This past summer, I went back to Togo for a visit with my mom, my aunt and my uncle after having lived in the United States for almost fifteen years. I was, of course, excited to see members of my extended family and old friends again. I couldn’t wait to be in a place where everyone spoke the same language (Ewe…mixed with French if the occasion called for it) and ate the same foods (Fufu, Jollof rice, Garri, etc). The return visit to Togo with my mother was packed with delicious food and surprise revelations for both of us.
My trip home came with expectations. I expected a warm welcome from my extended family. I expected to be grilled about my education and professional status. I even expected to be looked over and to receive comments on how much fatter I had gotten since the last time everyone saw me. My family, and native culture to a certain extent, is not known for mincing words. However, I did not expect how many times I would be questioned about marital status. That phase of life that only briefly crossed my mind when an old classmate posts an engagement photo on Facebook. The first time I was asked these questions, my answer was direct and matter of fact .
Well Meaning Friend: “So… let’s talk for a moment. Are you married? Do you have children?”
Well Meaning Friend: “Why not? Don’t you want to make your parents happy by giving them grandchildren?”
I almost spit out my food. I did not have a script ready for this kind of question.
I shot a pleading look at my mother, expecting her to come to my rescue. “Please, tell her. Please, help me change her mind,” my mother replied to my shock, to the hostess.
What?! We had not talked about it! Mom, what are you doing?! I said to her telepathically through questioning eyes. It appears that I would not be rescued. Sure, my mother did say once, months before our trip, that it would make her happy if I met with some of my old classmates “to see…” She paused , implying that there was more left more being left unsaid.
It’s not that I hadn’t thought of marriage. It’s just that I hadn’t taken it seriously. I mean, I was the child who dreamed of becoming a nun one day. I even thought about what my life would look like if I never married. I researched intensely about the joys and benefits of solo living. But these were things I could not discuss with my mother without her changing the subject.
She then said aloud that it was important to her. Me having a significant other? Me having children? I wasn’t sure what exactly was “important to her” but I didn’t want to prolong that conversation. Because the conversation ended briefly, I thought she had forgotten about our conversation. I was wrong.
Later on, as I accompanied my mother one evening on yet another visit to the home of a family friend, it happened again.
“Makafui, how are things going over there?
“Good, good. I’ve finished university and I’ve been working for a few years.”
“Good. But, how are things? Do you have someone in your life?”
“No, not yet.”
Did I give the right answer so we could switch the subject? I hoped so. I was sweating despite the loud fan, swiveling back and forth next to me.
“Why not? How old are you?”
My mother chimed in. “By 27, I was married and was already trying for my first child.”
I started to zone out mid-conversation when my mother abruptly got up and said “Can I see you in your bedroom for a minute?” Suddenly, both women rose and went into an adjacent room. I was left alone, dazed, confused, and staring at the empty aquarium in the middle of the living room, a glass of Fanta in my hands. What is happening? After a long while, they both walked back into the living room. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. My mom’s friend pulled out her phone to show me a picture of her youngest son. “ Remember my youngest son? You guys used to play together when you visited when you were young! He’s a basketball player in China now! Isn’t that great?I’m going to give you his e-mail so that you guys can talk from time to time.”
At this point, I realized there is no rerouting the conversation. So, I laughed nervously. “Isn’t he my younger brother’s age?” I asked. “What would we talk about?” My mother gave me the answer. “We’re not saying anything will happen. You can just give him advice from time to time. Look at the picture she’s showing you.” I stared at my mom, at her friend, and back at my mom. They were serious. I nodded my head politely and realized my best tactic would be to smile and nod as many times as I needed to quickly bring this conversation to an end.
These awkward exchanges happened frequently throughout my visit. The mother of an old primary school friend wanted to share with me that her daughter had just had a baby. Others wanted to tell me about their daughter who married a doctor/lawyer/international entrepreneur. Family members said they would be praying that the next time I come to visit them, I would have a baby in my arms. Silently I thought, “Don’t pray so hard!” as I gulped down my Fanta and scarfed down the food I could no longer fully enjoy. Internally, I wanted people to understand that there is more to my future than marriage and motherhood. I wondered if anyone wanted to hear about I planned to contribute to the world that did involve giving birth.
I never questioned my view on this subject until a specific incident. A friend of the family invited us over and during dinner, the question arose: “Why is marriage not a priority for you?” I replied, “Because I want to know myself first. Because I want to feel like I’ve made a difference in the world in a substantial way.”
While our hostess paused, taken aback by my answer, my mother scolded me: “Who are you? Who are you to think you can even make a difference in this world?” I was frozen, shocked by her answer. She had questioned one of my personal values and I didn’t know how to respond. I was so angry I didn’t talk to her for two days, even though we slept in the same room.
My aunt urged me to look at things from my mother’s perspective. In our Togolese culture, achievement is very important, whether they be one’s own achievements or those of one’s children. And parents compared their children’s achievements to those of others. I worked hard in school to make my parents proud. They could brag to their friends back home about their high-achieving daughter, the Ivy League school-bound daughter, the one with the many honors and talent for writing and speaking. I did not think that the comparisons would slowly shift into comparing reproductive ability when we grew older.
Perhaps, my mother’s friends bragged to her about their daughters’ husbands and children and she could not do the same .
Perhaps, she felt the questions between the gaps of what they said and did not say: “What have you taught her? What are you teaching her?” Perhaps, she was ready for this and I was not. My American life had afforded me many privileges, including multiple representations of a good life: fulfillment with or without a spouse. I slowly realized the gap between my values, influenced both by American and Togolese cultures, and those that shaped my mother.
Recounting these stories weeks later to my Ethiopian-American friend who had traveled to Ethiopia with her mother, she paused for a second and said, “Oh… I should have warned you.” I was taken aback for a second. “Wait, this happens a lot? This happened to you too?” I felt naïve. I should have expected the personal questions. Next time, I will be ready. I will nod politely and look at the pictures of the eligible bachelors as I crane my head towards the kitchen, wondering, ‘Is the food ready yet?’”