Cultivating inner strength amid a barren landscape.
Sometimes I need to remind myself why I live where I do: an outpost in a remote corner of East Africa.
Because I'm married. And I'm thoroughly married. He is my almost sole adult company, provider of my means and conversation. My status underlined by my geography. No escape.
Anthea Rowan is an East Africa based, award-winning journalist and editor. Her training as a wordsmith proved a baptism by fire. Armed with a good idea and a raw passion to write, she approached an editor at The Times in London and quickly discovered good ideas alone are not the sole stuff of newspaper fodder. Stern editing, though, was the best way to learn. She continues to freelance at The Times.
Editor: Talha Khalid
We moved for my husband's work as an agriculturist so he could more directly help farmers grow crops. Over the years we'd gone back and forth between the U.K. and Tanzania, but it had always worked well. When in Africa, we lived near a big town that boasted malls, sports clubs, ballet lessons for my daughters, a school, yoga, beauticians, cinemas—and friends. I had the best of both worlds: a beautiful home in a quiet sanctuary and a social life close by.
Now our landscape is barren. We live in a place so far away the road for a hundred miles is dirt. A place where there is nothing to do—unless you create the drive and the doing yourself—and nowhere to go. The only place to escape is into myself. And I'm often at odds with that self. Why would a city-dwelling writer with a fulfilling career follow her man, become a housewife—that dirty word—and allow someone else's choice to dictate her days? I've had to convince myself that my relationship trumped all the rest.
Arriving four years ago from London was a jolt. We changed planes in Tanzania's capital—from a jet to an old bird with propellers that roared as she lumbered up into a seamlessly blue sky. I watched Africa slip beneath me: a city and the sea gave way to villages that strung the capital's edge, first tightly and then loosely so that they were fewer and fewer and then just huts, like fallen beads. And then there was nothing. Just the taupe of unending bush. Not a road or a town in reassuring miniature beneath me. Fly two hours and witness the unfurling of savannahs, the jagged knots of mountain ranges, the dusty void of dry lakes and you know you're going to be a long way from anywhere.
We landed with a bump on a dirt strip and disembarked to a simmering afternoon. The airport building lay low and crouched and a man came to unload the plane with a wheelbarrow. I swallowed.
As my external topography sprawled under a crack-dry climate (I couldn't even garden, goddammit!), so my inner geography telescoped. The empty land around me and the thoughts of what I was missing back home were too big to grapple with.
I created another world for myself—smaller and separate. I took photographs of the minutiae until I mastered the close-up; I tasted wine; I learned the ancient art of glass fusing because it was time-greedy and because there was something empowering in the manipulation of one of the hardest substances known to man even if I couldn't manage my soft-edged, dust-drudged horizons. I swam, lap after lap after lap, until I had worked the frustration out. I learned you cannot cry underwater. I learned that malarkey about exercise and happy hormones is true.
In the abbreviated space of four years my life has shrunk from demanding and immersed, my role constantly validated, to one in which the days lack the necessary punctuation that heralds their beginning and end. There is a cultural and language barrier that makes friendships hard; the community is transient, volunteers thrown together for three weeks. My husband travels thousands of miles to visit farmers. I don't wake up for work; I don't have lunch dates; I don't take my kids, who had to be dispatched to boarding school, to class. And I am now, more than ever, Someone's Wife.
Standing by her man was easier for my grandmother, who made a similar choice 60 years ago. But in 2007 my decision felt like betrayal. I was supposed to Have It All; I wasn't supposed to be reduced to an unflattering 1950s stereotype by friends who observed, "I couldn't live where you do," the implication being that I lacked the vigor, the imagination, the balls, to do anything without my husband.
Pre-relocation, I sought my mother's advice. My mother, who lost my father when she was younger than I am, said immediately and emphatically that if she were me, she'd go. A moment's hesitation might have been nice. But the truth is, I'm less an advocate of "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and more of the cynical "it also makes the attentions wander." I was afraid that if I did not live with him, I might grow too used to living without him, and he without me. I feared that he might meet somebody else and fall in love all over again in the clichéd way men of a certain age are supposed to.
And then I got here and realized, given the paucity of female company, that that was probably an empty threat. Too late, I was already ensconced: Mrs. R. firmly in residence.
I made a conscious effort to stop caring that my new life distilled as "housewife"; instead I reveled in the retrospective nonconformity of my situation. I remembered—when friends sounded distracted on the phone—that it was I who had chosen change. That didn't make hearing about their busy lives easier; it didn't make the feeling of being left behind less difficult. But I have unearthed bits of me I didn't know I had. I'm less intimidated by silence than I once was, less afraid to kick modern convention.
When I have fantasies of escaping—because I miss my children like an ache, because I don't want to live in the bush 700 miles from my hairdresser—I realize that opting out would look like failure, an admission of defeat. That, and I am pivotal to my small team's happiness; if I upset the balance, we might never regain it. Without question, our marriageis stronger. We've become better friends. And he has been enormously understanding of my isolation—if unable to prevent it. God knows, I don't want to live here. But I do want to stay married. I do.
Things are always easier at academic remove. Rather than think of myself as anathema to female emancipation, I've reframed my role as pioneer.