As one uncle put it to me [I’m Congolese], “If you married a Nigerian, how would you cope if he wanted to retire in Nigeria? Think about it. I doubt he will want to move back to Congo. You will just die in Nigeria. Love blinds common sense.”
“No Nigerian, Ghanaian or Jamaican man is welcome in my house. If you’re going to marry a foreigner, marry a white man.”
These were the words that fell from my friend’s mother’s mouth when her daughter told her she was dating a Nigerian man because she was tired of Congolese men.
Why would I date an unknown culture?
“Why? Why is it better for me to be with a white man than it is to be with a Nigerian?”, said my friend in response, defiantly challenging her mother, to my dismay (anybody knows better than to challenge an African mother!).
“White people don’t have much culture; it’s easy to adapt either way. Why would you want to be with a Nigerian? Look how strong their culture is. Are there no more Congolese men? Stop wasting your time; you’ll regret it when you get older. How many marriages do you know of people from two different African countries that have lasted till old age? No. Stick to your own culture. It’s for your own good”, said her mother, adamantly.
I pondered those phrases: “It’s for your own good” and “stick to your own”. Was it really for our own good to find our life partners within our own culture? Could we really say that relationships would be easier if we were with someone of the same origin? And why was it better to date a white person rather than another African?
Some field digging
I did a bit of digging to get the views of other people of African origin on intercultural dating. Some responses:
“Love is love.”
Jennifer (23), Angolan
“I would only prefer to date a Congolese man because we both understand each others cultures. The connection is just better because we can relate in many ways since we’ve had a similar upbringing.”
Sarah (24), Congolese
“I love my Ghanaian brothers, especially those who can speak my tribal language. I don’t want to speak English in my household. Especially when telling jokes, it just doesn’t sound the same in English.”
Nana (24), Ghanaian
“I will be with anyone as long as they are compatible to me and I’m attracted to them. I don’t care too much for things like dowry. I’m British.”
Christopher (28), Nigerian
“As long as they are not Jamaican.”
Bijoux (28), Congolese
“Dating someone from your own background has far more positives than dating someone from another background, such as cultural understanding, speaking the same language etc. Also family disappointments are a minimum. I’ve brought a Nigerian, Jamaican and Congolese home. I would prefer to date someone from the same country as me. It’s just easier.”
Bridgette (25) Congolese
“I don’t mind as long as I am happy and loved, that is all that matters.”
Dora (28), Zimbabwe
Immerse within your own culture
What I found was that those who immersed themselves exclusively in their own culture (i.e mono-cultural churches, parties, gatherings) – even if they lived in a very mixed society abroad – were the ones who were adamant that it was easier and preferable to date within their own culture.
Am I saying that those who date outside of their culture are not in tune with their own? Certainly not, but they certainly have embraced other cultures more and are willing to look past any real, imagined or expected obstacles.
“The problem is language; it’s the major issue” 36-year-old Alexi from Congo told me. “For most of us English is not our first language, we think in our mother tongue then translate it into English. If you can communicate with someone in a language that you both feel comfortable with, it makes being with that person easier. In Africa, those who speak the same language have a similar culture. I can get with someone from Cameroon or Ivory Coast because they speak French but not a Nigerian or a Ghanaian.”
I agreed with Alexi. Being a fluent English speaker who also communicated with her parents in her mother tongue, I tended to slip between languages without thinking about it. When I spoke to another Congolese person they understood me, but when I spoke to someone who didn’t speak my mother tongue, conversations couldn’t be as natural as I wanted them to be. A Ghanaian friend of mine told me “My (Jamaican) boyfriend really tried to speak my language because he realised that it was important to me.”
Ethnic capital of the world
For me, a twenty-something year old Congolese woman who grew up in the city of London – a city I like to call “the ethnic capital of Europe” – dating someone from a different culture was not a problem. I went to a secondary school that was predominantly West African and attended a university that was predominantly white, so my choices were wide and I dated a few of those choices. In fact I wasn’t into my own culture as much because I grew up along a lot of other nationalities, in what I call “London culture”. Outside our homes, we spoke the same street language, ate the same type of food, listened to the same type of music and were attracted to the same type of guys (or girls). There were no cultural preferences, except they had to speak English and couldn’t be a “freshie” (someone who’s recently moved to the UK from Africa). They were the ones you couldn’t be with.
However, as I got older and continued to date people from other countries, I realised there was always a barrier in the way, almost like a culture clash, and language, I felt, was the ultimate clash as it is one of the key markers of culture. It didn’t help when I went to their houses and the family would purposely speak in their language to exclude me, which reminded me that I wasn’t one of them. It was for this reason that I began to look for like-minded guys who were also from my own culture, guys I could relate to. “Dating is one thing, but marriage is another”, an aunty told me. She’s right. Marriage and dating are two different things, clearly, but which factors are fundamental when deciding whom to marry? Is culture one? Should it be?
I know my family would be pleased if I brought home a Congolese man, but what if I do so to my own detriment? Love is love, as one of the respondents said, but is it better to stay within cultural boundaries to save ourselves from the potential future troubles that might result from mixing cultures – as some elders advice – or should one ignore boundaries and deal with issues if they arise?
African parents, don’t joke with them
Young and not-yet-married
Nowadays, in this current generation of young-and-not-yet-married, or recently married, we don’t so much as bat an eyelid when we see mixed couples, but as one uncle put it to me, “Where would you live when you retire? England is not your home. If you married a Nigerian, how would you cope if he wanted to retire in Nigeria? Think about it. I doubt he will want to move back to Congo. You will just die in Nigeria. Love blinds common sense.”
The idea of retiring in a country totally unfamiliar to me is quite daunting and something I know would take a lot of discussion with my future partner, if he happened to have a different country of origin. Having to decide which culture my children followed more or which one was dominant in my household is another consideration, as I find it important for reasons of identity.
In our parents’ generation we know marrying within their own culture – even tribe – was paramount as they tried to maintain cultural cohesion and identity. However, even in Congo a country that boasts a long history of tribalism, there came a time during the Mobutu regime when he encouraged tribes and regions to unite because he understood that a united Congo meant a stronger state. Can we apply the same line of reasoning to our argument and suggest that perhaps if we as Africans remain open to marrying people from other African countries, could we also have a stronger and united Africa?
An older woman asked me: “How many mixed cultured couples do you know who have grown old together?” True I didn’t know any mixed elderly couples, but perhaps this is because there is a greater diversity of Africans living in the diaspora than there were 30 years ago. Furthermore, as a new generation embracing and becoming more comfortable with cultural differences, might not some of us become examples for future generations of the mixed-culture couples that lasted, if we last?