The day after we arrived in the north, Charlie brought us to the weekly Saturday market in Farende. I knew little about what to expect from this market, besides that there were huts where people drank the sorghum beer that I had only tried once, the night before, and had yet to decide that I enjoyed. Charlie had also told the girls in our group that we would probably receive a few offers of marriage each week and helpfully suggested a clever response to such an offer: “I’ll marry you, but how many cows can you give to my father in exchange?” This is funny, as Charlie explained, in that it demonstrates some understanding of marriage customs here, which include offering cows to your future wife’s father. In response to Charlie’s suggested response, both parties would chuckle and part ways.
I wasn’t convinced that I would need this response or any other excuses not to marry a man I had just met, but soon after entering the market on that first Saturday Charlie stopped to greet a friend, who after greeting all of us wrapped his arm around me and declared, “This is my wife!” I laughed nervously and tried out Charlie’s line. Not quite understanding my imperfect French, the man asked me to repeat myself, unfortunately killing the spontaneity and wit of my response (which was not in fact spontaneous at all, given that I was only regurgitating what Charlie had told me to say, and may have been witty, but not due to my own cleverness), and then launched into a monologue I didn’t quite understand about how no number of cows could adequately convey the magnitude of his love.
Looking back on my response to this first marriage proposal, I’m relieved to say that I have gotten significantly less awkward over the course of the summer, and my ability to respond to these promises of marriage and eternal love has improved dramatically. When drinking in the beer huts at the Saturday market, it’s not uncommon at all for a man I’ve never seen before to request that I switch seats with whoever is next to him so that he can tell me about how strong his affection has grown to be since he met me thirty seconds earlier. In response, I usually start off by asking about the cows for my father (who is probably reading this and could attest to the fact that he would actually be quite upset to receive even a single cow at our house in an urban area with practically no backyard). Usually I’ll use the offers that I’ve received at past markets as bargaining leverage, mentioning offhandedly the guy from a few weeks ago that offered to pay for commercial plane tickets to fly 100 cows over to Newark Airport and bring to my house.
Another answer I like to give is, “Yes, I will marry you, but I already have two husbands back in the US so you’d have to come back with me and be my third husband.” This is probably my favorite response because it flips around certain gender expectations about marriage. For example, men here might take a second wife or even more than that for any number of reasons, but women would never take a second or third husband. Also, the first wife is always higher in authority than any additional wives, justifying my response that, “I would move to Togo for you if you were my first husband, but not for my third husband because I like the other two better.”
Although the man attempting to become my life partner might feign sadness in response to my rejection, he and the others in the beer hut, including myself, will laugh along, knowing it’s all a joke. Although I still chuckle awkwardly and look down at the ground when the negotiations inevitably arrive at a discussion of how many children I will give my future husband in exchange for the cows, I definitely enjoy the rest of the conversation, as both sides throw out stipulations that we all know are ridiculous just for the joke of it all. Market day has become my favorite day of the week here, partially because of these conversations in the beer huts with which I’ve learned how to play along.