. I’ll call her Honor (I’m terrible at creating pseudonyms because people’s actual names always seem inevitable to me once I know them, but let’s say Honor. I have my reasons.)
People from Uganda are so different from Kenyans. They have exquisite manners, good conversation, and approachability rather than aggressiveness. Honor is no exception. Today when I ran into her, we talked – really talked – for the first time. She is opening a hair salon on the first floor of her lover’s house and she is excited, although he is insisting that she pay for all of her hairdressing equipment herself, which means she will use a basin and a dining room chair for now.
I wonder why he is not buying her professional equipment. Perhaps he feels that she will have more of a stake in succeeding if she builds up her own capital. As she explains, her eyes look mildly hurt, but she says it is fair enough. His house is in a fashionable place, and there is not a single hairdresser here, so she should do well.
“I have a lot to do,” she said. “I hope it will work here, and then maybe I can go to Nairobi.”
She has ambition, and responsibility: an eleven-year-old daughter who lives with her, and a mother to support in northern Uganda.
How do we end up talking about men? Who knows? That is what women do. Oh, yes. She mentions among her ambitions, “and I would like to get married – of course,” she says, shyly.
I look at her questioningly, wondering if she wants to marry her English lover, a man I’ll call Tom.
“It’s hard,” I say. “Marriage in general is hard, I think. If it works, it’s great. But having your freedom can be great, too.”
Why do I find myself mouthing these horrible platitudes about marriage? They may be true, but who cares? I’m hardly an expert. I have been married for less than two years, occasionally happy, but mostly desperately ambivalent.
Married people feel nostalgic for their freedom and single people think they will die of loneliness in their apartments, nobody will know, and the Alsatian will feast upon their bodies, pace Bridget Jones. No wonder Facebook gives people the choice of listing their status as married, divorced, single, widowed, or “it’s complicated.”
Whatever one’s legal status, complicated is probably the most accurate. That’s especially true in relationships between Africans and Westerners, who must deal with “cultural differences” including diametrically opposed ways of dealing with both money and love, Freud’s Big Two when it comes to measuring happiness.
Recovering from my devolution into marital cliché, I ask her about Tom, her older British lover. For some reason, I feel I can do this without offending her, and I am right.
“Oh, he’s married,” she says simply.
“To someone else?” Dumb question.
“Yes. For a long time. And they have three children. But there isn’t love between them. They’ve been…” she makes a gesture of separation with her hands. “At the same time, they are married.”
Honor is clear-eyed about the situation, a sign of maturity that I don't share.
“Tom has been very good to me. He’s helped me.”
Right. The attitude is one I’ve heard before: a Kenyan woman I met on a plane told me that my husband should appreciate the fact that I’m helping him establish himself in America and stay with me, and love me for it. The idea of marriage as reciprocal obligation and survival aid is appalling to Westerners, particularly Americans. But the American idea that romantic love and benefiting from one’s association with a lover (“using” them) are mutually exclusive, may, in fact, be wrong, or partly wrong. I am beginning to see many relationships as monetized in one way or another, yet I remain doggedly, romantically, American, and so I reflexively ask: “Do you love him?”
I have seen Tom several times, a small, thin man in his sixties. The first time I saw him with Honor’s 11-year-old daughter at one of the shops, I felt alarmed, wondering if he was a pedophile. While he’s not a pedophile, given Honor’s smooth, burnished skin, her intelligent, young eyes, and her vulnerability, he’s not far from it. Of course, he is only one of half a dozen men I know who are in this situation, and as my African husband has pointed out, I am older and richer than he is, too.
“I do, but….” She gestures again, as if to say, this isn’t permanent.
Just then, her cell phone rings, one of those tunes that can be programmed to identify a specific caller. Her face lights up with a happiness that can’t be faked, or bought.
“That’s him now,” she says, reaching for her phone.
“You love him,” I say teasingly.
And we laugh.