It is No Joke Marrying a White Bloke
“So, what is it like being married to a mzungu?” a lady at the counter of the immigration office in Mombasa asked me. I was there to renew my passport and she was going through the bit on the form on spouse details.
“It’s okay,” I replied.
“But how does it compare to being married to an African?” she insisted.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I have never been married to an African.”
“But you watched your father. You can compare,” she said, as if I’m married to my father.
She went on, blinking her eyes and laughing: “I hear Europeans kiss a lot, buy you flowers, spend hours looking at you, staring into your eyes.”
I looked at her cheeky face across the counter, bemused. I don’t know how many times I have had this sort of conversation. She spoke as though white people were an alien species, but then again, non-Kenyans on long working stays require an alien identification card from the immigration office. She must have handled many alien cards. It surprises me that no one protests against the naming of that ID, but I digress.
“Why did you marry a white guy?” people often ask me.
Funny thing, it wasn’t in my agenda. But I had always hoped to marry from outside my tribe, after all, my middle name means “of outside,” and I would be living up to it. I always imagined that I would marry a Luo. Let’s give credit where it is due: I don’t think there are men in Kenya that can sweet talk a woman better than a Luo man. No offense meant to other Kenyan men.
Before I married my husband, we worked together on the same research group. He was this cute guy with an interesting brain – he never said what was expected.
There was nothing boring or predictable about him. He ticked all the right boxes.
But I had no idea that dating a white guy on the Kenyan coast was such a minefield. With all the sex tourism around here, it would be assumed that I was a commercial sex worker. When we walked on the streets of Mombasa together, the comments made were caustic.
“You have eaten, now bring him here so that we too can eat”, some said
“Kwani? you are going to eat alone, don’t be selfish”, others added.
‘Eating’ has been a term used in Kenya to describe the way politicians gorge on state resources but it is also used when one gets to spend money they have not worked for.
When I turned away from items literally thrust into my face by street traders, the cursing that followed was enough to put a sailor to shame.
“Unafikiri wewe ni wa kwanza, tumeona wengi,” some said in Swahili. “You think you are the first, we have seen many.”
To some of the people I passed on the street, a white man was like an ATM machine and he owed them some because he had one of “their women.”
In some pubs, we were directed to a spot at the back, away from the people making sneering faces as we passed. We began to notice the “sinners’ corner” which was reserved for mixed couples. The age difference between the white men and the black girls was roughly 40 years. Sometimes we promptly left the restaurant, other times we could not be bothered. The waiters would ask my husband what it was that I was going to eat. They would never address me. I was invisible to them; he had to keep telling them to ask me what I wanted.
Unfortunately, I am not quick with words in a face-to-face confrontation, and it was only afterwards that I would imagine in my mind all the words I would have thrown back at the waiters. What a waste of mental energy.
Another that still baffles me to this day is the amount of, for lack of a better word, respect, that a white person enjoys in this country and what they get away with simply because they are white. In supermarkets, I would be followed and asked to hand in my bag at the baggage counter. The white man by my side would walk straight through, with a bag double the size of mine, slang on his shoulder. To add insult to injury, he’d be welcomed with polite greetings. If I was driving into some hotels, I would be stopped at the entrance and questioned at length. But if my white man was by my side, it was all “Yes, sir,” ‘Welcome, sir.”
I have never ceased to feel embarrassed by these behaviours. A mix of resentfulness and reverence, wrapped together in a twisted knot.
When I told my mother I was dating a white guy, she did not seem bothered, but then my mother is great at hiding her innermost feelings when she does not want to offend. I knew she had been seriously worried when I saw the relief on her face after she had talked to him, both communicating in broken English and Swahili. In the end she said ‘He seems like a good guy and he does not have blue eyes’. I had no idea that the colour of the eyes of my husband-to-be would bother my mother, but there goes. One of my brothers said, ‘Finally, you have a guy who makes sense.’ Clearly, I had dated a few oddballs in the past, so the family seemed more than pleased.
Some of our friends bet among themselves about how long it would last. A friend advised me about the dangers of marrying white men because of their controlling ways and high divorce rates. The majority wished us well and when we did finally announce our intentions, I had four different hen-night parties organised for me by various friends.
We spent our first two years of married life, 2003 and 2004, in England. I was surprised that whenever a story on Nairobi appeared on television, it was almost always about one big slum or the other. Any news from Africa was famine, war, backwardness.
Every other charity raising money for Africa had a weeping, nose dripping, black child with flies all over the face as a cover poster. A brown child with a cleft lip, tears streaming down their face. Messages such as, “A dollar a day will make a difference,” “Buy a goat and change her life,” were common. People would comment about how lucky I was to be in England, away from all that suffering. Again, being poor at spontaneous response, I seethed at some of the stupid comments and fantasised about coming up with stinging replies. Another waste of the little brain energy left in me.
Then there is the politeness business. After the birth of my first child in December 2003, I ballooned and was carrying around an extra 15 kilograms for almost a year. When we visited home, my mother and her friends were thrilled that my husband was taking good care of me. Finally, I looked like a woman. My Kenyan friends’ eyes almost popped out of their faces when they saw me
“Aiii Tabs, you are fat! Kwani it’s how?” What happened, they’d ask.
On the contrary, watching my British friends’ attempts not to see the change was nothing short of hilarious. They’d approach with a perplexed look and I’d be forced to jog their memories that it was really me. After a few seconds of making mental adjustments, they’d say, “Hi, Tabs, you look . . . well.”
I am still not sure which of the two I prefer. The out-with-it-all style that left me feeling really fat, or the polite one that left me feeling, “Am I looking so bad that you can’t even say it?”
Everyone wants someone with a GSOH
On a lighter note, I have to admit that I like to read adverts of people seeking love and relationships in newspapers or magazines. The first time I read them in a British magazine, I noticed that everyone wanted someone with a GSOH. I had no idea what that was and wondered whether my husband thought I had enough of it. This magic GSOH thing that every citizen wanted. When I later found out it meant “Good Sense Of Humour”, I thought to myself, “Good grief! Who on this earth does not have a sense of humour?”
In my mind, the whole idea of dating was not to find out whether a “good sense of humour” existed, but whether it matched your own.
But then, compare this with what people write in soulmates section in Kenya’s Saturday Nation: “Please, no jokes,” “Jokers keep off,” and the standard phrases, “For a serious relationship leading to marriage,” “Looking for a serious man,” and “Serious callers only.” One would be tempted to think, “Goodness me, are we this ‘serious’ about love?” Do we lack a GSOH? Do Kenyans perhaps think, “If I want humour, I will watch Churchill Live. Laugh with Eric Omondi, but please, if you want me, let’s get serious!”
As I grow older, I have learned not to take life too seriously. If a situation is not adding value to life and I can’t handle it, I remove myself from it and try to move on. Time, it seems, is moving too fast. These days, if someone thinks I am a prostitute, hanging unto my tourist catch, I see it as a compliment. To think that I can actually compete with the exceptionally pretty commercial sex workers I see in some of these joints. If another thinks I married my husband for his money, I am grateful that person is not my in-law. But I also try and put myself in their shoes, imagine what they see when they look at me. I note it down, not because it will enlighten me, but because it will be great fodder for my next story. Every time a barb is thrown my way, I store it neatly, pat it and pet it, until a full story comes into being. For the new Tabs, No experience is a waste.
Misunderstandings are always as a result of lack of full knowledge, but we can never fully and truly know someone else. We often don’t even get why brothers and sisters we are born with, do certain crazy things, but that does not stop us loving them.
When we were younger, and I think the comedy show Churchill Live tries to remind us about that, we laughed about our tribal differences. But when tribal hate sizzles, the jokes fall flat. Perhaps we need to say ‘no jokes please’ but still maintain a GSOH.
After all, whatever the term you use, we all want companionship.
Tabitha is a contributor to Sahan Journal.