A day in the life of a single man

About Eritrea - History & Culture

In Eritrea, if you are 28, a graduate and a single man, visiting relatives from the village do not ask you whether you have a good job that pays well but rather ask you if you are married.

“Surely this must be the year you get married, son?”

“We are all looking forward to the day you get married, we are not getting any younger you know.”

Abel gets home around 9:30 p.m., lies on the bed and turns on his TV. He has just eaten his dinner in a nearby little Ristorante. He would have liked to have milk to help him digest, but his gas-stove had been sitting idly by for lack of gas. The dog is barking outside probably asking to be fed. The cat has decided to serve other masters after waiting for a change of heart. But Abel is a melancholic type. He cares less about humans let alone about cats and dogs. Although pleased with his single life, he sometimes seems to regret his choice.

Abel could have led a happy life without a wife, but in a society where marriage is more than a sacrament and where the production of children is a blessing from God, the life of a confined single man is a one way journey to perpetual shame and final extinction.

The problem has its origin with Adam whom God forgot to create with a helpmate as he did when he provided all other animals with wives and spouses of all sizes, colors and temperaments. Even the provision apes, which looked like man, with mate did not help God at all to remember man (the so-called glorified monkey) fashion him along with a wife by his side.

It was after creating Adam and blessing him that God had a second thought. A minor divine amnesia and Adam might have lived as a bachelor for the rest of his life, multiplying, of course, through asexual production to fill the earth. But things were not going to be that way.

Now the modern confirmed single man has an array of divine traditions and beliefs to face and challenge, unfortunately, with less chance to win.

“And God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…” With a simple verse like this from the Holy Writ, and quoted by the elderly, the confirmed bachelor remains tongue tied and his fate sealed, that is unless he regards the wisdom of the ancient as obsolete and stale.

According to Eritrean tradition, an unmarried man is a half-man. One is supposed to sire children as long as there is the faintest sign of life in him. When females are in abundance, it would be a disgrace to one’s male-hood to keep one’s seed to oneself. Go and disseminate them whenever and wherever you can. Go alone and come back with a horde of children is the marital battle cry.

Even those above 80 would try their chance with the womenfolk for a male heir following previous failed or ‘fruitless’ marriages that produced females only. A Tigrinya proverb says: what does one gain if by bringing a female to the house one produces another female.

But Abel is a confirmed bachelor who feels more at ease with his faithful dog than the ephemeral loves of the fair sex. The bark of a dog is sweeter to his ears than the romantic whisperings of a lover. And the odor of cats is more acceptable than the scent of women.

At night, he prefers to commute with himself rather than have pillow talk about the vicissitudes of life with his better half. And in case his libido gets the better of him, he has always the go-go girls in the bar just around the corner.
“Why barmaids, when you could have a real wife?” asks the friend to the Bachelor

“Barmaids are disposable, real wives are for keeps,” he replied.

He seems to maintain anonymity which protects him from any kind of responsibility, a headache that any bachelor tries to avoid.

“But you need a helpmate who shares your hopes, dreams and worries,” Ventures the friend.

“Women will only succeed in multiplying my worries and spend my money,” he retorts.

Abel is already married to his shop. He takes good care of his merchandize and spends his time between purchasing goods to fill his tiny store and counting the money he has in the bank. He can marry and remarry as he pleases.

But why should he? His ‘eroticized’ shop is producing money, a commodity he regards more rewarding than children.

Is Abel a misogynist? Or is he too selfish to countenance married life? Could he be impotent?

The relatives that pay him a visit from time to time in spite of his constant and open displeasure don’t seem to give much attention to the educated justification of singlehood.

“Abel, what kind of a girl do you want? Just tell us. There are plenty of marriageable girls in the village,” they would say.

But Abel’s problems are only known to him and to his creator.

“If you die without issue, your seed will become extinct and you will be forgotten forever,” the relatives would keep on repeating. The more Abel is lectured on this matter, the more his aversion for women augments.

Remaining bachelor while owning a busy shop is unacceptable in our tradition. The only way to avert marriage is to become a hermit. And to do that you have to join a monastery or disappear into the wilderness so that you won’t become a bad example for other youngsters whom the society wants to marry. One can say in all certainty that there are more married people in our society as a result of incessant nagging by relatives than there would otherwise be the case.

Anyway, our bachelors should be thankful to the anonymity of a city life where people seldom poke their noses in marital affairs. In our villages, however, it is simply impossible to live single. You get either stigmatized or ostracized. Even defective males are given wives for trial.

The village idiot has a good chance to marry because there is another proverb which goes somewhat like this: a girl with no hope of finding a mate gets finally married to a boy with no hope of getting married. But most village idiots are luckier than those inferred by the proverb. They get pretty girls and live happily (with the girl suffering in silence) ever after.

Frankly speaking, I know of many village impotents who are forced to get married in the hope of some miracle taking place on the nuptial bed. I know of a certain girl who remained faithfully married for a full one year to her impotent husband who was unable to consummate the matrimony for obvious reasons. She slept with him like a doll, terrified and blinking her eyes throughout the night. And when finally the family and the in-laws came to realize that they could get no fruit whatsoever from the union, they decided to dissolve the marriage. I am sure the verdict of the bridegroom’s family was: What is an impotent woman doing in our house! Off with her!

Now what do you think happened next? Mr. Impotent got married again in a larger tent and amid much noise and drinks. But, just to make sure he was man enough to go through the nuptial ordeals at night, he was taken to a debtera (a quack) who made him lie down with his victimized bride and repeated long fertility verses from some apocryphal books enough to make Artemis of Ephesus(Fertility goddess) turn green in envy.

In our tradition, a male who is unable to have issues and a barren female are mistakes of nature, unless, of course, the one chooses to join a hermitage and the other a convent. Then they are sure to get sublimated into saints and the same people who earlier on considered them to be half-people now worship them as half-gods. Strange, isn’t it?

A neighbor of ours remained single until the age of 65, and then one day he confided to me that he had decided to take a certain spinster to be his wife; this was after he told me to get married as soon as possible.

“What made you change your mind?” I enquired.

“Who is going to look after me when I get old and sick?” He replied.

Aren’t you already old and sick?!

I told him that by marrying at an advanced age his chances of seeing his children through elementary school were very slim. There is also another problem, I continued.

“Your children might one day ask their mother to show them a picture of their father.”

“But I will remain their real father.” “Who knows, they might mistake you for their grandpa.”

Threw his walking stick at me!

Now turning to bachelorettes or spinsters, the mere thought of it is not only unacceptable to a village family but borders on the scandalous. It is get married or get lost. Remaining unmarried after 18 (If she is still going to school) means trouble. A villager is ready to give his daughter’s hand, as the saying goes, even to the hyena if the beast would refer the matter to the father.

In short, the point is to get integrated into the society by fulfilling all that tradition requires of you. You have to look like the rest. Any deviation from the norm or any tampering with the custom is punishable by isolating the offender physically or psychologically whatever seems handy at the moment.