I Finally Met A Swazi Guy Who Didn't Hit On Me

Mallory Primm
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 “Are you married?” the police officer asks, hiking up his trousers over his bulging gut.

I don’t see how this question applies to the situation at hand. It’s Friday night, and something has gone terribly wrong with my car. After months of driving a stick-shift Fiat station wagon up and down the potholed roads of Swaziland, the old car finally decided, on the way home from dinner at a friend’s house, at 10:30 at night, that it would go no further. With a gut-wrenching grind of the clutch, the car puttered to a halt just before a downtown traffic light. My friend Sarah and I were stuck. 

I pulled the emergency brake and left the car there, retreating to the sidewalk to wait for help.

A few minutes later, a police van appeared, three police officers approached, and the officer who appeared to be in charge inquired about my marital status.

Not that the question particularly surprised me. In Swaziland, I have been asked this question roughly 50 times a day, and I’ve learned how to hone my response.

“Yes, I’m married,” I lie. “My husband and I have been married for five years and are both famous unicyclists.” I add the last part just to amuse myself—I answer this question so many times that I have to spice things up from time to time. The officer is unfazed. 

“Where is your wedding ring?” he asks.

I point to the tattoo of an M on my wrist. “My husband and I have matching tattoos instead.” 

The officers don’t seem to buy it. But apparently deciding that I am too strange to pursue, they turn to Sarah. 

“What about you?” one of them asks.

“She has a boyfriend,” I explain. 

“I don’t care if you have a boyfriend,” one of the officers tells her. “I asked about a husband. I want to be your husband.”

“Well, my boyfriend will soon become my husband,” Sarah sputters desperately.

“Is he in Swaziland?”

“Yes,” I reply quickly for her. I have learned from experience that most Swazi men don’t care if you already have a man; they want to know how easy it will be to have an affair behind this man’s back. In fact, the practice is so common that Swazis have two different words for “secret lover”: one refers to the secret lover of someone who is unmarried, while the other refers to the secret lover of a married man.

The officers stand scowling at us for a minute, as if our imaginary significant others have personally offended them. Then, giving up, they saunter into a nearby shop and return to their truck, a bag of potato chips in hand. They peel away from the curb. My car is still sitting in the middle of the road, blocking traffic.

With some help from our dinner host, we manage to get the car out of the street and to a mechanic. To my great relief, he is able to fix the car the next day, and after picking it up, I drive into downtown Mbabane to visit my research mentor, a lawyer named Mr. Simelane (name has been changed).

When I sit down with Mr. Simelane in his office, he asks how I am adjusting to Swazi life. I tell him about the police officers and about my mounting irritation over the nonstop marriage proposals.

“It’s frustrating and offensive,” I moan. Mr. Simelane laughs.

“Even me, happily married and old as I am, even me, I do this too,” he admits. Mr. Simelane is a well-educated, progressive gentleman who disagrees with many of Swaziland’s ingrained patriarchal structures.

“This is just our culture,” he continues, trying to calm the shocked look on my face as I picture him whistling at girls on the street. “If I pass a woman and I don’t comment on how well her behind parts fit into that dress, she may be getting cross with me.” 

I’m not sure if I really believe this reasoning for objectifying women, but I suppose it explains why almost every male in Swaziland, from the toothless old man who sells firewood to the boys who come by my apartment to borrow my soccer ball, feels obligated to hit on me. And I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising that this is the norm—the King sets an effective example by boasting 13 wives and consistently defending polygamy.

After bidding goodbye to Mr. Simelane, I drive to Café Lingo, a new restaurant in downtown Mbabane to meet a few girlfriends. I join them at a table in the corner, where they are halfway through a bottle of South African red.

One of my friends introduces me to Sifiso, a young man who plays for a professional soccer team in Mbabane. Being a soccer fan, I am intrigued, and we start chatting right away. The conversation comes easily—we discuss the Swazi Premier League and President Obama, and we giggle together at the drunk Swazi Times reporter who is desperately trying to convince one of my Italian friends to give him her phone number.

“Eesh,” sighs Sifiso. “These guys don’t stop, do they?”

My mouth drops in shock. And then it hits me that Sifiso and I have been talking for at least 20 minutes, and he hasn’t even asked if I have a boyfriend or husband.

“These guys, they give us all a bad name,” he continues. “Every man is always looking for his next wife.” I laugh. I’ve finally found a Swazi man who won’t confront me about my relationship status, and who doesn’t want to wed me tomorrow.

Sifiso and I trade phone numbers, and months later, he is one of my best friends in Mbabane. We meet in town to sit in the park and chat. We watch Swazi TV at his house. We window shop after I get off work.

But slowly I begin to realize that he may want something more out of our friendship. His hugs have begun to linger a little too long. He sends me text messages that say, “I miz u” when I haven’t seen him for a few days. He takes advantage of any opportunity to remind me that he is single. And now, ironically, what may have been his finest attribute when I first met himthe fact that he didn’t immediately inquire if I had a boyfriendmay be his downfall.

I do have a boyfriend, but he never asked.


Posted on 8/19/2009 by

Ben Kickert

Great article. My wife and I have been following your blog for a while and have really enjoyed reading it (Loved your recent piece on Red Okra weddings). This article is great, and it led me to your other piece on negotiating fees with police officers. I appreciate your wit and direct approach to things. Keep it up.

Posted on 8/19/2009 by

Zach Brown

Zach Brown

I too have been following your work for quite some time, and it keeps getting better. I definitely enjoyed the article!

Posted on 8/19/2009 by

Chris Primm

Another great article Mallory!

Posted on 8/19/2009 by

Lori Ferro

Lori Ferro

Mal, Ken and I really enjoy your articles, and I always share them with a colleague of mine who grew up in South Africa. He always comments on your wit and writing style. Can't wait to read even more!

Posted on 10/15/2009 by

Sarah Knutson

Sarah Knutson

It's the exact same way in Trinidad & Tobago! I couldn't for 5 minutes without being hit on!

Posted on 2/18/2010 by

David Broska

David Broska

here is another person commenting to make you seem even more famous. But of course the act is a truth and of course you now are. I spent a large part of the 90's working in Swaziland and I was asked about my marriage status very very rarely if at all. Now, living in the Philippines it seems to be about as everyday as it seems it is for you in Swaziland. And probably makes a similar impression on me when I know I will be meeting people in a social situation. What does that mean? I suspect not very much, except that every place is going to be different in some ways from wherever else a person has been or is from. And also that which differences we note as significant in everyday interactions are depend on whether you are a woman (you in Swaziland last year), or a man (me in Swaziland 10yrs ago and Philippines today).

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