The first time I met Wanja I was not in a good place. I mean this in two ways: romantically and geographically. To begin with, I was living in North Dakota, and not swanky North Dakota, like Fargo or Grand Forks. My friend Luke and I had been working on a dairy farm 20 miles outside a town of barely 200 people, in the dead center of an empty, agro-state. It was late October, and so cold that sometimes we had to thaw out the cows’ utters before milking them. After the fact, people would ask us why we chose on a whim to live in rural North Dakota for a month, and we would always equivocate. Because, frankly, we didn’t have a satisfactory answer, besides that maybe we thought it would be interesting to visit America’s least-visited state for the past eight years running. Either way, there we were, and it was 6 °F, and we hadn’t really seen a woman since leaving Chicago.
The day we first met Wanja was also our first day off, and, fumbling around for a dose of plains culture, we had driven out to Maddock, ND for their annual “Rural Renaissance Festival.” Wanja was selling home-made cosmetics from behind a fold-out table at a crafts fair in the Maddock High School gymnasium. What struck us wasn’t that she was cute, or young, or dressed in something other than the de rigueur Carharrts and camo. What struck us about Wanja was that she was black—the first and last black person we would see in all of North Dakota for over a month.
We stare for a second too long, and have to take another tour of the craft booths (“Finnish-style” needlework, wooden trivets carved with tractors, home-made American-flag weathervanes) before working up the nerve to talk to her.
She lets us know immediately that she could tell we weren’t from around here and we tell her likewise. She tells us she moved here from Kenya in 2004, and sells her own line of skin products, and just loves meeting new people, and talking to her is like drinking water after a long walk through the dessert. She is something wholly uncommon to rural North Dakota farming country—she is chatty. The three of us hit it off and after 20 minutes she has invited us down to Bismarck to stay at her place when we’re passing though. When she offers us a hot shower and some home-cooked east African food we forget our manners and take her up on it.
Two weeks later, we’ve milked our last cow and left the farm. We call Wanja to say we’ll be passing through, and we drive south toward Bismarck.
Bismarck, ND is a short city in a tall state. North Dakota’s oft-forgotten KVLY-TV mast, a giant antenna on the plains outside of Blanchard, was the single tallest manmade structure in the world from 1963 until 2010, when it was dethroned by a skyscraper in Dubai with a swimming pool on the 76th floor. In a state where towns of 37 people erect 150 foot grain elevators, metropolitan Bismarck is dominated by 3-story office buildings and prefab homes with patchy lawns and seasonally-appropriate filigree in the windows. By far the tallest building is the state capitol, an uninspired 19 stories of Art Deco symmetry. Driving through Bismarck you get the feeling that you’re in a SimCity built 20 minutes ago by an unusually prosaic 4th grader.
The library is a low-building with the word “LIBRARY” stenciled in enormous blue letters on its side. The streets align in a grid, and where the city ends they stretch in angled vectors across the prairie.
Wanja lives across the Missouri River from Bismarck, in Mandan, ND, a suburb of barely 18,000 with a large Native American population and zero tourism. We arrive after dark at a small grey apartment building with a poorly lit parking lot. On the mailbox are names that have largely disappeared from our national lexicon, names like White Horse and Isaac Still-Moon. Wanja’s name is scrawled conspicuously in ballpoint ink on the very bottom box. We ring the appropriate bell.
Wanja comes to the door smiling and Luke and I stumble inside, carrying our sleeping bags and probably smelling a little of cow still. The apartment is tiny and immaculate, with hanging plants, pleather furniture, and more zebra print than is usually considered tasteful—she refers to it repeatedly as her “bachelorette pad.”
Wanja starts in on dinner and begins telling us her abbreviated autobiography, talking to us like we’re more than just two dudes she chatted with for 7 minutes at a crafts fair one time. When you’re a single black woman living in an all Native American apartment block in the capital of North Dakota, your life story gets polished and condensed through repetition.
Originally from Kenya, she got a scholarship to attend the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and wound up in North Dakota after graduation. She spent some time living in a tiny farming community before moving to Bismarck to start her own business selling homemade cosmetics and skin creams from a booth in the city’s only shopping mall. In the back of her apartment she shows us her laboratory—a dark room stacked with huge unmarked jars of sandalwood ointment and fleur de sel and other beauty essentials we never even knew we were missing. It is here that she mixes raw ingredients into the various masks and exfoliators that help the women of Bismarck keep their skin glowing through the icy North Dakota winters.
Wanja speaks with an improbable accent that is equal parts East Africa and Great Plains. Her syllables are stretched and her O’s hollow, but she peppers her sentences with Midwestern niceties and “Oh gosh”‘s.
Her cooking is just as bizarrely and miraculously hybridized. For dinner we eat ugali, greens, and Kenyan curry-beef, prepared from cornmeal, frozen spinach, and Angus rib tips bought at the Walmart in Mandan. To the best of her knowledge, Wanja is the only Kenyan émigré living in Bismarck, the sole member of her own demographic.
After dinner we shower with soap made from ingredients we’ve never heard of, lay our sleeping bags out on the zebra carpet, and we wonder: how did Wanja end up here, in this apartment in this city in this pariah of a state? And for that matter, how did we?
The next day the three of us pile into our Honda Civic to see what there is to do in Bismarck. Wanja keeps insisting that “there is nothing to do in Bismarck” but we tell her about the dairy farm and how everything is relative.
Our first stop is a small Native American museum that turns out to be more like a fairly large Native American gift shop. On the walls there are intricately painted bison skulls and beaded hunting arrows, but these are mostly hidden in the piles of cheap-o tomahawks and bulk-produced paintings of Indians on horseback shedding a single tear. Everything is for sale.
A woman at the desk shows us how to use dried sage grass in a traditional smudging ritual and then tries to sell us a bundle of it. We are the only ones in the museum. Wanja caves and buys a small flute with a horse-hair tassel and then we leave.
Our second stop is a bookstore, run by a friendly older woman with a manifest fondness for the Victorian period.
After that there’s not a whole lot left to do in Bismarck, and so our third stop is at an auto-body where we go to pick up Wanja’s newly-repaired van. The van is huge and filled with more tubs of ointment.
“Why such a big van?”
We are standing against the hood of the Civic, waiting for the mechanic to make a final adjustment.
“Oh gosh that’s a long story.”
“There’s nothing else to do here.”
“Oh well I lived in this van for a while after the divorce.”
“You were married?”
“Yes, I was married unfortunately. To this guy who thought he was just the coolest. And when we split up he took the house and I was sleeping in my van for a year. But, y’know, I came to North Dakota because it was peaceful, and I was ok just sleeping in the van, driving places on my own. I drove out to the national parks, I took road trips by myself. And now I’m 35 and I own my own business and my own apartment and I’m happy to be done with it. He was a North Dakota boy and I think he was attracted to me because I was different, because I was African. I even brought him back with me to Kenya for Christmas and when he came back he told his buddies that he’d seen the world and that he knew everything about everything. And the sex wasn’t even very good. That is important in a marriage, the sex needs to be good.”
The mechanic comes out to tell us that actually the van isn’t completely fixed yet and that we’ll have to come back later. He is wearing a baseball cap that says “Monster” across the brim in neon green. Wanja gives him a curt thank you and we hop back in the Civic.
It’s been a frustrating morning in Bismarck, ND, and on the way back to the apartment we distract ourselves by prolonging the sex talk. Wanja has a lot to say about sex, most of it pithy and aphoristic. Luke and I adopt the role of pupil, and here are some things we learn:
“The breasts are not an erogenous zone. Men think they are but they’re not. When you fondle a woman’s breasts you are only pleasing yourself.”
“Sex is best with older men. If he’s older than 40 a man is a terrific sexual partner. But under 25, they’re all machismo and no skill.”
“Women cheat as much as men, we just don’t get caught.”
“A woman is at the absolute peak of her libido at the age of 35.”
After this last one Luke and I glance at each other to confirm that yes, she just told us she was 35 like a half an hour ago. Things escalate from there, and I try to keep my focus on the road as I nod more and more emphatically.
Her expertise, it turns out, is not accidental—Wanja has found a niche for herself as the de facto sex guru for the women of the Bismarck-Mandan metropolitan area.
“It started just with me talking to some of the ladies who came to by my products, just about dating and gossip and things. I would use words like G-spot and orgasm and y’know none of them had even heard of that stuff so then I was like, ‘Ok Wanja something needs to be done here.’ Now I have a group of ladies who get together and we talk about this stuff. At first everyone was pretty timid but now we all get raunchy together, we all want it bad, oh gosh. And these North Dakota men, they know how to operate farm machinery at that’s about it if you know what I mean. So I give them instructions on positions and sex toys and I make natural lubricants and depilatory cream for the vagina. It’s like a revolution for some of these ladies I’ll tell ya. And I think they think I know everything, because I’m exotic y’know, because I have big hips and a big butt. They just needed someone to come here and shake them awake y’know, show them what they want and how to ask for it.”
We realize then that we’ve inadvertently stumbled across North Dakota’s analogue of Femsex. Wanja’s sessions are informal and underground, groups of inconspicuous middle-aged wives in sweaters circled furtively in a Starbucks, away from the prying ears of husbands and children. Over time, embarrassment turns to curiosity turns to outright glee.
“I love it,” Wanja says, “This is my life. I help the ladies of Bismarck with skin problems and other problems, I think this is absolutely my calling.”
She laughs mischievously at the ceiling and kneads a mound of ugali with carnal enthusiasm.
“Oh gosh, I almost forgot, I have a session tonight actually. Just me and my friend Sharon, she’s great, you guys should come along!”
Before we can suggest that maybe we should sit this one out, Wanja is packing what’s left of dinner into the fridge and casting around for her purse.
“C’mon boys it’ll be fuuun!”
“Have you told Sharon about this?”
“No you guys will be a surprise, she’ll love it.”
We hesitate but curiosity does us in. Luke gives me a ‘When in Bismarck…’ sort of look.
And so we leave the apartment and drive toward the periurban strip-mall side of town, to a bleak-looking Borders with an enormous parking lot. Sharon is seated in the little coffee nook part of the store, wearing mom-earrings and a sensible turtle neck. She looks to be about 45, but she giggles like a tween when she sees Wanja.
“Hiii. How are yooouuu?!”
Wanja is all smiles.
“Oh gosh lady you know I’m always good, but how are you?”
“Well, thank you for that little gift you gave me, things have been going very well, let’s just say that.”
Luke and I pull up chairs awkwardly, unsure of our role.
“Oh Sharon, this is Luke and this is Dan, they’re my visitors.”
Sharon looks us over conspiratorially and doesn’t ask any more questions. Over the course of the conversation it becomes clear that Wanja’s sexuality has attained near mythic status among her menopausal acolytes, and Sharon probably assumes we are some sort of boy toys that Wanja has imported on a whim for the weekend.
“Oh hi Luke and Dan!”
Pleasantries aside, Wanja and Sharon get down to brass tacks in earshot of pretty much everybody in Borders. Sharon is loud, and, as she confirms for us multiple times, “LOVES sex!”
“Oh y’know George takes trips down to Iowa every other week, but when he’s back home hubba hubba! I told him George that job can wait, now you have to make time for us. And he’s trying god bless him, George is a good man. He’s orally challenged, but he’s a good man.”
Mercifully, Luke and I are not asked for our opinions about George. We sit back and try to listen politely as Sharon reaches an increasingly fever pitch. She talks about her mattress and her diaphragm, she tells us about her sexy west coast road trip with George two months ago, she disparages the collective chauvinism and sexual ignorance of “North Dakota guys.” For Sharon, talking to Wanja is a big raunchy release, an emancipation from her repressive agricultural upbringing.
“I’m in my late 40’s now, but I’ll tell ya, I’m having the best sex of. my. life.”
At this point we’re getting spook-eyes from most of the patrons in the Borders café area, and a guy in a camo hunting vest keeps looking over at us and grinning conspicuously. By the time we get up to leave, it’s been more than an hour and Luke and I have spoken very little. Sharon is flushed and practically shouting as she hugs Wanja goodbye and tells us that it’s been “very nice to meet you two!!”
We agree with her and hasten our retreat towards the parking lot.
From across the store Sharon gives us one last earsplitting pointer.
“REMEMBER BOYS, THE SEX JUST GETS BETTTTTTER!”
Wanja laughs hard and the sliding doors whir shut behind us.
That night, while Luke is in the other room talking to his girlfriend, Wanja and I have sex. It is not a hasty decision. In fact we talk about it for two hours before deciding it’s to our mutual benefit. She’s the putative sex goddess of Bismarck, ND, but she’s been celibate since her divorce eight months ago and the irony is just killing her. For my part, I’ve been living on a farm for five weeks, milking cattle from their non-erogenous teat zones. We’re both horny and willing to rationalize. Wanja seems to have forgotten her rule about 20-somethings.
The sex is no different from sex with someone my age, except that when we’re done Wanja is gracious enough to grab a paper towel from the kitchen and wipe me off. “Cuddle me,” she says, and I do.
In the morning, after pancakes, Luke and I pack our bags—we have to be in Calgary in a few days and it’s a long drive. At the door, I sort of usher Luke along and turn back to give Wanja a kiss goodbye.
This is the part where I start to feel like an asshole, one of those itinerant, fly-by-night, sexually extractive dudes that I really, in my heart of hearts, don’t think I am. Or at least earnestly hope I am not.
I begin to apologize for leaving so quickly but Wanja cracks up and kisses me full on the mouth.
“Oh gosh, no, don’t even. No one ever visits North Dakota, this was a special treat. Plus, you’ll be a great story to bring back to my girls.”
And now I feel foolish telling this story. Because somewhere in North Dakota I know it’s already being told.
-Dan Sherrell, Contributor