Monday, July 6, 2015

Five Hundred Cows

After a week in Homa Bay, toilet paper, a shower, and some alone time were all I could think about.  I had booked a room in Kericho, a town known for its beautiful abundance of tea plantations.  From Homa Bay to Kericho, it took six hours, two matatus, and one marriage proposal.

Recently, a Masaai man in Kenya publicly offered President Obama five hundred cows in exchange for the eldest Obama daughter's hand in marriage.  This had trumped a previous offer by another Kenyan of fifty cows.  Since Masaai are herders, cows are reasonably easy to come by for a dowry.  Luos, however, don't have that luxury.  This worked to my advantage during my time in Homa Bay with Luo hosts.

"Are you married?" was guaranteed to be asked within a few seconds of being introduced to any single man between the ages of 20-40 in Homa Bay.  Since this conversation topic was always brought up amid broad smiles and peeling laughter, it was a bit difficult to tell if these were jokes or not.  While they didn't exactly expect me to accept their proposal on the spot, it became clear pretty quickly that they really wouldn't mind the idea.  Who wouldn't want citizenship to whatever country the white msungu visitor came from?  They assumed our lives are easier since machines do all the housework for us, and we obviously have an abundance of finances since we were able to make it all the way to Kenya from wherever we came from.

To allow myself some power and to help deter their efforts, I always accepted their proposal to marry their son/brother/grandson/nephew immediately.  But with the sole condition that the groom's family provide me with five hundred cows to be shipped to the U.S., just like Obama (Obama is Luo, so Luos love him and his family).  This dowry price always made the matchmaker and their audience laugh the hardest.  Five hundred cows is an absurd price.  But it's also absurd and condescending to both parties to suggest a green card marriage within a few seconds of meeting.

Whether the dowry is one cow or five million cows, I don't want my value as a person and as a wife measured in livestock.  While I feel offended and belittled by these jokes, I have to remember that most women here don't have a choice.  Kenyan women have it tough; it's not uncommon that husbands have girlfriends or even other wives on the side.  Wives are expected to clean, cook (without a stove, oven, or fridge), do laundry (all by hand), raise children, and contribute to the income.  She is under the husband's control, and sometimes his fist.

Again, I'm hit hard with the sickening understanding that I'm so lucky to be who I am, to be born in the country I was.  I've already cleared so many hurdles both as a person and as a woman just by being American, but I didn't ask for this and I don't deserve it.  God had His hand in my life before I was born, and now I feel called to use that privilege to benefit others in some way.  I have no idea in what capacity this will manifest itself, but part of going on this trip was to help launch myself into that discovery process.  It's a very confusing and humbling and daunting road, but so far, it's led me here: to this point and to this country.  All I can do is trust in God's plan for my life and in the lives of others around me.  I want nothing more than for Him to use me as His instrument, but I'm terrified of the struggles and hardships that that might entail.

Things got a little more difficult in Kericho.  The joke about the "five hundred cows" doesn't have the same impact when you're not sitting in their mud living room with the entire extended family.  I hate lying to people, so I tried gracefully declining the marriage proposals through polite but firm refusal.  I realized after ten minutes on a three hour sweltering hot matatu bus ride to another town that I needed another strategy (that was a very long three hours; I've never had to come up with so many ways to say "no" before).  Then I tried telling one man I had a boyfriend.

"Where ees he?"
"In the U.S."
"Ees okay, ees no problem.  He has another woman since you are not dere.  So ees okay for you to give me your phone numbah and den we go togedah.  Yes?"

Nope.  That didn't work either.

I insisted to one man named Abraham that I was married, and he proceeded to ask if I had any single msungu friends in the States that can marry him.  Sigh, here we go again...

Abraham insisted I take his photo to show my white single lady friends, who are all potential brides in his eyes.

I told another guy and his friend on a park bench I was married.  He wasn't shy about reaching across me to grab my left hand to inspect it: "You are not married; where ees your ring?  You are lying."  Damn, that didn't work either.

Instead of focusing on the relationship status, I switched my focus to the exchange of contact information.  I never give out my number, so I'd ask them to give me theirs.  I'd tell them I left my phone in my room.  Or that my phone was dead.  "I'll text you later when I charge it!" I'd say while silently plotting my escape.

They still had doubts that I would text them later, so I've recently been giving out a fake email or my phone number with one digit changed.  Granted, it's false information, but if these exhausting and tedious manipulation games are inevitable, I've given up trying to be noble and have instead resorted to expending the least amount of time and energy as possible on them.  Efficiency is a western trait, and I'm so incredibly excited to put it into practice whenever I get the chance, which is not often here in Kenya.

A few days ago, I bought a fake wedding band in a local market for a dollar (the other volunteers and I joked that it was the cheapest wedding to date).  I don't know if I'll ever master the art of avoiding these conversations, or if that's even possible, or if the ring will help at all.  Yes, it's a struggle to get used to these interactions, but I think about things that I used to have to fake my way through in the States that also felt draining.  Like pretending I know something about craft beer.  Or choosing what to wear in the morning (I own two pairs of pants and four shirts right now; it's a helluva lot easier to make fashion decisions with such a limited selection).  Or worrying about upcoming bikini season.  Or trying to follow pop culture and staying on top of the Austin music scene.  I've simply traded one front for another.  I guess that's part of cultural immersion and integration: changing the way you operate on a day-to-day basis out of necessity.

For the time being, I guess I'll keep lying to these men to get them to go away so I have more time to myself think about how God will use me to do good in other people's lives.  Maybe starting with the next person...

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