What’s Love Got to Do with It? (Part 1)
This week on MAGNIFY musings, we’re talking love… Should it be practical or romantic? Short-lived or lifelong? Ruled by your head or your heart? In the first half of our discussion, guest writer Lara Enoch shares her observations of love in a foreign climate.
Love is a far less important concept outside of the Western world. I once spent three months living in rural Uganda, and vividly recall a suave pastor (with a disconcerting likeness to Tupac) indadvertedly demonstrating his idea of courtship. He declared that his initial path to finding God was triggered when he started frequenting church to pick up the ladies.
Despite this, it was only on my return to England that the penny dropped and I realised the startling difference between our archaic beliefs in chivalrous love and some of the more prickly realities that shaped the East African attitudes I observed.
Beyonce would probably be met with blank stares were she to ever break out in a rendition of ‘Love on Top’. In the East African version of ‘Titanic’, Jack and Rose would have sailed past each other like ships in the night (excuse the pun) as Ugandan Rose would never have been self-indulgent enough in the first place to try and hurl herself off a glam cruise liner.
In the West, we are a collective basket-case of self-awareness and 21st century neuroses. Ugandans take a wholly pragmatic view on relationships. There is a supreme lack of anxiety related to the self out there: their problems are of an entirely different scale and so they never really venture into the murky waters of hedonism/narcissism. In rural Uganda it is more a case of survival trumping passion.
One of the main contributing factors that dictates the way we perceive love and relationships is lifestyle. In the West, we have time to analyse, dissect and constantly search for the Holy Grail of The Perfect Relationship. Hours upon hours of our lives are devoted to finding our soulmate. Indeed for women it even pervades our socialising – a great pastime borne out of relationships is talking about them: whether ranting, recollecting or smugly preaching about ‘the one’.
Within the villages of Uganda, though, the environment doesn’t allow for much analysis. There is little time to contemplate love amid collecting water from the borehole, planting crops in the blistering heat or selling fabric at the trade centre, all the while with a baby strapped on your back. More than a third of adolescent girls (aged 15-19) are already mothers or pregnant with their first child, giving Uganda one of the highest rates of population growth in the world.
Even before their first child, young women are given a disproportionate amount of responsibility; taking care of younger siblings (of which there are many) and conducting most of the housework. There’s no time to sit around dissecting men over your third mojito. Love is out of the picture in such a hostile environment.
What Western culture strives for above everything else is the happy, monogamous relationship which, in our fragmented society, is becoming more and more unattainable. Many Ugandans for various religious and social factors forgo this Western ideal and have multiple wives: our best friend in the village, Emmanuel, told us how his mother Irene lived in harmony with his father’s other bride, supporting each others’ parallel families through the rocky patches (although admittedly this was probably a best-case scenario).
There is, of course, a dark side to this pragmatism. The likelihood as a woman of catching HIV is greatly increased if you’re sharing your husband with virtual strangers, as many young women aren’t aware of their own HIV status. And a preoccupation with keeping up appearances often results in forced marriages: during our time in Uganda we spoke to several teenage girls who’d become pregnant from their first sexual experience and were being forced by their parents to marry the boy to avoid shaming the family. There is such an aggressive lack of choice for rural Ugandan females – spanning across education, marriage and childbirth – that the concept of love seems too alien to contemplate.
Yet I can’t help thinking that our environment in the West breeds a self-indulgence that is thankfully lacking in pragmatic Uganda. You see and hear about love everywhere: on TV, saturated in music lyrics, PDAs on the Northern Line, tweeted about in real time (forgive me for sounding like Hugh Grant at the beginning of ‘Love Actually’.) Would there ever even be room for a bumbling, neurotic Richard Curtis character in Uganda? I think not.
An atmosphere that encourages choice inadvertently encourages romantic love. We are told never to settle and that we too could be like the tubby penguins in David Attenborough who ‘mate for life.’ Ugandans are all too aware of the harsh reality and don’t have the disposable time or energy to think so conditionally far ahead into the future.
Maybe we should take a leaf out of their book: too much time leads us to become insular and self-aware about love. If we could meet somewhere between the rational and emotional, maybe there would be less need for match.com, ‘ironic’ speed dating and all the other pitfalls that have evolved from having such a liberal dose of disposable choice and time.
Come back on Thursday for part two of ‘What’s love got to do with it?’
Words by Lara Enoch
Images by Estera Kluczenko