Lucky in Love

Sept-place rides were usually exercises in mental oblivion.  Two hours on horrible, pitted Senegalese roads was enough to make anyone fear for their safety, and my usual companions in shared sept-place cars were annoying young men brimming with marriage proposals.  I preferred to sleep or bury my nose in a book. 

But one afternoon I ended up beside a pleasant-faced woman who introduced herself, in perfect English, as Anta.

“I live in Kaolack,” she explained, “But I grew up in The Gambia.  Farafenni, you know?  I married my husband when I was fifteen, and I’ve lived in Kaolack ever since.  Do you have a husband?”

“No,” I said.

“No problem!” she said with a merry laugh, “There are lots of men in Kaolack!  Are you a Muslim?”

“Well, no.” 

 “Why not?  It’s better to be Muslim.  See, you’re the only Christian in your village, so you have no one to pray with, and you’re lonely.  If you become Muslim you could come to the mosque with us.  And then, we will find you a rich, handsome husband, and you will be just fine!”

I smiled at her practicality.  For Anta, believing sincerely in Islam wasn’t the question.  If a simple conversion would earn me a rich and handsome husband, friends and people to pray with, what on Earth was I waiting for?  It did make sense, especially for someone whose deepest desire was to have a comfortable life.

“My friend Khadija lives in my neighborhood.  She’s an American and a Muslim,” Anta went on, “Oh!  Khadija is a sai-sai!  She’s had seven husbands already.  When she gets tired of one, she just divorces him and marries another!  She’s always saying to me, ‘Anta, how can you get married at fifteen and never be with anybody else?  You should get some variety!’  But I tell her no thank you, one husband is enough for me.”

We chatted the whole way to Kaolack.  Though she didn’t quit encouraging me to convert in her light-hearted and unerringly practical manner, the topic of husbands mostly filled our conversation.  Senegalese woman were consistently amazed that I wasn’t married.  When they asked why, I recited my standard line, listing all women’s work:

“I want a husband who cooks, cleans, takes care of the kids, gets water, and does laundry.”

“Senegalese men don’t do that!” they exclaimed, giggling.

“Well, then,” I said, “I don’t want a Senegalese husband.”

That much was true; gender roles were rigid in Senegal and arranged marriages were the norm.  I had never been tempted to marry a Senegalese guy, no matter how good-looking some of them were.  But Anta made me reconsider.  Her voice softened when she talked about her husband.  She was a forty-year-old lady who married at the age of fifteen, never knowing another man, yet she spoke with emotion so tender it made me ache.

“One is good for me,” she said, smiling privately to herself, “One only.”

With a wheeze and a cough of exhaust, we arrived in the loud, stinking Kaolack garage.  I said goodbye to Anta and waved as we parted, me to the Peace Corps house, she to her husband.  And as I pressed through the crowd of fruit-sellers, apprentice drivers, and ragged begging boys, I thought about my companion of the bumpy sept-place commute.  I can only hope to be as lucky in love, maybe on my fifteenth or twentieth try, as Anta was on her first.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.