In my 5 years working on African issues and in Africa the one thing that I find frustrates most females going to Africa is the ever-present annoyance of men trying to get in your pants. I know that is blunt and it sounds harsh, but in my personal experience (anecdotally of course) this goes across all African men I have ever met, be it Nigerian, Congolese, Gambian, etc. I really hate to generalize, particularly across one of the largest and most populated continents on the planet, so please know I do not do this lightly.
Luckily it is usually done in a light and playful manner and not in a scary, threatening manner. I have NEVER felt like I was going to be assaulted, just oogled, sometimes in a manner we would call “sexual harassment” in the US. Here it isn’t. It’s just standard practice. Particularly given the fact that American girls tend to send unconscious signals to the men they are interacting with on a daily basis. Those “unconscious signals” are being overly nice (which is very American), always wanting to help (Americans love some underdogs), and just being an American (but particularly a larger white woman). I know, I know, that’s pretty much an all inclusive list. So pretty much, if you are an American woman, you will be sexually harassed, or at least intensely flirted with.
The interesting thing is that for the most part, this behavior continues even outside of Africa amongst the African men I know. I have been hit on or propositioned by the majority of African men living in the US that I know (or really, even meet). Not every single one, but nearly. It seems that it’s a hard cultural habit to break. It used to drive me nuts, but eventually I learned to ignore it and deflect. It still bothers a lot of newbies, and it used to bother Ange a lot, though now that she has traveled with me and has met lots of Africans herself she’s becoming more used to it and not as upset. It’s probably the number one thing that drives new visitors to the brink of losing their minds. If they can move past it, their experience is usually a great one. If not, they get caught up and really annoyed.
This has been my experience up until now. However, for the first time in my history of working with African men and living in Africa I am basically free from this. I didn’t really notice it at first, but one day I last week I went to the market and got a marriage proposal while I was trying to buy a set of plastic drawers. After explaining that I was already married, he basically said any white American girl would do. I had to promise to send him one in exchange for the deal I negotiated with him for my drawers. So ladies, there is a man in Benin just waiting for you. Sorry I had to sell you out, but 1000 Naira was at stake! After that experience I all of a sudden realized that that was the first time in the 2 and a half weeks that I’d been here that I’d had that happen. I had to think really hard about it, but nope, hadn’t happened. Of course now that I am conscious of it I am looking at for it. And still, a week and a half later, it hasn’t happened!
Of course it is refreshing for me to not have to constantly be on my guard but it’s also interesting from my research perspective. Why aren’t men flirting/harassing me? Is it really their staunch religious views? In the past I’ve worked with men from a variety of different religious backgrounds (from Catholics to Muslims) and no matter what their religious beliefs about sex and behavior are supposed to be, I find they very rarely “walk the talk” when it comes to obeying religious doctrine.
So, on the one hand it is surprising that in this Pentecostal environment people are (so far) obeying their religious beliefs and guidelines, but on the other hand it isn’t surprising because that is what you would (stereotypically) expect. And if it isn’t the influence of religion, then what is it? It could be that I am in a really weird space in terms of age…most of the people in church are older and married so perhaps I am too young for them (though this has NEVER stopped anyone before)? And my prospective interviewees, students, are all much younger than me, so maybe that has something to do with it? Right now I am leaning towards explanation #1, which is of course very interesting and relevant to my work. I’ll have to keep thinking about this one.