The writer still keeps readers guessing on the ‘big question.’
‘Don’t stay alone o. It’s not good to be on your own,’ said my 80-year-plus Yoruba landlady. She came to talk to me two weeks after I moved into my Mainland apartment. ‘Fúnke,’ she said—unlike most Nigerians she emphasises the first syllable, thus combining the Yoruba version of my name with the Dutch—‘I am talking to you as a woman: a woman needs a man.’ I smiled at her advice and told her love was the last thing on my mind after just moving to a new country and coming out of a relationship of 19 years. She shook her head and gently reminded me I was not getting any younger. ‘There is no time o. Fúnke, you must find a man.’
My landlady is not the only one concerned about my being single. Ever since I came to Nigeria my relationship status seems to be the main subject on people’s minds. Strangers spend a polite twenty seconds listening to my response to their inquiry about what I came to Nigeria to do. Yeah yeah, journalist, blah blah, writer, sure, correspondent, whatever . . . Then they ask me the big question on their minds: ‘Would you marry a Nigerian man?’ From the Assistant Director at the Ministry of Information in Abuja (who immediately set herself up as a matchmaker between me and any of her Lagos-based male cousins) to the security officer who searched my bag at the Immigration Service—‘Are you a Naija wife?’ he asked; and the costumer who walked into the shop where I was photocopying the light bill I had just paid; or the Igbo market woman who explained to me how to cook ogbono soup; virtually every Nigerian passenger I ever sat next to on any national flight; and the FRSC officer who fined me for not having a fire extinguisher in the car: they all wanted to know if I would marry a Nigerian.
I have inquired with white men in Nigeria if they are also routinely asked whether they would marry a Nigerian. Turns out they do get the question once in a while, but not as a rule from every passing acquaintance, and certainly not in a working environment. That I do—even in the middle of an interview on Lagos State policy on urban development—tells a lot about a woman’s value in Nigerian society. She might be a groundbreaking journalist, she might have several PhD’s in her pocket, she might be on her way to finding a cure for cancer, but in the end her true life’s task is to get married and produce babies.
My parents never gave me the feeling they expected anything from me in the marriage or child-bearing department. All they wanted for me was to be happy. I never felt that I would be incomplete as a woman if I did not tie the knot or procreate; in fact, partly due to my parent’s influence, I became a feminist advocating the rights of women as individuals of equal value as men. Now I wonder if I would ever have been able to think so independently had the marriage mantra been impressed upon me all my life.
Some of my single Nigerian girlfriends seem obsessed with matrimony. With every new boyfriend, with every date, the main question on their minds is ‘marriage material or not?’ I vividly imagine how men must fear those women who start thinking guest lists, white lacy dresses and wedding venues after a first kiss, and yet I would argue this mindset is the result of a society stressing a single purpose in life as a woman. Men are just as guilty of supporting this mindset—and this is borne out by the disrespect with which I have heard some men speak of single women.
All this comes to mind every time I hear those five words: ‘Would you marry a Nigerian?’ Needless to say, I never reply with a feministic deconstruction of Nigerian society. Rather I try to wiggle my way out of the question, responding with an enigmatic ‘Who knows?’ or a more direct ‘If I find a Nigerian man I can trust entirely.’ (The latter answer invariably gets me knowing winks that tread a middle ground between ‘Clever girl’ and ‘Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.’)
To be brutally honest, I was not terribly eager to get involved with a Nigerian. I had grown suspicious of the ulterior motives of their approaches. Some men barely made an effort to hide the fact it was not ‘me’ they were after, but what I represented as an oyinbo woman, be it a ticket to the West or the money I was supposed to have. You will forgive me for not complying with this proposition sent to me earlier this year by text message: ‘Hello, I am sorry if what I will say will make you angry!! I just have to say it out. I like you, and I will like to have a relationship with you pls. What do you think?’ Signed, the driver I met the day before when I was doing a report and with whom I had exchanged not more than three sentences.
Apart from my doubt if it was always true love on their minds, there was a more important reason I did not see myself with a Nigerian partner: I hardly expected to encounter a man with whom I would be compatible. Which Nigerian would possibly put up with a stubborn, Dutch, non-religious feminist with anarchist tendencies like me?
I was proven wrong on all counts.
They say you are most likely to find things when you are not looking for them. If you ask me the big question on everyone’s mind these days, my response might surprise you. It even surprises me.
P.S. Yes, I know . . . you all want to know my new answer to the big question. Keep following this column, of which there are only two more to go. By the end you might get your answer.
Talk to Femke on Twitter: @femkevanzeijl