The balloons have been out for a week. The radio shout-outs have started already. The flood of ads by every conceivable company, from those who sell pipes to those who sell blenders is underway. Yes, I’m in Accra and the city is Valentine-ed out. It’s more decorated than at Christmas and the performance of love is thick in the air. Ghanaians love Val’s Day. If it could be made a national holiday it would be. People in relationships or even just with crushes scramble to get the most elaborate gifts. In boarding school boys risk getting expelled by jumping the school gate just to go pick up birthday-sized cakes for the girls they like. Not having a Form One boy knock on the gate of the boarding-house with a gift he has been sent by your Form Three boyfriend to deliver to you can lead to my grandmother just died levels of depression in the girls’ dorms.
I have no boo so of course I get no gifts. I’m in a friends with benefits situation with an ex but I didn’t get a Val’s Day gift from him even when we were together so I’m definitely not holding my breath. It feels a little lonely to be left out of the love, especially when it is so commercialized and commoditized there’s no way to escape it. That is until I get kinda glad that I’m not partaking.
You see, Val’s Day can be sad to behold if you are a feminist. In every direction you look there is this uneven gendered element, starting with the gifts. Girls can get away with getting their boo a basic card and some small gift. Men have to shill out much more — chocolates, red rose(s), teddy bears, lingerie, a customized cake, a night out, the works.
Of course all this commercialization breeds some ingenuity. There is a phenomenon where guys break up with girls they don’t intend to live without in the first two weeks of February so come Val’s Day they will be momentarily single and free of expectations. A few days after Val’s Day they reappear with apologies and get their girlfriends back. “I’m sorry I didn’t get you a Val’s Day gift” they say. “I walked into this gift shop in Osu and my hands were itching to buy you this card that was more than four feet tall and this beautiful bra and panty set but we weren’t together so I didn’t think you’d even want to see anything from me.” I think the girls must see through it but they want the boo back so they forgive and hope next year’s Val’s Day will be better. There are also the relationships where the boys try to shake the chicks and the chicks see through it and do not allow themselves to be broken up with because they absolutely refuse to be boo-less on Valentine’s Day.
This one day in the year, 14th February, is a bird’s eye view into the complexity of a lot of the relationships around me. You see, what happens is that men feel exploited for money and are always trying to find a way to get more so they can get women or to find some way to get out of spending it so they can feel like they are getting one over on women. Women feel exploited for sex and are always trying to maximize the return on their coochie by getting some financial compensation or a commitment that validates them in the eyes of society by proving that they are wife material. Or they are scheming about ways to not give it up while still getting what they want from a dude. It’s a very intricate cat and mouse game. It creates this dynamic where women are extremely conscious of their vaginas and what they are doing with it. I don’t mean this in a “get regular pap smears and chart your cycle” kind of way. I mean it in a “this coochie is a valuable resource and every time I give it away I diminish its market value so I will never give it away without getting compensated in some form” kind of way. It creates this dynamic where men think they can control women with money and feel validated in being sexist because they can offer example after example about how chicks deserve to be dogged out because they are mercenary. It makes a lot of the relationships very transactional.
Of course not all relationships are like this and there is lots of genuine love here where the only things being exchanged are respect and support. But this stupid dynamic does exist and on Val’s Day it comes to the fore. Relationships in which men consider giving gifts the most important way to express love and women consider getting gifts the most important way to be shown love flourish alongside real meaningful connections. So the balloons billow all over the city, the inflated hearts dance in the wind, all the 80’s love songs fill the air and I can feel the love while I try not to notice how much of it is hollow.
F.N. is a thirty something free-lance writer from Ghana. Currently, she is trying out a new life in Washington, DC