I’m skipping over my Bongoyo adventure from this weekend (pictures are on Instagram, and I’ll loop back to it in another post) to touch on something a bit more personal.
Today at lunch, as we were sitting under the trees, swatting flies, avoiding accidentally feeding the roosters around our feet, and chowing down on chipsi mayai (basically a french fry omelette), we somehow wound up on the topic of managing marriage in a two-job household. I say we somehow wound up on the topic, because often these conversations begin and drift in and out of Swahili during lunch, and I only catch the English parts. This conversation resonated, because it is one I revisit with my female friends frequently.
As my colleagues were explaining to me, a trend has emerged in Tanzania, whereby a married couple may live in different districts (long distance) because one person (generally the woman) does not want to leave a good job if the other (usually the man) finds a job in a different place. Continent aside–it doesn’t really matter–it is really hard to manage a long-distance relationship. I’ve seen it work out very well, and I have seen it implode, but not once have I ever heard anyone tell me it was easy, fun, or enjoyable.
My female colleagues at the table were insistent, though — why should the woman be expected to give up a good, paying job, especially if her husband is posted somewhere that is undesirable for her to live? I can appreciate some of the risks mentioned–concerns about roofless schools for children in some of these areas, or worries of being left with nothing should the husband stray. However, the point that I frequently return to when this discussion comes up with my friends at home, is how much time, sweat, and tears we have poured into our careers at this point in our lives. To walk away from all of that for the sake of keeping the family unit together requires tremendous sacrifice, and it is not unrealistic to question whether your partner would ever return the sacrifice, should the tables be turned. Moreover, even in a crazy digitized world, it is not realistic to expect that a person can “just get a job” from any city in his or her desired field, much less a good one offering great benefits and opportunities for professional growth.
We debated for a while which was worse – the strain placed on a relationship caused by living apart, so that the two halves could be professionally fulfilled, or being asked to give up what you’ve worked for, and going on faith that someday the sacrifice will be returned, or worth it. Of course, the longer time spent building a career in a place, the harder it is to walk away. I wonder sometimes if public health and development work is the exception to this, or takes it to new extremes? On one hand, theoretically, we can do our jobs from anywhere in the world, and often do. But then the sacrifice is often not, “Let’s move to another part of the country,” but “let’s move to another country, or continent entirely” which does have significant implications for the other person.
It seems I stumbled upon another version of the “Can we have our cake and eat it too” discussion, which will hardly be put to bed in one blog entry. However, it is reassuring to me that my female colleagues in Tanzania are having this same debate as my dear friends and I often have in the US.