What Is Marriage But Good Company?

The sandbox match would have to tide me over while I tried to get with a local boxing promoter whom I connected with via email while back in the US. Though eager to help, he has just returned from a lost bout in Russia and was scrambling to get a transit visa for Egypt so he can get his boxers to Romania for another big match this week. Emmanuel puts me in touch with his “kaka” (brother) instead – Mr. John – and we make a meeting.

I came home slightly late after dawdling over ice cream and grocery shopping, to find a tiny old white-haired gent wandering the parking lot.

“Excuse me, but do I have a date tonight with one of you ladies by chance?” he asked, head cocked.

I apologized for my lateness (the one time I try to be on African time and take my time getting home…), and we go up to my apartment, where John has left his name and number on a palm leaf, his impromptu calling card, setting the tone for our curious evening together.

I invite John to sit, and he launches into his life story without prompting, letting me know in no subtle way I have fallen into the hands of one of the most fascinating men in Tanzania. The way John tells it, his family is of modest means but very well known and respected. His parents were one of a rare few to be educated in Tanzania way back in the 1920s, having taken advantage of the schooling offered by Christian missionaries. John went abroad to get a degree in architecture in 1972, also a pioneer, given that Julius Nyerere, the first post-colonial president, was the only Tanzanian at independence in 1962 to have a university diploma, as there wasn’t even a university in the country until 1970.

His cell phone rang, interrupting my history and Swahili lessons – his wife wanting to know where he was.

“Sorry to keep you from your family,” I said.

“Families you mean,” he replied, proceeding to explain his happy but unorthodox (considering he is Christian) family structure. His first marriage was to a British woman, though he already had one child out of wedlock from a Tanzanian woman and another British girlfriend, who hoped to get the nod.

“Baby, you know we will always be friends, but you’re older than me, and that won’t work in my country,” he told the unlucky girlfriend. “And we would always be quarreling about the upbringing of our children if we got married. I don’t have to raise my children in the African way, but in the strict way. People will need to see them and know they were raised right.”

“She had different ideas about things – like homosexuality. It’s no big deal, she would say – but anything other than a man with a woman – it just isn’t right to me. She took me to this club in London – Ah, anyhow, so I married this other guhl.”

“I told her, in London, I will be nobody. But here in Tanzania, I can be somebody. So she ended up staying in London by herself and opening a Swahili school [his brilliant idea], and I came back here. I knew I would be lonely, so I talked to her about taking another wife. ‘Just as long as it isn’t a friend of ours, John,’ she asked. That’s fair. I sent her a picture of one girl, but she didn’t like her. And another. ‘Send her CV,’ she asked. Eventually we decided on a woman, she is mixed, Arab and Tanzanian. She tried to marry another mulatto, Indian man, but it didn’t work out. It is actually easier for the Tanzanians to mix with the Arabs than the Indians because of the caste system.”

“Anyhow, what is marriage but good company?” he mused.
“But to have a good marriage I must know your problems as well as your plezhah. Shall we go, then?”

So we drove over countless obscured streets illuminated by a few bare bulbs hanging in the late-nite shops and bars. At last we found our boxing spot at the M&M United Fitness Centre, a small cement-walled gym with 20-year-old equipment in the small weight and aerobic rooms. The sign for “Erobic Massage Tyboo” apparently didn’t mean erotic massages and other taboos, but rather denoting a full service gym, offering aerobics, massage and tae-bo.

(Indeed, another day I return to find a Tanzanian muscle-man doing tae-bo by his lonesome to some Tanzanian zouk music – move over Billy Blanks!) The manager, a charming, cocoa-skinned beauty named Sabra explained that the boys trained at 6 am and 4pm in the open-air courtyard out back and arranged for me to come back then.

When I thanked John profusely for all his help, he shined his big grin on me once again and said it was only fair.

“When I was in Russia, I couldn’t eat the food – cheese and sausage and cabbage and all these things. So just before I was to take my plane home, I fell all the way to the ground. Someone looked at me and knew the problem. ‘Shuker, shuker!’ the man said, and got me a coke. I woke up just fine then and got on the plane. That man saved me. So it’s only fair I help you, here in this place that is so foreign to you.”

I don’t know if giving a collapsed man a Coke and driving a little boxing princess all over creation to find a trainer were equivalent good deeds, but I accepted his kindness, making a mental note to be more generous to out-of-towners back in DC, as I certainly can’t say that I have been so magnanimous. But from John’s constant toothy smile, I can say that perhaps he wasn’t being humble when he said that the plezhah was all his.

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