This story is by oltesh Thobias and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Against all odds
March was ending, the dry spell was finally easing into a rainy season, the sun was setting, and the clock was ticking to mark the end of yet another busy week at my place of work. I was lonely but not alone, I was in isolation my heart was full of a big void. How did I end up in this situation?
It all started with a conversation with my uncle who, seeing that I was thirty years old, believed that he could share a few lessons from his experience of several years about life.
On this particular evening, he spoke about marriage. “Young man, if you marry a girl from another tribe, you will experience 5% cultural, values, and traditional differences. If you marry a girl from another state expect 20% differences, and if you marry a girl from another country, expect 50% cultural differences. If you marry a girl from another race, continent and culture expect at least 90%”.
While the conversation between my uncle and I was happening my two younger brothers were already in happy, healthy and hearty marriages. My grandmother was asking, “Oltesh, when are you getting married?” The clock was ticking, the pressure was mounting.
I finally settled for one girl, from my own community. After dating for a year, we agreed that we would get married in 1999. I started saving for the wedding. I told her that, before we finalize the plans, I need to meet her parents. “Give it some time, let it marinate, I will let you know,” she said. A few months later, the same question “Oltesh, let it simmer, you know good things take time”. I waited for another three months and when I made my last attempt, I know you already know what is coming; love is blind “ I am sorry, Oltesh, It is not going to happen, ” she said. I could not believe it, it felt like I was hit by a tornado. She dumped me.
This is exactly why I was lonely, in isolation and had my heart full of a big void. I lost appetite; I curled into my own cocoon. I found myself in this far-flung island not knowing what to do, not knowing when the next boat will come if it ever did!
After three months of grueling and painful reflection, I decided to count the money that I saved for the wedding. Ten million…..not dollars, but Tanzanian shillings, equivalent to US$ 5,000.
I decided to take refuge in London by enrolling for a master’s degree in Business Administration. 16th June 1998 found me aboard a British Airways flight from Dar-es-salaam to London. I had no scholarship and I had no sponsor to support me with my studies. My plan was to work, during the night and study during the day.
Three months in London saw my savings running out. I had to get a job. On 31 October 1998, I was invited for an interview. On my way back, I had to connect my journey at the London Leytonstone train station. It was a chilly, windy, and rainy day. Cuddled in my black jacket, thinking of the terrible weather, my thoughts were interrupted by this sound, like someone tapping a table, the noise grew louder and louder. When I looked back, I saw this gorgeous, well-dressed young woman pulling her luggage trolley through floor tiles. She stood right next to me. I could see her joyous personality and her sunrise golden hair resting on her shoulder. She broke into a smile exposing her crystal white teeth. That smile was sufficient to light a room in the cold winter night in London. At that moment, I had this feeling, how can I describe it? Yes, my heart was racing. She produced a map and in a soothing, melodic, and in a “what I later learned” Swiss-German accent she said, “Do you know where 65 Asheville Road is?” Did you realize what just happened? “A black man from Africa, being asked for directions by a white lady from Switzerland”. I could put that in my CV. I looked at the map, and I said, “Of course I do” I had no clue. I helped her with the luggage. We got lost a number of times, but that gave me more airtime with her. Where are you from, I asked, “Switzerland and my name is Sandra visiting London for three months to study English. When I heard three, I forgot about the weather, I forgot about the rain, I forgot about the wind. Three is my lucky number.
When I got home, I could just not get this girl off my mind. I showed up at her doorstep a week later. She was surprised to see me, “What are you doing here?” What would you say? I had to come up with something. “I was visiting a friend down the street, and I thought I should drop by to see how you are doing, “I said. “I am fine, so how can I help you? She asked. “I don’t really need help. When you ever get time, you can reach out and we can go out for a drink.” I said and I left.
We kept talking over the phone and after a few weeks, we went out for a drink.
Our first evening out was on the typical English pub, this one was called the Red Lion Pub. The evening ended up by setting another date, yet for another drink and many more to come. We started dating.
After three months, it was time for Sandra to go back to Switzerland. She was excited because she would share the news with her parents. When Sandra shared the news with her parents, the question was “What? A black man from Africa, we have always told you to marry a rich man, and then you are sorted” Is he a businessperson, no he is a student, and does he speak German or French? “No “she said “where exactly is he from Africa, He is a Masai, do you mean the ones who don’t wear pants…? NO! We continued dating.
In 2000, when I shared the news with my folks, they said, “Are you serious? You want to marry a Mzungu?” (White girl.) “Can she milk cows?” I said, no. “Does she speak our language?” I said No! Notwithstanding, the differences, we continued dating.
Our relationship was put to the test, in 2001, when I went to Switzerland for three months. These were the most trying days of our relationship. We argued on everything, we had petty and never-ending fights. We even argued on where the knife and the fork should be placed on the table.
After the three months stint I came to learn that my uncle was right, I could see him saying, “I told you 90% differences”. It was time for me to fly back. Before checking in at the Zurich International Airport, we exchanged our sweet and sour goodbyes, “never” to see each other again. At that moment, we realized that the wisp of smoke that often saw when our candle of love flickered was caused by our failure to celebrate our differences. “Let us give it our last try, if it does not work, we would become good old friends. “Deal”? “Deal” We both agreed.
When she landed at the Kilimanjaro International Airport, My Brother and I picked her up in our Peugeot 504, Model 1974. She took the back seat. “What is wrong with this seat? It’s hot”. We have heated seats in this car” I responded jokingly. The car had a broken exhaust pipe just under the back seat.
When she met my parents, I knew my mom would support me. I could not tell how my dad will react. He was an introvert. Sandra used to smoke and the next thing I see is her sitting at the front porch with my dad sampling cigarettes. My dad said, “These cigarettes from Europe are very light “They became smoking bodies. Cigarettes kill but they saved my relationship.
When we visited my grandmother, she was elated. She offered to prepare tea in a pot perched on three stones, using firewood. Sandra could not stand watching a 90-year-old woman preparing tea, she offered to help. To this day, I remember Sandra rekindling the fire, smoke all over the place, tears streaming down her cheeks, coughing. My grandmother looked at her, then looked at me and said, “Grandson, this is the girl you should marry”.
We have been married for eighteen years now. As I recall the conversation I had with my uncle, I have used a 10% chance of our marriage surviving to make up the 90% cultural differences to get 100% happiness in our marriage. Sandra speaks Swahili now and I speak French. Sandra taught me to eat cheese, I taught her to eat “Ugali” maize meal
Isolation helped me find the love of my life.