Mali is a polygamous country. Men can have up to four wives and while in general it seems to be a dying to tradition to have 4 wives many people have 2 and will actively refuse to sign monogamous on their marriage certificates for those “just in case” situations. Often when I am out and about I have the conversation with some stranger man who is asking me to be their second, third, or fourth wife.
When I first got here my go to answer was when you give me 100 motorcycles and 100 cows we can discuss the possibility of marriage. Motorcycles and cows are expensive and requiring such a large dowry made people laugh and because they knew they couldn’t afford that high price, the conversation normally died out. The longer I stay here though my old go to strategies don’t work as well because my neighbours know me, I have my favourite haunts around the neighbourhood, and I understand a bit more about the culture.
My new strategy is to invite some of my guy friends over and then have them walk through my neighbourhood with me. The sheer act of being seen with them, gives credit to the longer fake marriage story I tell people now. You see, I have an elaborate story to put boundaries down for those inquiring Malian men.
I am “married” to a man named Shawn Thomas who is an engineer. Some days we have 3 kids, some days we have a dog, and some days we are newly married and just getting started in our careers. He is not here in Mali, but he is always “moving to Mali in October.” He is finishing his contract and I am new to international development and I work for an agriculture organization. It is always a weird tension – the autonomous, fiercely independent go getter wants to say I don’t need anyone to validate my existence or to make my NO carry more weight. However, living in a context that validates women through their status towards men, it sometimes seems like the most prudent thing to do.
This is a trick that a lot of my female foreigner friends (take that for alliteration!) use here. And I have definitely heard about this tactic being used in other contexts outside of Mali. Recently though, my friend Kelly Lewis (founder of Go! Girl Guides, travel guides for women and Damesly, boutique tours that combine travelling with professional and creative workshops) was travelling through India and pulled the same card. She posted about it on social media and had an amazing out-pouring of women who shared the elaborate stories of their “husbands.”
It is laughable, but in a pinch it works. So, here are to all my independent lady friends who are killing it at creating a meaningful life abroad, even if they are “married.”