My namesake, Foune, has never met her husband.
The marriage was arranged by her older brother who works in France, where he met Foune’s now husband, Alassan. Foune is around 30 years old, she’s not sure of the exact date, and has two children from her first marriage, a 13 year old and a four year old. Her first husband, also from our village and whom she married at 17, died while working in France months before his second daughter was born. She was shortly remarried, with a newborn baby, to a man she had only ever seen a picture of.
It took months for me to piece together Foune’s story; it’s not something she likes to talk about. And normally, Foune likes to talk. She has a firecracker personality and a quick temper. She made a grown man cower after he asked me to marry him one too many times on a bus once. She walked three miles into the bush with me one day early in my service, strapping Hawa to her back, just because I needed to clear my head and she didn’t want me to go alone. When I thought I might pass out from the pain of kidney stones she stayed up with me all night, covering me with a wet rag and sitting next to me while I puked for hours on end. She has been a mother to me in Senegal and my best friend. If ever I am successful in my work in Yacine Lakke it will be because of Foune’s unfailing stability in my life here.
You will understand, then, why the background of her story is that much more important, and painful, to me. And I have found through the course of my service it is not unique. Although on the whole Senegal is much more progressive than other parts of Africa arranged marriages are still incredibly prevalent among the rural, conservative Muslim communities. These also happen to be overwhelmingly from the Tukulor ethnicity (the Pulaar speaking people of my village, and almost all of the north of Senegal, are Tukulor). Typically, arranged marriages come about for one of two main reasons in Senegal: the first, it is adventitious (monetarily or security wise) for both parties, and the second, it reconnects families to each other. Foune’s two marriages satisfy both of these reasons. Her first was to a distant cousin and her second was because she was a widow in need of monetary support and he was a man with a job abroad, in search of a second wife from a good Pulaar family. Sometimes, these marriages work and people end up very happy. Foune certainly was with her first husband (his pictures still hang on the walls of the small room she shares with her girls). Other times, just as easily, they don’t work. Alassan, her current husband, has never sent money home and doesn’t have the right paperwork to leave France (read: he got there illegally and could get deported), so he may never come home.
I recently asked Foune why she ever agreed to marry Alassan in the first place. It was a hot day during Ramadan and we were sprawled out on a mat in her room, too hot to even bother trying to fan ourselves. She sighed and said, ‘Mi yahaani ecole. Mi waawa janngude, mi waawa haybatta. Mi alaa kaalis. Debbo Senegal sohli gorko.‘ ‘I never went to school. I can’t read, I can’t do anything. I have no money. A Senegalese woman needs a husband.’
Whenever the subject of arranged marriage comes up, this narrative is repeated over and over in rural villages all over Senegal. Any extra mouth to feed is a burden on a family, and parents, even the best ones, start to hear the clock ticking when a girl is as young as 14. Two of the middle school girls I work with for our scholarship program were in danger of being pulled out of school next year to be married because their parents felt school was becoming too expensive. These young girls are bright and intelligent, excited for the future. They have an enthusiasm for life I know well. Their empowerment is crucial to a Yacine Lakke of the future, with more opportunities than it holds today.
For many Americans, the term arranged marriage is hard to grasp. It’s an outdated tradition of strange places. Certainly, as the daughter of a strong, independent woman and niece of equally strong, independent aunts, I have grown up with the luxury of being able to choose my future and relatively unaware of the uncertainty faced by so many young women in villages like Yacine Lakke. To me, Foune’s explanation of her decision to marry proves education for women is the crux on which the argument for arranged marriage exists, at least in Senegal. Marriage for a woman here is more like the transfer of her cooking, cleaning, and child raising services from one family to another. As much as this makes me want to make a scene, point my finger and give some of the men in the village a piece of my mind, I find it hard to exclusively call arranged marriages here unfair and bad. While women remain uneducated and without the means to support themselves, an arranged marriage by their families offers the security necessary for survival in a rural setting like Yacine.
A few days ago, Foune excitedly called me into my host father’s house. He had just gotten off the phone and there were at least 15 members of the family crowded around him. ‘Fatimata jogi gorko!’ ‘Fatimata will have a husband!’ Foune said. Fatimata is my 16 year old host sister who is the first person in her family to receive a formal education and recently completed her second year in middle school. The potential husband in question is her first cousin who works in France. I ask her how she feels about the prospect. ‘Omo jogi kaalis hewii‘ ‘He has a lot of money,’ she giggles nervously. As virtuous as this is, I can’t help but note she has never met him and can’t remember his first name. I also wonder, if she were given the opportunity to finish high school would she still laugh so girlishly about her father picking her a husband or would she cross her arms, narrow her beautiful brown eyes, and tell him no one decides where her life goes except her? I choose to believe the latter, and every young woman has a right to no less.