January 30, 2008

“…is what bwings us together today.”

(Extra credit if you can identify the source of the title of this post.)

One of the many influences on my decision to work overseas was a camp counselor I once had who had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. She had a lot of stories about her experience there that inspired me to do something similar when I got older. The only story I remember now, however, is the one she told about the repeated marriage proposals from the chief of her village, who offered a handsome price in cows if she would become his fifth wife. At the time, the story struck me as far-fetched. The idea of offering cows for a woman and seriously pursuing a relationship like that seemed unrealistic and completely foreign to me. But now something similar is happening to me – it seems I am turning down marriage proposals all the time these days.

At first, it was fairly harmless. Every morning, I pick up one of our nurses Dorothy from the business her sister-in-law runs. I greet them as pleasantly as I can in Xhosa and exchange a little chit-chat. Dorothy’s sister-in-law now refers to me as her “future son-in-law” (at least, that’s how Dorothy translates it). Another time, I was at a post-church potluck and brought a pile of dishes to the kitchen to be washed. That act alone made one woman look at me and say, “I have three daughters. Pick any of one of them!”

Now, I’d like to think these women are attracted to my debonair and suave personality that naturally oozes out of me even when I’m fumbling to say “hello” in another language in a culture I barely grasp. On my more realistic days, though, it’s clear that there might be something more appealing about my American passport and (perceived) wealth.

Lately, though, I’ve been fending off marriage proposals from women in Itipini. While eating lunch with the women in the kitchen the other day, one young mother in her early 20s served me a plate of food and said something in Xhosa. When I asked for it to be translated, I heard, “she says she wants to marry you because then she can cook for you every day.” (I like the food here but the thought of it every day was enough to turn me off the idea of marriage right there.) A few days later, an 18-year old mother said almost the same thing. These two young mothers have turned into a bit of a tag team and now repeatedly – and jokingly, they say – address me as “umyeni yam,” “my husband.” They sense my discomfort with the situation, which only makes them more relentless, even as I repeatedly address them as “bahlobo bam,” “my friends.”

Vuyelwa and Vuyelwa, potential future wives with potential future step-children.

Dealing with multiple marriage proposals is not covered in any safe-church training I’ve ever been a part of and it’s hard to come up with a culturally-relevant reason for declining the offer. I could say I’m too young but they’re younger and already have babies. I could say I’m too old for them but they’d insist I’m not. “Not ready yet” doesn’t seem to translate the way I want it to. The word for like and love is the same in Xhosa so if I say I don’t love them, I’m also saying I don’t like them, which isn’t true, nor is it even clear that love is a criterion in this situation. If I say I don’t have enough money, they just laugh and laugh wishing they had my income.

Finally, my friend Noxolo stepped in and prompted me to say I don’t have the lobola or bride-price that is traditionally paid in cows from the groom to the bride’s family. “Andinayo ilobola” – “I don’t have the bride-price” – seems to be a satisfactory answer for now.


Andrew Hankinson said...

"Mawiage. Mawiage is what bwings us togevaaa today."

The Princess Bride... I always loved that scene.

First Alaskan Man said...

Jesse I thought we trained you better up here in the frozen lands:

While I like (love) you both I cannot marry as I am a servant for God and He is saving you ladies from me. LOL

It’s good to come back and visit you. It’s been blizzard after blizzard here above the Arctic Circle. Kotzebue went down to a chill factor of minus 62 below then after another blizzard, down to minus 49 below-Fahrenheit of course.

Keep up the great work bro.

Tom said...

Well.. Jessie, just don't wear your tux with your bow tie and you may be safe.

And remember, there are hundreds of red salmon waiting to swim into your net in much cooler parts of the planet..

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