You’re Never Just Marrying a ‘Person’.

I used to be really naïve about love and relationships. Now that I’m firmly in my 30’s, I find myself in that space between naivety and cynicism where matters of the heart are concerned; and I’m fervently trying to becoming a full-blown pessimist.

As you well know by now, I share my affections with several people other than my husband. These people are other Africans I’ve come to admire for unique reasons. I have a mind crush on Kola Boof because she’s fearlessness personified, sprinkled with a good dose of crazy. I have a creative crush on Gyedu Blay Ambolley, because he embodies the essence of timeless afrofunk and a Ghana-man suaveness developed during an age gone by. And as of this Monday, I have a talent crush on Shirley Frimpong Manso. (If anyone reading this knows her personally, now would be a good time to warn her of my tendencies in regard to the relentless pursuit of the object of my desire. It’s like being chased by a mastiff.) These people inspire me in different ways. Through continued struggle and eventually achieving their dreams – and at times overcoming nightmares in full public glare – they encourage me to try to do the same in my own capacity, as I’m sure they do for thousands of other people on the continent.

Oh. You thought I was saying I share “those” affections with other people? You see your mind is bad? We’ll discuss that later. Today we’re talking about marriage; my marriage specifically, and my culture.

The idea that two people from different cultures could never live together harmoniously is an old one. When Moses married an Ethiopian (read Black) woman, Miriam and Aaron were so furious that they berated the great Israelite liberator unabashedly. God in turn struck Miriam with leprosy, and she was only healed after she repented. Throughout time, people outside of any given couple’s relationship have given reasons for why the two cannot be together based on their perceived differences. These include socio-economic status, education, tribe, race… you name it. Sometimes couples will resist outside forces and their tyranny and strive to make their relationship work. Others kowtow to the charges and assertions and form relationships with more a more “acceptable” candidate. I have always been a fan of the former, which is why I had very few hesitations when I married a Black American. (Never mind that my own Ghanaian father had married a Black American woman with abysmal results.) I was confident that “love would conquer all”. I didn’t really understand what the breadth and scope of ‘all’ would cover.

Our first test of different cultures and its place in a happy marriage came within the first three months of our union. I was preparing to send a few hundred dollars to Ghana, just as I had done since I started working in 2000.

“What are you doing?” he asked me one night.

I didn’t care for the quality of the tone of his voice. Something in it seemed paternalistic. I immediately got defensive.

“I’m sending money to my family.”

“I thought you would stop doing that when we got married. We have our own family now.”

Eh? Why would I stop doing that? Did my family’s needs suddenly cease because I walked down an aisle in a cream colored dress? I was beyond annoyed. However, eventually, I did stop sending money home after the birth of our second child. It was getting too hard on us financially.

We continued to have other cultural clashes as a nucleic family. For instance, when Aya’s hair was becoming difficult to tame and she would not submit to getting it combed, I merely shaved it off – Ghana primary school girl style. I had no emotional reaction to cutting off her hair at all. Millions of African girls walk around in a state of near baldness and no one gives them a second glance. Her grandmother on the other hand was not to be so comforted. She issued me a strong warning never to cut her granddaughter’s hair beyond a trim ever again in the future. I was equally annoyed. Was she up brushing this girl’s hair every morning or was she even sending money to pay for its upkeep? (No.) Nevertheless, I relented to her wishes.

image courtesy of instagram
image courtesy of Instagram

For a while, I learned to live within the confines of my American culture, which were fast dwarfing the Ghanaian mores I had been raised under. I came to accept that grandchildren were not to be a burden to their grandparents for any length of time beyond 2 weeks in the summer. We eat American food almost exclusively. I haven’t attempted to pass on what limited knowledge of Twi I have to my kids. Why would I? They’re “American”.

But I am not. I’m a hybrid.

So when I got it into my mind that I might one day (soon) give a try at going back to Ghana for a few months and do some writing, I knew that I would be met with resistance from my husband. I knew this because we had just had a series of ‘unfortunate’ conversations surrounding sending our youngest to Ghana for 6 months so that she could get to know her grandfather and her cousins. Marshall was hardly what you might call open to the idea. So I pouted and refused to look at him for two days, and when I did, it was between slit lids that eventually gave way to prolonged eye-roll. And because I was in such a foul mood, he in turn decided to relent and let her go if I ‘thought it was best’. But really, it was a move motivated by an attempt to take some of the acrimony out of our recent existence.

What I wanted something more, though? I joked with my sister that I would join Liya for the six months if I needed to. Marshall balked at the idea. I bucked at the notion of his balking… and then I decided it was time for us to have a chat. We talked this morning.

“Let’s say – hypothetically – that Shirley Frimpong Manso was an avid reader of my blog and other stuff I’d written and that she contacted me and said ‘Hey, Malaka! I love your stuff. I want you to join my team and write for a TV drama we have coming up. I need you in Ghana for 8 months.’ What would you say?”

Marshall paused, but only for a moment, and said:

“I’d say ‘Great! How do we make this work?’”

Liar! That’s not what he’d say!

“No it isn’t! That’s not what you’d say at all! You’d say ‘I don’t want you to leave me for that long, Malaka,’ and then I’d be stuck here like I’ve been these last few years.”

He told me that wasn’t true at all. What he’d want to know is how I could go to Ghana and pursue an opportunity, and still be with me.

“I’d assume I could just come with you for the 8 months,” he said simply.

“You’d leave your fulltime job in the States to come and live in Ghana? What kind of sense does that make?”

He quickly saw that it didn’t. We worked through several scenarios where he could come to Ghana for an extended period of time during my hypothetical hiatus. This is what my sister calls trying to look left and right at the same time. Nothing worked out, of course. We have too many kids and not enough money to make his fantasy come to life.

“I just think you make things balance out,” he said earnestly. “There is always the possibility of compromise.”

“No, Marshall. There isn’t. Sometimes there are no compromises to be had! Sometimes you just have to grin and bear it.”

I had a sudden epiphany.

“Maybe this just another dimension of our divergent cultures. Ghanaian men hardly have a problem with their wives travelling out of the country. Sometimes it’s a badge of honor to be able to say you have a wife who has ‘travelled out of the country’.”

Marshall scoffed.

“You know why Ghanaian men don’t mind their wives travelling? Because they have some little side thing they can mess with while she’s gone!”

I thought about it. That was a valid point. But so what?

“Ok. So he has a side piece. So what? Maybe that’s what it takes for a woman to realize her ambition. Maybe a dude needs some chick with him at all times… but at least his wife gets the chance to discover who she might become and what she can do.”

“Are you saying adultery is a good thing?”

My husband was shocked at the notion.

“No. But I think it might be a ‘useful’ thing, particularly in the case we’re talking about.”

This made him pause. He made it very clear that he didn’t want me to think he needed a side chick in order for me to feel like I could succeed. I told him I appreciated that.

“But I have to confess: sometimes I’m afraid to even dare to hope to even dream about something lofty because I know it will be met with opposition from your end. I mean, what if I was a world reporter who had to travel to Pakistan or Turkey every 3 months for work? What then?”

“Yeah but, Malaka. I do try to support you. That’s why I built MaizeBreak for you and try to give you space to go write. Besides, it’s not like that’s what you were doing when we met or when I married you.”

“Because I never got a chance to become that. I’ve had to live this life. I’ve had to make my successes fit within the confines of what makes you comfortable.”

I spread my hand around our tiny shared bedroom, stuffed with clothes and knick knacks and a sleeping child snuggled and snoring in our bed. My husband looked around and then stared off into the near distance. We talked for a bit more and all was reconciled by the time I left the house to write today.

 

If you’ve ever married outside of your culture and traditions, you might be thinking your own hurdles. What have they been? And what about Marshall’s point about side chicks and female success? Do you think it’s a worthy trade off or sacrifice for either partner to prevent them being stifled? Women have to make these choices every day.

Discuss! Discuss!!

  • Khadija

    This is one of the reason why I am pro polygyny. A subsequent wife is not the same as a side chick though, she is a wife with the same recognition and rights. But some people find sharing a husband difficult to even imagine.

    • I actually thought about you on that last point. You made perfect sense when you talked about the liberation that comes with being one of many wives.

  • I think even when you are marring someone from the same culture and even same clan, you can still have ‘cultural’ issues because you would both have been raised in different families, and socialised differently. In an ideal world before a couple get married they will anticipate some of the pitfalls and discuss them but hey ho, we don’t live in an ideal world 🙂 So I reckon couples just need to keep communicating with each other in the same spirit you and Marshall did when you had this convo…My 2 pesewas worth #BFFFL

    • Chaley. Isn’t that what pre-marital counseling is supposed to be all about? Anticipating problems so you can gauge what the other person will say or how they might/will react? I feel duped. Why didn’t they tell me these specific issues would arise??? 🙂

  • Allison

    I have no answer to the question of side pieces, but you always strike a chord in me when you bring up the issue of culture. I was a victim of my own naivete when it came to dating across cultures. I grew up in Jamaica (which, based on stories from my brother in law, was remarkably similar to growing up in Ghana) with almost militantly strict parents who encouraged independence early. White people were those aliens on tv whose kids got away with saying things I’d be backhanded for even thinking. A geographical relocation did not loosen my parents’ methodology on child rearing.

    I’ve never been as deeply involved with someone outside my race as I came to be with my husband so Imagine my surprise when I met him and his extremely Italian mother who, I swear to God, treated him like he was her other husband. He was 25 years old, still living at home and was essentially responsible for nothing. She did his laundry and cooked his meals, going so far as to make him something separate if he didn’t want what she had made for everyone else. I think I walked around with my jaw on the floor for a good 75% of our early courtship.

    Fast forward about 3 years and we decided to move in together. My husband isn’t lazy, per se, but he’s not terribly inclined to think to do anything not expressly expected of him. It occurred to me that I needed to nip this in the bud before he settled into old habits. I literally sat him down the night he moved in, took his face in my hands, looked him dead in the eyes and said, “What is my name?” He looked startled for a second, like he thought I was showing signs of early Alzheimer’s before he answered. I responded, “Yes. It’s not ****. I’m not your mother. You need to contribute around here.” That was basically all it took. He backslides occasionally, but the fact is, she had him for longer than I did. I felt rather justified in having done that after we had his parents over for dinner for the first time and his mother looked like she was ready to stroke out when he got up to clear the table and see to the dishes. I am painfully aware that she expects that my son will be raised in the same fashion that she did hers, and there are many facets to my husband’s cultures that I love and will be happy to impart to our son, but that borderline coddling will not be in the repertoire. I have actually told my husband that I refuse to inflict my son upon some unsuspecting woman as his mother did me.

    That being said, I think the divide between my husband and me comes not only from the fact that we’re different colors, but that there was also literally an ocean between us in terms of how we were parented. It was extremely jarring to me to go from being certain that I would closely model my parents’ relationship in which each was such an equal presence to being made to feel like I need to be June Cleaver. That’s repugnant to me on such a basic level that I probably take things more personally than I should where my mother in law is concerned, but it really just wasn’t the way I was raised.

  • Kemi Bakary

    it’s interesting you mention marrying in different cultures. My husband was raised in West Africa and I was raised here (parents are Nigerian). Many of the misunderstandings we have is about culture differences, or the way that I interpret our culture to make it workable in America. It’s hard work but I really think we are stronger for it. It really makes me think and him think about what is best for the kids and what lessons/ cultural traditions we would like to impart on them. In my limited time, I have learned that I just have to voice my concerns and let the chips fall as they may.

  • What constitutes happiness in Society today? The kids, The man vs marriage or career and money?
    Someone is going to have to sacrifice in this case. Who would it be, You or Marshall? I hope Marshall is opened to you all moving to Ghana with the kids. If you leave marshall and go to Ghana for that long, well he might get a “side chick” to keep him busy. It happens alot, men and women do it but as long as both of us are happy. Lets say you become an international news corespondent and you have to travel so much, you might find a fling for entertainment.
    I don’t see this as a culture issue ( No big diff btwn Ghanaian and African-American) . Its about man and woman, and defining success. For some reason I think, a white partner will be more open to the idea of either partner travelling or may be is just “Black husband problems”. 🙂
    This prompts me to ask, should a woman make herself and be fulfilled before she gets married or can her career be created negotiated in marriage?
    So girl if you want to be part of the new world’s “upper class” you better get moving to Ghana because the American Dream is Dead. All the stuff you write here can be made into a movie or television series in Ghana.

    • Ohhh! Someone tell Shirley so we can turn this into a TV series. Amen!

      You point out something that was one of Marshall’s direct fears: that we would lead separate lives, I’d have a fling turned relationship and that our marriage would end in divorce. His idea is that any length of time apart will ultimate lead to tragedy. My sister on the other hand points out that loads of couples do live geographically separate lives and are very happy and devoted to each other because as individuals they are able to pursue their passions and still have a successful marriage, as they have defined it.

      The American Dream has been dead a long while. I’m just waiting for all hands and heads to get on board so that we can move. Marshall is open to moving, and ultimately I want to keep my family together. Timing is key, I guess.

  • Khadija

    I think this is more of an issue of who benefits and who sacrifices in marriage. Nine times out of ten the woman sacrifices more and historically men have benefited from marriage more than women. Not saying that you haven’t enjoyed or benefited but you seem to be at that point where you are naturally itching to do things other than family oriented stuff. It is a matter of timing as you said. Now that my children are more independent I feel free to do more things for myself. But there is still that silent nagging notion that men do expect you to give up more than they will.

  • I have been waiting for Marshall to comment. Where are you Marshall? I want to know what you think, and I know from time to time you weigh in on this blog….

  • Stella

    Deng, Malaka, this piece done touched a nerve! Ok, I am in an interracial relationship fraught with every factor that “the experts” say doom the relationship and you know what? Yes, different backgrounds introduce varying dynamics in relationships but at the end of the day, we decide what is important in our relationships and what we choose to focus on. Also, you have to speak up and you have to communicate what is important to you and how you will need to be supported. The fact that as two individuals you are not going to see eye to eye doesn’t mean that you cannot at least get where the other is coming from. Marshall’s resistance is not indicative of a lack of support. It is up to both of you to work out what each person is truly afraid of with what you are suggesting. BTW that whole side piece action Ghanaian men have going on is one of the things I loathe about a society that makes it ok, and I find it offensive that you would even try to justify its usefulness. I did say you touched a nerve, but moving on.

    As women we are conditioned to find no higher purpose than being wives and mothers, and this tends to conflict with career ambitions, hence the daily struggle. But my theory is also that we tend to internalize a lot of this struggle and project our own fears, insecurities and resentment on our significant others, which makes me wonder if Marshall actually said that you needed to make your successes fit within the confines of what makes him comfortable, or if that is you projecting BUT this is what I know. 1) if my spouse said that to me it would hurt like hell and I would feel like I failed somehow by creating an environment where she could not be herself and aspire and 2) you always have the choice to do what works for you. Knowing what you want (your lofty dreams) and creating a strategy that helps you get it are two different beasts and the latter especially requires work. I think it is misplaced to make someone else, even your spouse, responsible for your happiness or success. XOXO

    • Who pissed in your cornflakes, Stella?

  • David S.

    As someone who is in a relationship with an African American woman and who (God-willing) will be married to an African American woman one day, this piece gives me a lot to think about.

    • You’re a smart guy David, which means the woman you’re in a relationship with is probably twice as smart. I’m certain you two crazy kids are going to be just fine. 🙂