Interracial dating is a topic with as much curiosity for some as attraction for others as distaste for yet some others. (And the distaste comes from those who ether don’t like the idea of taking part in such relationships OR from those who find the topic off-putting for even being brought up at all in 2014. “A mixed-race couple? So what? What’s the big deal?”)
While the topic in the U.S. isn’t the head-turner it used to be, I’ve yet found it an interesting area to write about in Tanzania if just because you’re dealing with a lot more than just differences in skin color. And, as I discovered right away, one gender seems to take part in dating the local Tanzanians a lot more than the other.
One Saturday evening way back in February, I was brand new to Tanzania and pleased to have made the acquaintances of four Peace Corps volunteers. I tagged along with these three women and one man all in their early-to-mid-twenties and each already several months into their two year volunteer commitments.
We walked into a sports bar and sat at one of the flimsy, plastic tables with plastic deck chairs. After several minutes of socializing, the wavy, dark-haired female volunteer said something along the lines of, “Yeah, my boyfriend can help get a phone working here.”
The topic of relationships in these volunteers’ circumstance is always interesting, because they’re away from home (so maybe in a long distance relationship with someone back home). Or they’ve partnered up with a fellow traveler in this unorthodox fashion of sharing in the experience of a new land. Or maybe they’ve met that special someone from the new land they now inhabit. The wavy-haired brunette was in the latter category. She had met her man from the village in which she works.
Later in the conversation, a different female volunteer with straight, dishwater blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail shared about her ex-boyfriend–also a local man. The combination of these two volunteers; my American colleague, Leah, who has herself a Tanzanian boyfriend; and the fact that I hadn’t yet met any foreign men who dated the local women got me to say, “hmm.”
And indeed, this lopsidedness in the dating game has been consistent throughout my time here in Tanzania.
As well, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the dating circumstances when I lived in China. Basically, things there were the opposite.
Spanning the summers from 2010-2011, I noticed in China a discrepancy between the sexes of the foreigners dating the locals. But there, almost all white men (and one black man I met) had active dating lives, whereas the foreign women had no interest. Of the dozens of single, straight, Western women I’d meet, only one all year dated (and then married) a Chinese man.
So based on these early observations in Tanzania and memories of China, here seemed to be the general deal: China (and all the other East Asian countries I visited) are to white men what Tanzania (and perhaps all of sub-Saharan Africa) is to white women.
The idea was interesting, but I needed to do some more investigation. So in April, while in Zanzibar, I started keeping track of the interracial couples I saw.
Here are the results leading up to the present day:
White Women/Black Men Couples – 22
White Men/Black Women Couples – 9
And along with the numbers have been the general feelings expressed by young volunteers.
“Men here know how to dance,” said a 21-year-old female volunteer from Sweden.
There are many circumstantial factors at play in the numbers I accumulated. Perhaps I see fewer white men with local women because these men are more likely to take their partner back to their country. Conversely, maybe the foreign women are more apt to stay in Africa.
One Tanzanian safari guide married to a white American woman added to this notion by saying that, “men are safari guides” and “they know English.” Thus, they have an easier time meeting the foreign women. (It’s how he met his wife.) He then said that men tend to be the pursuers, that a local woman would likely not approach a foreign man.
And approach the men here do.
“I’m tired of being treated like some super model sex goddess!” said Jessica one day when venting with me about life here. The 24-year-old American woman with wavy, thick, light-brown hair wasn’t trying to be self-congratulatory. She’s comfortable knowing that she isn’t going to be on the cover of a men’s magazine back in the U.S.
“Curves and extra fat are celebrated here,” she said, adding that the local men were mad at her when she lost weight due to malaria.
I asked Jessica if the attention was nice.
“It’s flattering when you first get here,” she said. ”Now it’s like, ‘Shut up.’”
And more than the physical attraction, Jessica says that men try to pick her up because they want marriage and hope for money and a ticket to the U.S.
Chemistry, kindred spirits, bah.
“Very shallow”, said Jessica.
Superficiality has also seemed to be a factor in why more Western women go for the black men.
I met Lucy, a 27-year-old Dutch woman working in Dar es Salaam. The fair-skinned woman sat with me at a coffee shop near her work and shared her own personal explanation for liking African men and, relating to my experience in China, for not liking East Asian men.
“When I see a Chinese man. I’m not attracted to him, because he’s short and skinny. He doesn’t look like he can protect me.”
African men, generally speaking, she said, “have a little bit of this macho attitude.”
“And it is sexy?” I asked.
“Yeah, the macho thing is sexy.”
Then from our booth along the wall, Lucy looked off to the center of the coffee shop. She focused on a point in the room and then said, “See that man? The way he put his hand there on his leg?”
She noted how confident he looked.
“More confident than white men?” I asked.
I then asked about her thoughts on why white men don’t go after the local women here.
“It took me a long time to find a man who said ‘Yes, I like African women,’” Lucy said. “If I ask [white guys] if they find [black women] attractive, they say ‘No I don’t like.’ They say they are too fat. They don’t like the way they act.”
Then explaining why white men like Chinese girls, Lucy said, “Those women are easier to protect.”
Lucy believes in the evolutionary reasons for racial dating discrepancies, and said that such needs are “something which is inside a human being.”
“I want to do my own things,” she added as a statement of her independence, of her coming all the way to Tanzania by herself. But conceded that “in the end there’s this feeling inside me that I want a man to protect me when the lion comes.”
Superficiality seemed to have come at a price for Lucy, though.
She shared with me about her former boyfriend, an African whom she lived with for three months before finding out he had been seeing other women.
But even besides the fact that he wasn’t faithful, she was disappointed in their lack of personal connection.
“They don’t look for chemistry here,” she said. “When I asked my ex-boyfriend ‘Why do you love me?’ he said because I would be a good mother for his children. ”
“Did you like that answer?” I asked.
“No. I wanted him to say, ‘I love you because of my personality, qualities, or something.’”
This superficiality leads me to my final point, which starts with a concession that the numbers I presented above don’t tell the whole story. When broken down further, a different picture appears.
In the older crowd, middle-agers or older, perhaps here for a second path in life or simply some enjoyable post-career volunteer work, the interracial dating numbers even out. Despite such people being the definitive minority of foreigners I see around here, four of the nine white male/black female partnerships were of this demographic.
And I think this is because the search for love is a human desire with which we modern humans wrestle to raise the bar beyond the basic needs (in this case, relationships merely for sex and procreation.) And in the shedding of the superficial in search for a strong, emotional bond, people don’t consider as heavily how well someone dances or their posture when sitting. A desire for a lasting partnership and a kindred spirit supersedes the flash-in-the-pan physical relationships we might be more inclined to in youth. And in such a supersession, race, too, becomes irrelevant.
It’s just two people in love.
On consecutive days on July, I was sitting at my regular internet cafe in Iringa. Outside on the benches surrounding the patio wall, I looked up to see a mixed-race couple with child. I heard the mother speak German on the phone. And we were in Tanzania. So I assumed her to be from Germany and him from here.
I was wrong on both. They were each from the nations adjacent to the south of my guesses. She was Austrian; he was Malawian; their boy was “Malaustrian”, and the family was beautiful.
The very next day, I was typing and clicking away at the same café when an older couple down sat by me. Unsure and curious, I asked them if they were married. They said yes, asked why I asked, and I told them my interest in why I see fewer white men/black women couples. I suggested it was because the men take their wives back to their home countries.
“That actually what we did!” said the white-mustached man with a laugh. He shared that he met and married his Tanzanian wife back in the nineties, settled in Norway in 1999, and now were back here to visit.
Just two people in love.
til next week,
***This is one of those articles where I had offer just a sampling of pictures, stories, interviews, points of views, and research, data, and theories from outside sources. It’s a topic that exemplifies the benefit of writing a book about my experiences in Tanzania. Look for it down the road.