By Meron Tekleberhan
Addis Ababa, April 1, 2011 (Ezega.com) - It has become much more common today than it was in the past for Ethiopian women and men to marry foreign nationals. Most young people that I spoke to said that they would marry a foreigner provided that they shared the same values and life goals. Only a few worried about cultural and racial differences and even then they considered these things more for their parent’s sake than their own. Things used to be somewhat different twenty or thirty years ago when such marriages were much less accepted by the society.
W/zo Zewede has been happily married to a French diplomat for twenty five years. But she remembers that it was a very agonizing decision for her to make at the time. There weren’t as many foreigners on the streets of Addis Ababa at that time and to be seen with one was almost enough to be labelled as prostitute. The first few times her future husband approached to speak to her she remembers running away from him. But he was persistent and he repeatedly came to her uncle’s shop where she worked.
Even when she finally stopped running away there was still the language barrier to contend with. She didn’t speak a word of French and he only had a rudimentary understanding of Amharic so he had to bring a colleague of his the first time they spoke and to all subsequent dates.
“But this wasn’t a problem for me. I wanted the friend to be there. I doubt that I would have dared to meet with a ‘ferenji’ man in public places otherwise. Even so I made sure that I didn’t sit next to him or look directly at him because I was scared of his blue eyes. I told his friend repeatedly that I didn’t want to meet with them anymore but I found out later that he never said that to him. He knew that his ‘ferenji’ friend was in love with me and he felt sorry for me because he could tell I was a country girl. We met like this only a few times before he proposed to me in a letter that his friend had translated into Amharic. He didn’t know that I was completely illiterate and that my cousin had to read his letter to me even in Amharic! She encouraged me to accept him and I did. I don’t think I loved him then but his kindness and patience with me was very hard to resist. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a kinder and more respectful husband, Ethiopian or ‘fernji.”
W/zo Zewde is glad that they lived most of their married life outside of Ethiopia because she feels that many people are unable to accept them as a real couple. When they came to Ethiopia on short visits she dreaded taking her husband to social events because of the stares and whispered comments. It was particularly worse when she took him to the countryside to introduce him to her elderly father. Neighbors there, unlike their counterparts in Addis Ababa, did not even bother to hide their comments behind covered mouths. They freely made sport of all that they found strange in her husband’s appearance. Women hid their babies, children ran away at his approach and elderly people shied away from sitting near him.
“I was hurt even if I knew it was no different from the way I had first reacted to him. He had really tried to be accepted and practiced the correct way to address different members of my family for weeks. But they laughed at him when he spoke our language and made him feel ridiculous. I decided never to take him back to the countryside and we’ve never been back.”
Rebekah got married to an American three years ago. “My husband works with an International Organization and we met while I was an intern. He liked the fact that I’d been to America although he claims that he had long decided to marry a beautiful Ethiopian woman. When we decided to get married, after a year of dating, my family found it hard to accept, especially my father. He felt that people would get the wrong impression and judge accordingly. I thought he was exaggerating but immediately after we announced the wedding, people started to ask me why I had married an American after giving up my chance of staying in the US after college. It was very hard to convince my family and friends that I wasn’t marrying my husband for an American citizenship. There are those who still believe this even after I’ve had his child.”
Rebekah says that such comments really hurt her and made her question her decision to get married. She tried everything that she could to make sure that her fiancée didn’t hear them, but she found out later that some of his Ethiopian friends had warned him of the same thing.
“Most of the Ethiopians who worked with us, especially those who didn’t know me personally believed I was taking advantage of him. Some of them who were closest to him told him this outright, and I really admire him for not doubting my motivations and going ahead with the marriage.”
The reactions of those close to her prepared Rebekah for the problems they encountered in society. She armored herself against the rude comments from beggars asking her to share the wealth, or the young men propositioning her in her husband’s presence because they assumed that her marriage is a sham.
“I took everything in a stride even though it was a bit hard to explain to my husband. I work very hard to make him understand that we are not a racist people and I really believe this. I think all cultures will have the same or similar reactions to foreign elements, at least until they become familiar. I can see how soon assimilation can occur by how my family has accepted my husband, especially after our daughter was born. I sometimes feel that they have forgotten he is ‘Ferenje’.
This is not to say that the marriage itself doesn’t have some tension due to cultural differences. “My husband is very accommodating to our traditions especially since we have chosen to live here. He’s very easy going and he lets me get away with anything if I tell him it’s our culture. The one thing he had problems adjusting to is the issue of privacy. I have a large extended family with five siblings and innumerable aunts, uncles and cousins. My husband found it hard to accept that anyone of these can come to our home unannounced or that they can stay with us for weeks at a time. He was particularly uncomfortable with my mother staying with me for six weeks after I had the baby. His parents have only come to visit us twice and they chose to stay in hotels both times. But I think over time he will come to appreciate the value of strong family connections. Until then I will do all I can to make sure that he has some privacy.”
Meron Tekleberhan is Addis Ababa based reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.