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Honorable Mention

GETTING YOUR GOATS: How to Navigate African Marriage Proposals

by Laura Lee Huttenbach

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 chickens


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: