I have an African-American girlfriend who uses the term "black love", a term commonly used to describe a positive relationship role model of a black couple. I suppose that in the US, the misrepresentation of minorities, namely black men, as misogynist criminals leaves little space for positive examples of black couples for the public to reference. So the few that are revered, such as the Obamas, are celebrated as black love.
The Obamas, the embodiment of "black love"
My friend and I recently had a conversation in which she told me she couldn’t wait to come to visit me in Uganda, as the city she lives in has an African-American population of less than 5 per cent, somewhat complicating her dating life. She feels her chances of finding her black love are higher in Africa - she would come and find her “very own Djimon Hounsou”. We went back and forth quite a bit on her statement - I won’t transcribe the girl talk here. Was it the Academy Award-winning actor or the chiseled no-clothes-wearing slave from Amistad she was looking for? She seemed to feel that race as a common factor would eliminate her struggle in the dating game that African women similar to her - independent strong career women - were lucky to have an entire continent of black men to choose from. But it’s not as simple as that. The modern African woman is faced with a list of dating restrictions, double standards and the pressure of living up to the traditional expectations that African men have of the "good" African woman.
There is no expression for ‘black love’ on the continent because it’s what we’ve grown up seeing; there is positive imagery of successful unions all around us. However, that doesn’t eliminate the complexity in the search for the perfect partner, and to think race is a deciding factor is as unrealistic in Africa as it is anywhere else. In my opinion, the modern African woman has the hardest time finding the "perfect" significant other.
I define the modern African woman as an educated, financially-independent woman, one who's aware of tradition but is accustomed to adjusting the rules. I often wonder if the modern African woman is what that the modern African man is looking for.
My married friends in Europe and America are all about equality: he cooks on Wednesdays, cleans the bathroom on Fridays, does the shopping on Sundays. Me and my African girlfriends joke about it when frustrated with our men, about how easy some women have it. Your average modern African man in all his modernity is still imprinted with traditional expectations. I’m not saying he is expecting his wife to go fetch water from a well, but he is expecting her to assume the traditional wifely duties applicable to their culture. It’s what he knows, what he learnt watching his mother and his grandmother, and it’s his reference for the good African woman. She should know how to cook, be a nurturer and bear the children. She can be ‘modern’ but without imitating a western ideal of the emancipated woman; she shouldn’t expect all that ‘equality’ stuff.
A woman can have three PhDs in her purse, but when is comes to the ‘how-to-keep-a-man advice’ given to us by our elders, we are told to be submissive to our African men, to make sure they are well fed, to avoid confrontation at all costs, to manage the kitchen and to comfortably position ourselves in a man’s shadow. But, advice is also being given to our men: they are told what to expect from their wives, taught that a woman that abridges her roles is difficult and unsuitable, that she isn’t wife and mother material if she is career focused and not domestically inclined. Different countries and tribes have their variations on the expected role of the African woman in relationships, but wherever you look, the expectations of an African woman are rife with double standards. I’ve had many conversations with African men who said they would "let" their wife work, so long as she could fulfil her other "duties". This is where the double standards come into play: there is less flexibility for women when it comes to traditional expectations. Whether she marries a cow herder or a corporate mogul, she must still be willing to trail behind as the woman. I’ve witnessed men marrying outside their obvious dating pools - there are fewer restrictions on a man’s choice of partner - and the rules seem easier to blur for men. If an educated successful businessman marries an uneducated woman from a poor family, people are more likely to accept it than if it were the other way round. The union would be viewed as an upgrade to her life, not a hindrance to his. People will generally assume she is a good wife, that she cooks, is obedient and that she's going to bear a clan. But I recently went to a wedding where the bride had two children from a previous relationship, and the hushed conversation among the guests was that she was lucky the man "accepted" her for marriage. An African man coming into a marriage with children from a previous relationship would never be considered "lucky" to be accepted by the woman.
If my friend is looking to marry someone primarily based on physical characteristics, like her Djimon from Amistad, in theory she could find what she's looking for in some village somewhere. He may fulfil her physical checklist, but it goes without saying that they're unlikely to have much in common. Just as he wouldn’t have much in common with today’s educated, modern African woman. He may have a six pack and spend most of his days shirtless and glistening with sweat, but he doesn’t qualify as a suitable partner for her. Besides, an African woman marrying a man primarily for his good looks and virility? No chance. Just not acceptable. But I’ve seen men whose partners were clearly chosen for their looks - hardly anything in common and it's acceptable. Truth be told, I don’t know any modern African women who want to marry handsome fishermen from remote villages, but I do know that a lot of women have to answer to a wide circle of relatives and friends who expect her partner to be a doctor or lawyer, followed by a whole list of other requirements, and that’s when it gets complicated. Love is often ignored and replaced with what is socially acceptable. As a result, many people are forced to ‘settle’ for the acceptable - to marry from a list of the right candidates - in order to keep everybody happy.
But there are those that choose to ignore the whole social acceptance business and follow their own path. Because of all the restrictions on her choices, the modern African woman has not only started dating outside her designated pool, she is fishing in different lakes, seas and oceans altogether. Behind closed doors, we modern African women stereotype the men of our continent, we have opinions about which country has the most attractive men, which has the richest men, which has the most cheats and so on. And we've started to widen our dating pool. We might decide to trade a particular negative that we may have grown up around for something else. For instance, if the men of our own tribe or country aren’t particularly generous, we may find that trait in a man from a different culture. If we are different from our more traditional sisters, then we might as well look for something different in our partners too. And as African economies continue to grow, career women are finding more opportunities to travel to different parts of the continent, which increases their chances of meeting men with the qualities lacking in the men at "home" - sometimes the grass is greener on the other side.
Some woman see this cross-continental dating as happy medium, keeping their love "African" but with a slight deviation from the usual practice. It's a relatively new phenomenon, but more and more women are finding themselves open to it. Not as new, though, is African women involved in interracial relationships. A good friend of mine is open about her desire to marry a white man, a preference that she’s often judged for by other African women, but she has her reasons. A lot of them stem from her desire for equality within her relationship. She finds that white men are not threatened by her career and independence. She also feels that his value and suitability for her won't be subject to the scrutiny of her immediate and extended family. He can earn less than she does and he doesn’t have to be a university graduate, and no one will dissect his lineage the way they would with an African man; people will just let them be: married to a white guy, end of story. The white guy who will cook her dinner and do the dishes, or so she says.
I’m not letting African women off the hook that easily, though. If you live in Africa and choose to marry an African man, then an African man is what you will get, even if you date across the continent. Far too often, women expect the African men we marry to be different from their fathers or other male role models from times when traditions were less flexible, but why would that be the case? They may have moved with the times, in some respects, but by and large their ideals still exist within a traditional cultural context. A woman can’t pick the traditional elements a man has that suit her and press delete on the ones she doesn’t like. She also can’t use the guise of the traditional female role to lure a man and then complain when he expects her to be in the kitchen; she sold him that package. The most ideal scenario for any woman is to find someone with whom she has similar fundamental cultural expectations. Tradition may seem outdated to those who practice modernism but even though certain rules are being abridged they are not being eradicated. She needs to decide.