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.
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’.”
“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.