Photo by author.

Meghan Hicks learns that certain elements of human nature are universal, and communicable across cultural boundaries – like love, lust, and a lack thereof.

“You’re my brown-eyed girl,” he coos, his hands fluttering around mine with nervous energy. These lines from Van Morrison’s love ballad, funneled through an East African accent and the linguistic limbo of singing in a second language, still present themselves as an invitation for sex. His hips send the same message, swaying as if he’s picturing himself in the coital act. The night sky is city-din orange from our rooftop vantage point, glowing with the lights and campfires of millions of Dar es Salaam inhabitants. My words come out more like a question, “But I have blue eyes?”

He moves closer, whispering more Van Morrison into my ear: “Whatever happened, to Tuesday and so slow?” The equatorial heat and humidity are as persistent as he is, and along my back, two beads of sweat loose themselves and make a ticklish descent into the waistband of my skirt. Persistent, also, are the odors of a developing country. We are five stories above the earth, on top of my university campus dorms, and can still smell the burning trash and the cooking pots filled with stewed vegetables and goat meat. When his fingers grip my chin, I turn my head sharply to the side and sputter, “Ulikuwa ndugu yangu – You were like a brother.”

Photo by Marc Veraart

Yesterday he was my friend, and we’d high five-d each other in passing between our university classes. He’d flashed a warm, bright smile that made me feel included in this foreign world. Tonight, he wants more than my friendship, and the previous form of our relationship is as distant as a cargo ship on the Indian Ocean.

Body frozen, his eyes dart, searching. “But, nakupenda – I love you. I thought you loved me.” Now it’s my eyes flitting fast, as I sift through my limited Kiswahili vocabulary for how to start, where to start. He sighs, “Well, do you?” The question fires in my brain instead as, “Could I love him?”

It could be a romantic story fit for some future travel writer’s memoir: young, white woman falls deeply in love with not only a foreign place, but also an exotic man. I could live a fantasy life of white sand beaches and fresh pineapple, lusty tropical nights with this beautiful, dark skinned man. I can imagine the gritted teeth of my mom’s smile, an expression I saw many times during my early twenties when I told her the questionable, young-person decisions I’d made.

Sure, I could love him like this. But the truth is, I do not.

Perhaps it’s a cliché, but I am not in love with this man, though I do possess love for him. I arrived at the university campus two months ago and he befriended me right away, when others still treated me with caution. On my second week in school, he slipped a note under my dorm room door that asked me to meet for a run the next morning. I went, and we became good workout buddies. His family, who live nearby in a string of rooms made of concrete block walls and a corrugated metal roof, have welcomed me warmly. I spend weekend evenings sitting on the hard floor of their home, holding his sweating little sister and trying to learn Kiswahili from the family banter. He is a familiar face in a strange land. Of course I have love for him.

Photo by author.

And now he’s standing there, looking at me with a firm gaze and lips pursed into a prim line. His face is a picture of courage, but his hunched shoulders betray his true feelings. He is hurt, real hurt.

I want him to know about my love for him, but how can I bridge the continent of cultural difference? I’m a young American woman in the “free” stage of my life; he’s a young Tanzanian man actively seeking a wife. How do I explain the difference between the love of friends and lovers? I’ve got nothing, and I’m blowing this big time. I return his gaze with desperate eyes and meet his body in a stiff, awkward hug. “Ndugu yangu – you’re my brother,” I say. His body goes lax inside my hug, and his arms remain at his side. He breaks our embrace and leaves.

The next morning, he slips an envelope under my door. When I wake, I pull back my bed’s mosquito netting and reach for it. The envelope is blue, paper thin, and nearly transparent. The card is almost soft porn: a white woman in a lavender negligee leaning with a chiseled, shirtless white man against a kitchen counter, each holding a coffee cup. It portrays a romantic morning after, probably what he hoped we would be doing. It’s funny – hilarious, actually – out of context. But I’ve often seen Tanzanian men and women buying these types of cards from street vendors, and it doesn’t surprise me.

I can tell I was supposed to have read the card on the rooftop last night, right after his serenade, right before our romance would begin. Now, in the bright light of morning, while a warm Indian Ocean breeze blows through the room, I see he has scratched changes into the card. I am now his blue-eyed girl, and his sister.

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Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? How did you deal with it? Share your stories in the comments.

And if you enjoyed this story, make sure to check out our other Love in the Time of Matador articles.