Jacinta Nzerem's argument with her husband Akano typifies a sinister side to the career success many African women have found in the field of nursing. A registered nurse in San Francisco, Jacinta is a Nigerian-American mother of six whose husband is facing severe charges for biting off part of her bottom lip after what she characterized as "a normal family argument" turned into a brutal assault in January.
Although her domestic struggles are more public than most, her story is an increasingly familiar one among African couples in the United States where men and women are re-negotiating the traditional balance of power in African marriages.
As the demand for nursing professionals continues to soar in American hospitals, professionals trained in the field have reaped lucrative rewards. A recent United States Bureau of Labor Statistics survey reports that registered nurses earned more than 52,330 dollars a year on average.
While exact figures are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that African women have become especially prominent in the field due to relaxed immigration requirements and active recruiting of workers from the continent. With more African women making equitable-and in many cases, significantly higher- salaries than their husbands, the age-old assumption that the husband is the family's main breadwinner is no longer automatic.In Jacinta's case, her paycheck eclipsed that of her husband's, who worked as a pharmacy technician before his arrest. Long absences from home- due to long shifts at her hospital, according to her- prompted her husband to accuse her of infidelity during the argument that led to her hospitalization and his arrest. "That's why I exploded," said Jacinta, who claimed to have provoked her husband by throwing a bottle of lotion and lunging at him, shouting "you must kill me today."
After the police were called to the scene, she was rushed to a local hospital in order to have her lip re-attached while her husband was taken into custody. She now characterizes the incident as a mix-up and accuses the police of treating her husband differently because they are immigrants. "They make this case so exaggerated," she said to Bay City News Wire, suggesting that therapy would be a better resolution to the couple's problems than a prison sentence. "What we need is counseling. I don't need him to go to jail for this case." For other African women like Gloria Uchechi-Anya Onwuka however, the friction in the relationship can result in dire- and even fatal- conflicts.
Uchechi-Anya Onwuka, also a Nigerian-American registered nurse, was found stabbed to death in her Hampton, Virginia bathroom last August by her teenage son, Michael. Police arrested her estranged husband John for the crime two days later. Though the couple was divorced, they lived in the same house along with their children, staying in separate bedrooms. Friends of the family said that they did not know of any long-standing domestic issues and the police so far have made no such claims, speculation was rife within the area's Nigerian community that the couple's estrangement and the eventual murder were partly due to Gloria's success and the independence afforded by her nursing career.
S. Mamasafi (her name has been altered to protect her privacy), a Kenyan-born geriatric nurse in New Jersey, has managed to evade the agonizing resolutions despite going through similarly difficult patches in her marriage. After moving to the United States alongside her husband, Mamasafi- trained as a nurse in the United Kingdom- struggled with spending her days chained to an oven and a vacuum while her husband supported the family. He had entered the country under the auspices of the H-1B visa program, and as a dependant, she did not have the required papers to hold a job. "You can't have a social security number or a driver's license-all you can do is stay at home and watch T.V," she told the AFRican, remembering the difficult early years. "It was really hard and frustrating, and we almost broke up."
Fortunately, some counsel from an immigration lawyer helped her to obtain the necessary work permits, and she soon found a job in her field. However, her husband still expected her to shoulder the majority of the domestic burdens, including raising their newborn daughter.
Mamasafi says that the combination of work stress and an unrepentant traditional husband made her feel as if she was "dying silently." She took to serving him his favorite porridge meal in the same unwashed bowl for a week simply to prompt him into helping her with the dishes, but he was either unwilling or unable to pick up her hints. She finally stumbled across a solution that was genius in its simplicity. By switching her shift to 3 - 11 pm, her husband was forced to prepare his own meals and put their young daughter to sleep during the evenings.
Seven years and two children later, Mamasafi says that they are comfortable in their new roles and routines. "Now, even if I don't work, he cooks and takes care of the baby," she notes. For other women struggling to negotiate new gender roles within their marriage, she offers the following advice: "you just have to look for (solutions) without fighting-a way that is good for the both of you."
It is optimistic advice that Jacinta Nzerem would agree with. During an interview with the Bay City News Wire, she was hopeful about the chances of reconciling with her husband and making a plea bargain with the San Francisco district attorney before the case goes to trial in June. "When this case is over, we are going to remarry ourselves and invite the police to see it."