Early on in Dakar, I made it clear to my Senegalese friends that no subject was off limits. An innocent victim of cultural ignorance and sheer naiveté, I hadn’t the foggiest idea that over the next two years, I would spend countless hours fielding invasive, intensely personal questions about my love life that Emily Post herself would be unable to handle gracefully.
The baffled expression of sheer horror on a Senegalese woman’s face when I tell her that I’m unmarried is something akin to what I imagine my Mother would look like if I sat her down and told her I’d decided to grow my hair to my feet and become a Moonie.
It doesn’t make sense to the western mind, but in a culture where ten year old girls are betrothed to men that they marry as soon as they hit puberty, a twenty-three year old woman who’s working and unmarried is somewhat of a anomaly. The assumption is that there must be something dreadfully wrong with me-as seen in the pitying looks of Muslim friends that have, in an attempt to rectify my unfortunate marital status, offered to cornrow my hair, slim me down, dress me up, teach me to cook, and help me master the subtle art of flirting.
Personally, I think I would be much too irresistible with cornrows. The world is not ready-it simply wouldn’t be fair to the male population at large.
Given that I apparently passed my expiration date years ago, well intentioned friends have sweetly offered to marry me off to their brothers, uncles and cousins. Lucky old maid that I am, I have my pick of the litter! Never mind that I have a boyfriend back home-because goodness, this is an emergency! A select, hopeless few have involuntarily committed me to a life of celibacy, and are of the rather dismal opinion that it’s time for me to buy a pair of overalls, saw off a shotgun, settle into a back-country rocking chair and start picking off pigeons from the porch.
…or the Senegalese equivalent.
Miriam, however, isn’t buying me cats quite yet. As one of the few women I know that is more tolerant of my “alternative lifestyle”, her big question for me this week was not when I’m getting married-but how many babies I want to have.
Help me, Emily Post!
It’s a question that I’m intimately familiar with-and the ramifications of answering it truthfully are always the same. You see, my African counterparts come from families that make Mike and Carol Brady look just lazy. Enormous families are expected and lauded-many of the women I interact with ardently believe that my life will be utterly wasted and devoid of all meaning if I have fewer than seven.
[Hamsters eat their young. I’m not sure how that’s relevant-but it needed to be said.]
I hemmed and hawed for a moment, and without missing a beat that charming girl stared straight into my soul with a startling air of assured finality and proclaimed:
Bon. You will have many twins!
She was being thoughtful. After all, in Senegal, twins are considered to be good luck! In Ashley’s world, however, twins are considered to guarantee stretch marks and dark circles under ones eyes for no less than five years.
Twins. The very word made my ears bleed.
Miriam, I don’t want twins.
Yes you do! I will pray for it every day.
This was about when the color started draining from my face and into my trembling toes.
Miriam, seriously! Don’t pray for that!
With a confused look about her, Miriam paused for the briefest moment before a slow understanding brightened her brown eyes.
Ah bon! I will pray for triplets.
I surrender. Somebody tell me where I can get a shotgun.