Nura [not her real name] is a 42-year-old Kenyan woman. She lives in Senegal with her husband and his other wives.
Ishmael and I met in 2018 on Muzmatch, a dating app for Muslims. I had been a convert for about four years and I needed to expand my circle of potential suitors. The Muslim men I met in Kenya were conservative, and I wanted to meet a man who was more like me: well travelled and with a global view of the world.
When Ishmael and I started chatting our conversations felt very easy. I found myself laughing a lot. He was respectful. Then he told me he wanted to travel to Nairobi to see me. I told him that I didn’t want to meet unless we were husband and wife, and so an imam married us online. When we met, I thought his pictures and even our video chats had not captured him accurately. He looks like the stereotype of a Senegalese man: six feet tall and skinny and he has this air of quiet, confident masculinity. You wouldn’t think he was in his late 40s.
That first time we met, we spent four days together in a hotel. All we did was fuck and pray. That was really important to me. Sensuality and spirituality are two sides of the same coin and I wanted to be with a partner that I could learn the faith with, from a place of curiosity, and not oppression. I found Islam in my late 30s. I had been searching for a spiritual practice that spoke to who I am as a black African woman, and in the Islamic faith I found one that also spoke to the social and environmental justice issues that are important to me.
Two months later I flew to Senegal and visited him for two months. He arranged for me to stay in an apartment owned by his sister, and the whole experience felt like dating while married. That period taught me that you can love and care for someone even if they are very different from you. Ishmael is a traditional Senegalese man. The most radical thing he’s done has been to marry me. A woman who is in her 40s, anglophone, someone from a foreign country who doesn’t speak Wolof or French and doesn’t know his culture and traditions. The expectation in Senegal is that if a man was going to stray out of the constraints of who he was expected to marry then he would be with a white woman.
My biggest struggle is with the gender norms that I am expected to conform to. To look pretty but not too pretty. To not voice my opinions in public. That is not how I grew up. My dad died when I was 16 years old and so my mum was very clearly the head of the household while I as the firstborn child had to take on a lot of responsibilities. It pisses me off that I now have to perform this subservient role.
Our private life is completely different. We’re playful when we spend time together. We talk about faith and politics. He teases me about being an artist. He likes to say: “I am a simple Senegalese man and you’re a philosopher.” People who know him in the outside world would be shocked to see what he’s like with me in private.
I feel like I am just starting my sexual journey. Sexually speaking, this is the best chapter of my life
In January 2020 I moved to my new home in Senegal. The ground-floor flat belonged to the first wife and her children, the first floor to the second wife and her children, and the second floor, the latest addition to the building, was mine. My husband has eight children between the ages of 20 and six months. I have no children at all.
I assumed I would have some common values with my husband’s wives but apart from our faith, and His Excellency, we have nothing in common. My intention had been to cultivate a respectful, sisterly interaction but instead, four months in, I am met with passive aggressiveness.
I can imagine that the first wife married Ishmael when they were both young. Chances are she was a virgin. They started a life together, and then 20 years later he married a second wife, and then after another five years yet another. Even if that’s part of your culture, that shit must hurt. I have no idea what my husband told his wives when he married me. I never asked him because it’s none of my business.
It’s been a big stretch going from observing my parents’ monogamous marriage to this one, and yet there are many things that I like about my own marriage. I don’t have to see my husband every day. I can read, study and work on my art. I have my own flat, and someone at home to help me with the work. Our sex life is really good. One time Ishmael said to me: “Oh my goodness, I am so tired. I thought we were only going to have sex like once a month.” I told him: “That’s not going to happen.” He had assumed that because I am over 40 my libido would be much lower than it is. On the contrary, I feel like I am just starting my sexual journey. Sexually speaking, this is the best chapter of my life.
Before my husband comes over I make sure I’m well rested. I drink lots of water and I meditate. I make sure I look good and prepare for sex by performing rituals that I was taught by Somali women. I burn some oud and then I stand over the incense while wearing a long flowy dress and use that to move the essence all over so my body retains the heat. When he comes home, I don’t wear a head covering like I normally would. Whichever wife he is staying with is responsible for cooking for the entire household. He arrives an hour before dinner, and that is the time we have to ourselves before everyone else gets here. He knows that’s our window to be intimate.