While traveling on Africa’s road less traveled, he learned about male privilege from her “penis envy.”
Narrow slivers of light pierce between the wooden slats around us, slicing the room’s dark, dust-filled air with white stripes. We eat in silence, relieved by the certainty that neither will ask the other if everything is okay.
She scoops the last bit of matoke into her mouth and wipes her hands on the dirty jeans she’s worn every day since we met. Her tanned arm extends toward the man watching us from the doorway as if she is going to show him a ring, and with a quick curling and uncurling of her fingers he perks up and comes over to remove our plates. I wonder if she practices those African gestures or if they now come naturally to her.“Good?” the man asks.“Ugandan food is always good,” she replies, with a smile.
Her bus is leaving soon; mine, a few hours later. We talk about how routine it is to meet the most interesting person of your life while traveling only to say goodbye to them a short time afterward. Cynically, we comment on the predictability of the whole process starting over again at the next destination.
“It’s like the story of that man who keeps pushing the rock uphill,” she laughs.
“The curse of Sisyphus,” I say.
“Curse? The man was blessed with purpose. He was given something to do all day, every day.”
“I don’t think that’s the…”
“You know, I just want to call bullshit on the last ten days.”
I am used to her sudden outbursts of indignation, insight, and humor. I even look forward to them, but this time, the intensity of her stare lets me know this time is different.
“What?” I ask. “I thought we were having an amazing time.”
“That’s the problem! I have been traveling in East Africa for six months. You’ve been here two months, and the last ten days with you have left me with some of the most authentic, special experiences of my trip.”
“Well, now that you’ve seen how I do it, I’m sure you’ll be able to do it on your own, too.”
“You arrogant bastard! The difference between you and me is not that you have better travel skills. It’s that you have a penis!”
I’ve seen her negotiate hard with pushy taxi drivers (all men), and gracefully ignore foreign-tongued cat calls on the streets. I even witnessed her defending a woman being harassed on a bus for wearing a short dress while I stayed quiet and reasoned that my cowardice was really a form of deference for cultural relativity.
Playing the girl card seems entirely out of character for her.
“Is that where you’re going with this?” I ask. “Aw, poor little hot, blond German girl. Life’s so hard for you in Africa. Isn’t it?”
“You’re right,” she mockingly concedes. “Maybe I am just being a sensitive little girl, but let’s talk about this: When you and I first met, we went to a bar, some random local invited us to his house to taste homemade moonshine and you accepted… for both of us. At his house he invited us to stay the night. You agreed for both of us.
“In the middle of the night his baby woke up crying, and we got to listen to his wife sing that beautiful lullaby and they told us the whole history of the song and taught us a few lyrics. The next morning he went to chop wood and invited you to go with him. While chopping wood you met his brother living in the next village and he invited you to his house. And you accepted for both of us.”
She continued, “now replace yourself with a woman. We walk into that bar, the only two women in the place, and start drinking, which is probably not too smart of us, and then a local invites us to his house for moonshine. You’ve been here long enough to know what that means, but we’ll say he happens to be a decent guy who doesn’t rape us at his house. We stay over, the baby cries, the lullaby gets sung, and the next day when he gets up to chop wood, would he have asked one of us girls to go with him? Would we have gotten that ‘all bros’ invite to the next village? Do you need more examples? I have plenty! The next day you—”
”You get privilege as a woman, too,” I interrupt.
“Yes, sometimes. But here, a woman has access to a smaller section of life. You can move inside the home and out of it. You, as one of the boys, even as a foreigner, get access to a world so much bigger than mine. As a brown man living in the US, how do you not understand how idiotic it is to say, ‘If I can do this, so can you’? It’s what people say when doors open in front of them and they never have to look back to see them shut on everyone else.”
She stares silently out the open door for a long time and then puts on her backpack, gives me a kiss on the cheek, and places some shilling notes on the table.
“I’ll get the check this time… For both of us,” she says with a wink. With that, the most interesting person I met this week walks out the door and never looks back.
Photo: Getty Images