Not as simple as black and white

Barbara Hollands

WHEN his wife, Nomfundo, sets out to have her hair done, she comes home 10 hours later. This is one of the tongue-in- cheek “cultural peculiarities” former Port Elizabeth journalist Hagen Engler has identified in his just-published book, Marrying Black Girls for Guys Who Aren’t Black, about his marriage to a Xhosa woman.

In his characteristically quirky style, Engler, who recently resigned as editor of FHM magazine, writes about the cultural differences he has discovered since falling in love with Nomfundo. Besides haircare, these include food, sports, camping and music.

In the light-hearted spirit of the book, three high-profile white Eastern Cape men who are in relationships with African women revealed whether they shared Engler’s idiosyncratic experiences, and it emerged they had hilarious anecdotes of their own involving marital culture clashes.

“My wife is a fan of deep ’90s R&B music like Shai and Jodeci, while I prefer watching local rock bands like Fuzigish, Pestroy and Facing the Gallows where crazy mosh-pits are the order of the day,” Engler said.

And, although he is open to trying most types of cuisine and enjoys Xhosa dishes like umleqwa, namasi and dombolo, he draws the line at ulusu (boiled tripe). “Conversely, my periodic forays into vegetarianism mystify my lovely wife.”

Another bugbear is roughing it in a tent at music festivals, which Nomfundo has decided is not for her. “I’m willing to spend three days camping in the bush, living off vetkoek at Oppikoppi … but lately you won’t find her within 100 kays of the place.”

But it worked both ways, Engler said, saying Nomfundo’s assumptions “that as a white guy I must be a massive fan of adrenaline sports were misguided”.

“She keeps buying us vouchers for bungee jumps and stuff. They actually scare the hell out of me!”

Asked how his wife reacted to the book, which hit the shelves last week, he said she had read it pre-publishing primarily to check his Xhosa spelling. “She’s not a big reader – it’s like pulling teeth for her – but she’s cool with the book.”

For Port Elizabeth award-winning architect Tim Hewett-Coleman, 45, his 20-year marriage to businesswoman Hlubi, 48, has led to a unique “funeral attendance policy”.

“At the beginning of our marriage I was at a funeral with her every second week, so I had to develop a policy which stated that if the person had not been to my house, I would not go to his funeral,” quipped Hewett-Coleman, whose wife is now quite content to attend most funerals solo.

And, while he enjoys attending traditional family celebrations, Hewett-Coleman does not take kindly to “hangers-on and alcoholics” who frequent these occasions and take advantage of the kindness of their hosts. “Food and booze are provided in great amounts in a great spirit of generosity and no one is turned away, but I struggle to understand how people can be so accommodating of these layabouts and useless types.”

He said marrying into another culture made him realise he would never blend into it.

“It actually made me comfortable to be who I am and made me conscious of my Englishness and my whiteness and that my own peculiarities and traditions I grew up with are special.”

Alliance Francaise director Aurelien de Chappotin, 31, said the biggest culture shock he experienced after meeting his Ethiopian wife of eight years, Roman Haile, 33, was not recognising her after one of her visits to the hairdresser.

“We met in Ethiopia and while we were there she would go to the hairdresser every day or every second day, but afterwards I would sometimes not recognise her – especially when she shaved her hair,” said De Chappotin, who shares his wife’s love of jazz, but is not a fan of her penchant for R&B.

Justin Gatley, 49, who runs a college for emergency care assistants in Port Elizabeth, said his relationship of nine years with significant other Zimasa Vakalisa, 31, had made him realise he had little tolerance for extended speeches at family ceremonies. “I remember attending a nephew’s first birthday and there were two hours of speeches. And the kid was asleep! So I make up excuses now. Otherwise we are not much different in outlook or values, or even in tastes in music and literature.

“Although she keeps insisting she wants her ancestors’ land back – which is Walmer Park shopping centre apparently …”

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