How to Navigate African
Marriage Proposals
by Laura Lee Huttenbach
Short Story
For a young unmarried woman, traveling
solo through Africa can be daunting. You are sure to
encounter any number of men who would like to make
you their wife. Although you may not seriously entertain
the idea of an African marriage, it is good to know what
can happen once negotiations begin. If no proposal
comes to fruition, still you can gain bragging rights to
your value in livestock and leverage in future
negotiations. A confident girl—or her father—should
never accept less than her worth.

Your introduction to the bride price system is abrupt. In
Lesotho, southern Africa, you meet Hloise, who
announces after two minutes that he would like to
marry you. You hesitate, naturally, thinking there may
be a punch line. Instead, there’s incentive. “I will give
your father twenty-three cows for your hand in
marriage,” he states. You’re not familiar with the
proposal style, but you have business experience. You
know you have to counter.

You tell your translator (a friend who convinced you to
backpack in Africa) you won’t accept anything less than
thirty cows. Hloise won’t budge. You graciously decline
Hloise’s offer. Then you hear that in southern Africa the
perfect woman fetches around sixty cows. That was
close, you think. I almost majorly undersold myself.

The next day, you meet Hloise’s friend, who is also
interested in your wifely capabilities. You inform him the
current bid stands at twenty-four. “Do I hear thirty?”

“Twenty-six,” he says. You pull your cardigan tighter
around your body. It’s July, and Lesotho is having a cold
winter. You already have visions of sixty cows dancing
in your head, so you walk away again, eager to inform
Hloise of the bidding war. When you do, he is upset. “I
will double any future offer that you receive,” he says.
“I will now give your father fifty-two cows for you.” Your
suspicion is confirmed. Interested men work harder to
win your attention when competition is introduced. This
is universal.

While navigating the complex world of singlehood and
dating in the US, a common complaint emerges: it is
hard to gauge a suitor’s true feelings. The African
livestock bride price system provides an easier way to
evaluate—in terms of his affection, his intentions
towards you, and his available resources.

Now consider the adaptability of the system. You may
be thinking that your family wouldn’t have great use for
a herd of livestock in a small backyard. Your
neighborhood associations might frown. And you may
just not want to deal with a farm. But there is a practical
consideration: the exchange of livestock is mainly an
archaic practice. The inflation rates and fluctuating
political situations in developing countries create
unstable currencies, so a property such as a cow, which
holds a steady value, is the desirable tender for
negotiation. Once the quantity of livestock is agreed,
many varied and useful options beckon to collect the
bride price. You merely calculate the monetary value of
the livestock at the current rate of exchange, and—tada!
—cash, jewelry, or property could be yours.

Take, for instance, your next offer, which comes from
your Zambian safari guide named Martin. You’ve spent
the last five days paddling down the Zambezi River in
his blue canoe, passing hippos and crocs and admiring
stunning sunsets. Although Martin’s professional
demeanor discouraged any advance during the trip, on
the last day he anted up. Sixty cows! “If your father has
no use for livestock,” he tells you, “perhaps I can
interest him in payment in the form of a brewery.” He is
attractive, yes, but you do not involve your father or
brothers in the negotiation; the promise of beer might
cloud their best judgment.

Such proposals elicit many considerations: the wealth of
the family, the occupation of the suitor, the number of
other options he has in the community, and the GDP of
the country are only a few. Additionally, don’t forget to
inquire as to whether your suitor is from a polygamous
tribe and, if so—would you be his first, fifth, or
otherwise wife. Do use caution about marrying a Masai
man from Northern Tanzania or Kenya. According to
their tradition, wives may be shared amongst brothers.
If a husband comes home to find his brother’s spear
outside the door, he knows not to disturb the “visit.”

Leaving a livestock auction in Tanzania, you sit behind
an intoxicated Masai man in the minibus. He has
celebrated a lucrative day at the market with more than
a few beers. He turns round to greet you. “I’ve needed
a white wife. I’m a very rich man. I have three wives
and many kids—I don’t recall how many—but I do not
have a wife like you. How many cows?”

You rely on your Tanzanian friend to courteously
retreat. But the Masai man is persistent. “She will gain
many privileges. Please ask her. How many cows?”

This forces your Tanzanian friend to become more
direct. “She says you cannot afford her. I’m sorry, she
is not on the market.” Your fellow passengers erupt in
laughter, and the man, desperate to conclude
negotiations, pretends to speak on his mobile phone.

As this example demonstrates, representing yourself in
negotiations can be tricky. If possible, arrange to have a
third-party assist, preferably one familiar with your skill
set and resume. If a commission is requested for
reaching a deal on your behalf, discuss the terms in
advance. Your translator must also be reputable to
ensure that no cows are “skimmed” off the top.

When you arrive in Egypt, you answer a call from your
father, who is a child psychiatrist living in the suburbs of
Nashville. He’s been following your valuations like a
ticker on the NYSE, and he enjoys discussing it with
friends and near strangers alike. “I spoke with one of
my colleagues, Dr. Abaza. He’s from Cairo,” he says.
“He wanted me to tell you that, in northern Africa,
offers are more likely to come in the form of camels,
which are worth more than cows. So don’t be offended if
you think you’re getting short-changed. You’re probably
not.” You inquire about the conversion table—how many
cows equal one camel? “Hell if I know,” he says.

You promise your father that you will warn him should a
livestock delivery be en route to his private practice.
This information confuses him. “Why would the cows be
shipped to me?”

“Because, Dad,” you explain, “they are compensating
your efforts for raising a good daughter who will make a
good wife, one who cooks and cleans.”

He considers this statement. “But you can’t do either of
those.” Alas, he is right, so you should be prepared to
discuss an agreeable refund policy should the marriage
not work out as previously anticipated.

Your father touches on an important point: while
discussing terms of engagement with interested parties,
do not be shy about revealing your qualifications. But do
note that, in Africa, few things are respected more than
the innate ability to cook, clean, and produce babies.

When traveling with other unmarried women, exercise
discretion. There are few interactions more awkward
than receiving a better marriage proposal than your
travel partners. Take, for instance, when you are sailing
on a felucca in southern Egypt. Your tour guide will
inform you that a Nubian farmer is willing to make you
an initial offer of seventy sheep. His friend, however,
inquires about your travel companion. Her final
proposal? Six chickens. No friendship is too strong to
weather this kind of disproportionate appraisal.

Your only offer using camels as the currency of
exchange comes from a Jordanian taxicab driver:
twenty camels—but not just any camels. “You know in
my country camels are worth at least five cows, and the
most prized camels fetch up to ten thousand British
pounds. I can see you are high class. You will get nice
camels, very nice.” You hesitate. “And I will include
shipping to America.” Silence can sometimes be a
negotiator’s best friend. “Still no? Okay, if camels are
not your thing, perhaps we can speak in terms of
horses—the nice, very expensive kind. Racehorses.”

You want to make your standards and expectations
clear. “Better than Sheik Mohammad’s horses?” you
ask. You heard about Sheik Mohammad’s racehorses
while you were traveling in Dubai. They’re
internationally recognized.

He swallows hard. “You know about Sheik Mohammad?
Uh, no. They will not be better than his. But second-
best. At least second-best for you.” The taxi cab driver
will leave you at the airport, where you’ll board your
flight home, to Tennessee.

When returning to the American South and reverting to
standard rituals of courtship, remember that, faced with
a forward gentleman in a bar setting, you can still
demand his offer in livestock. This determines if the
potential suitor is genuinely interested in you as a
marriage prospect and also if he has a sense of humor.
If he does make an offer, be sure to convert it to
Western standards: any livestock offered should more
than double what you are accustomed to in Africa. Do
prepare yourself for the likelihood that your wooer will
give you a strange look and exit disappointingly quickly.

Two days after you return, you agree to watch a World
Cup game with your father at a local sports bar. While
he is in the bathroom, an attractive gentleman
approaches the table. “Was that your father?” he asks.
You say yes. “I’m David,” he says, shaking your hand.
“I’m sure you already have a boyfriend, but, in case you
don’t, I’d love to take you to dinner.” He gives you his
business card, which you scan quickly but carefully
enough to learn that he’s an ER doctor. You’re accident-
prone with bad health insurance. This relationship would
come with benefits. “So will I hear from you?” he asks.

“I’ll think about it,” you say, biting your bottom lip.

You both look up to see your father weaving his way
back to the table. “Okay, well—I hope to see you soon,”
he says, stepping backwards, bumping into a waitress
carrying beer.

“Don’t you want to meet my Dad?” you ask. David
laughs nervously, waves, and goes back to his friend
waiting at the bar for the full report. How convenient
that would’ve been, you think. Dad could give his
feedback before you accept the date.

You do email David, and he picks you up at 8 p.m. on a
Thursday night for dinner. You receive the text. “I’m
outside. Do u want me to come up?” You forgive the “u”
and run to the window to see what chariot awaits, which
will also determine the height of your heels. You open
the blinds and lower your gaze to the car parked in front
of the building. A pickup. Really? You hadn’t seen that
coming. You decide on a pair of ballet slippers, grab
your clutch, and scurry downstairs. He greets you with a
respectful kiss on the cheek, then opens the passenger
door. “Sorry about my ride tonight,” he says. “My other
car is in the shop.”

“Oh?” you say, trying to mask any reaction. “Do you
have a thing for cars?”

“I guess you could say that. I always wanted a Porsche,
so when I finished residency, I finally bought one.” You
blush. “You’re not a vegetarian, are you?” he asks. You
shake your head. “Okay, great. I’ve been wanting to try
this steak house that just opened up. I heard they have
Kobe beef that melts in your mouth. Does that sound
okay?” It does. You remind yourself to look up the value
of Japanese cows when you get home. Surely they’re
worth more than five goats.

It is important to remember that accepting drinks and
dinners can be a risky way to budget your nights out.
Most suitors will see this minimal exchange as a
contractual obligation to devote at least some later time
to them. (The amount of time and how the time is spent
is often a point of contention between buyer and
consumer.) Warning: do not be influenced by a so-called
“wingman.” His purpose is to represent the best
interests of the aforementioned gentleman, and he is
not credible. Wingmen play an important role in most
every country but must be handled with skepticism.

Occasionally, the bride price system will intrude on your
American life. Your next-door neighbor will call and ask,
without preface, “How many cows did you say you were
worth again?” They have read an article about a Kenyan
man who proposed to Chelsea Clinton. The offer?
Twenty cows and forty goats. Your neighbors want to
know how you stack up to Chelsea, to which you can
answer the truth. You win, by a long haul.

Your brother, however, will temper your self-
importance with another consideration in his email: “I
think African brides reach peak value in the mid to
upper-teenage years. You may be disappointed to find
your goat and cow value has dropped. Plus, it is a
recession year. You should have sold high a few years
back. We’ll have to check if you have maintained a
decent value in the US or Western Europe.” You dismiss
his correspondence as a sign he is still bitter about
Martin and the brewery. But you do see new wisdom in
the proverb not to count your chickens. Overconfidence
won’t get you anywhere.

You wind up accepting a few more dates with David. On
the fourth meeting at lunch, he discloses that his family
has a summer home in Nantucket and a timeshare in
Aruba. “Nantucket is a great place to take kids in the
summertime,” he says. “By the way—how many kids do
you want?” You’re not sure. “I want a big family—at
least two boys and two girls. Would you be okay with
that?” You drop your fork and push away your blue
cheese steak salad. You envision your life with him
barefoot and pregnant. But at least your toes would be
in the soft sands of New England beaches. “Are you
done?” he asks. “Shall I ask for the check?”

“Yes, please.”

“Did you walk here or drive?” he asks. You walked.
“That’s good. You know you shouldn’t still be driving
around in that old Explorer, baby. We got to get you a
new car soon, k?” And just like that—an offer’s been put
on the table. Final negotiations will inevitably involve
diamonds and platinum and various settings, but you’ll
gracefully bow out before it gets that far. In the
meantime, though, you realize you’re still hungry. You
pick up your fork and stab a piece of filet mignon. The
perfect prospect will materialize in due course. But, for
now, singlehood tastes pretty good.

Upon further research, you learn the following standard conversion rates:

1 camel = 2-5 cows
1 cow = 5 goats
1 goat = 5 chicken

Laura Lee Huttenbach is the author of a forthcoming biography
about a Kenyan Independence leader she met while backpacking in
Africa. She currently lives in Miami Beach, where she's working on her
next biography of a local streak-running legend known as the Raven.
Her essay, “Stuck in Bulawayo,” appears in Best Travel Writing 2010.
For more about her projects visit: or