Every day, someone asks me if I am married. It may seem like it’s just men wanting to convince me to come to the cattle post with them. But it’s equally women enquiring about my marital status. Some old women want to marry off their sons to an American. Others are just curious about my personal life. Examples of conversations go as such (in Setswana usually):
Man: Are you married?
Me: I don’t need a husband. I am still young. In the future, I want a family, but not now.
Man: So next year I will ask you?
Me: Probably not. Sorry.
Woman: Do you have children?
Woman: Are you married?
Woman: Do you want to get married in Botswana?
Me: No, but I would date if I met someone I liked.
Woman: Why come to Botswana if you don’t want to get married here?
And so on. I know why they ask. I am new, they want to get to know me, and family is very important in Botswana. The measure of your womanhood is based on your marital status and number of children. I was talking about this with workers at my clinic. One of the cleaners told me that I am still a girl because I am unmarried and have no children. Because she has children but is unmarried (which is VERY common in Botswana and is more culturally acceptable than it is in the states), she is “ngwanyana” which means girlfriend. Women who are married are “basadi,” or women. And rarely is a woman married without children. Also, historically, extended families in Botswana all take care of each other. So the more children you have, the higher the likelihood that you would be supported in old age.
Every time I tell people I am an only child, they don’t believe it. They often ask why my parents didn’t want more children. Sometimes the question upsets me, as if it is a judgment that my parents are somehow not worth as much because they only had me. But most of the time I realize that people in Botswana, for the most part, don’t make decisions about having kids based on the ability to provide for them. You’re not a real woman if you don’t have children, and the more the better. This is especially a problem with HIV-positive women in my village, many of whom continue to get pregnant multiple times. People know about condoms, but they are used mostly for prevention of diseases and not prevention of childbirth (if they are used at all). Other contraceptive methods like the female condom, depo provera and the pill are available, but don’t seem to be widely discussed. Abortion is also illegal here. I don’t know the statistics of women who have illegal terminations, but it doesn’t seem like there is much of a dialogue about being unhappy with unplanned pregnancy. When I told one woman that I knew women in the states who had unplanned pregnancies, but were unsure whether or not to terminate, she said, “But they [pregnancies] are always unplanned.” And women here don’t have a legal choice to terminate, even if they wanted to.
Most of the time when people scoff after my “ke na fela” statement (I am an only child), I take it as an opportunity to teach, a time for cultural exchange. I tell people that sometimes families only want one child in the states, or women don’t want children at all. And that’s okay. But I also say that some families have trouble having children, and some women even have miscarriages after conceiving. People seem to understand.
I believe having a family is a beautiful thing, and I look forward to that time in my life. But I also think that there is more to life than that. I hope to have a career and work that I’m proud of. Some women here, especially of the younger generation who venture into the city, definitely understand that. Even though I appreciate their perspective and know that talking about family is a way to make conversation, it sometimes wears on me. The part I especially don’t like is that there seems to be no talk of love in these questions. I know that couples love each other here, but when these men say that they will marry me, there isn’t any question of my willingness to do so. It’s treated more as a contract, like when I am ready, I just get married or have children, but loving the man in question isn’t necessary.
I brought this up to some people in Shoshong. Mosinyi told me that men say that just to “test the depth of the water.” My next door neighbor, an amazing woman, told me that the marriage question is the Batswana men’s version of a pick-up line. It finally made sense. The men don’t really want to marry me. Apparently I am just supposed to be flattered and agree to sleep with them.
Obviously every man in Botswana does not ask me to marry him, and there are amazing people who want to get to know me regardless of my marital status. I have met truly awesome men and women that I hope will be lifelong friends of mine. The lesson from all of this is such: I will never be Motswana. The Batswana joke about it, saying I will be fluent in Setswana when I leave and I will be a real Motswana. But that’s not true. I will always be an American, and with that comes a specific outlook on the world and my place in it—right or wrong. In the effort to integrate, respecting and understanding differences is important. But so is setting one’s boundaries. And that means being honest about not living like they do in some ways. And that’s okay.