o the sudden shock of many in this lively West African city, one of Abidjan's most colorful bachelors, my friend, the charmingly loquacious Mohamed Elbou Fall, was married recently to Florentine Gnangni-Angate Gnima.
I have been able to attest personally to Elbou's (pronounced el-boo) newly attained marital status, both to the heartbroken and the disbelieving, because I was one of the three-man delegation that haggled for hours with the prospective wife's relatives over her bride price.
Traditional in many parts of Africa, the bride price is paid by the husband to the wife's father, mother and several other relatives before the couple is considered married. It is not to be confused with dowry, the material and property that Western wives once brought to their husbands at marriage.
The bride-price custom is still very much practiced today in such modern settings as Abidjan, a cosmopolitan port city of 1.7 million, although cash has replaced the household implements and farm animals used for payment in the past.
Hoping to come out of the negotiating sessions financially intact, Elbou, a 42-year-old French-language reporter for the Voice of America, chose his three representatives with their bargaining skills in mind. Salif Diouf, a tough banking official, was head of the delegation. Martial Atsain, a hard-nosed Ivorian businessman, and I, with bargaining skills honed while living for two years in rural Kenya, formed the rest of the delegation.
In numerous West African societies, many delicate matters are handled indirectly by relatives and friends to avoid irreparable rifts within the family. Elbou could not become directly involved in the bride-price negotiations with his future wife's relatives because, when he meets them in the future, all must be free of rancor. For the same reasons, the bride's parents were not directly involved.
Diouf, Atsain and I formally opened the negotiations by calling on Florentine's father's older brother, Joseph Gnangni-Angate, at his small, one-story house in Abidjan's Marcory, the African-French quarter.
To show our good manners, we gave Gnangni-Angate a gift bottle of gin from Elbou and another from the three of us. "I will have to call a family meeting before I begin any serious discussions with the three of you," Gnangni-Angate told us. "I must talk to my niece to be sure she knows this man Elbou and the entire family must agree to the marriage. You can come back in 10 days."
Ten days later, on a particularly hot and humid morning, we revisited the uncle's home, where he told us that Florentine's family had "received Elbou's request with favor." The bride's mother's older sister, Cecile Angate-Amoran, and a maternal cousin, Francis Gneville-Attiah, were also on hand to begin the bride-price discussions. The cousin proved to be the toughest of the bride's representatives.
Our spokesman, Diouf, opened the talks by putting a 500-franc note on the green, reed-woven mat that had been placed on the floor between the two sets of negotiators (the exchange rate for the Central French African franc, the currency used in most of French-speaking West Africa, is about 300 to the dollar). We then put down four bottles of gin. The cousin interrupted this gentle pace by sharply demanding eight bottles of gin. We responded with a 5,000 franc note (about $17) and only two more bottles. The cousin and uncle, after conferring, accepted the offer. The bride's aunt said little during the entire four hours of talks.
Then the cousin demanded 25,000 francs (about $80) as the bride price and the three of us, in unison, balked with the proper exaggerated looks of shock, amazement and consternation, trying to make it seem as if the cousin had asked us to cut off our right arms. But they would not budge on the price.
"A lot of money has been spent on her," said cousin Gneville-Attiah in refusing to lower the price. "She is an educated girl," he added. Uncle Gnangni-Angate said "the price is fixed" for a literate woman.
Florentine was prominently pregnant--another attribute that raised her bride price because it proved her fertility. In a number of West African cultures, a woman's marriageability improves and the bride price may double after she has had a child.
We caved in, and Diouf put 25,000 francs on the mat. The bargaining then seesawed over several smaller items, including 2,000 francs in symbolic payment for the bride's mother's maternity belt worn to reduce the latter's stomach after Florentine was born 26 years ago. At this point, the price was up to 52,000 francs ($173).
We were asked to swear that any clothes and jewelry Florentine brought when she moved into Elbou's house will be replaced by Elbou if lost, that one-third of all riches that accrue to Elbou will belong to Florentine's family and that if Elbou returns Florentine to her family because of a disagreement between the two, he can reclaim only 500 francs of the original bride price. I expressed doubts as to whether we should be committing Elbou to all of these conditions, but Diouf said it was all part of the tradition of the tropical forest-dwelling Appoloniens, Florentine's ethnic group.
We swore that Elbou would abide by these rules, even though Elbou is a desert Moor, a self-described "modern Moslem" from Mauritania, a conservative country far to the north of the Ivory Coast, and may not feel obligated to honor Appolonien traditions.
The cousin then told us Elbou also must make a payment to Florentine's eldest brother. I suggested that they were now making up fees, but Diouf agreed that it was within the family's right to demand such a payment. Since the brother was not there and had not made his wishes known, the sum was left to be fixed later.
Finally, the cousin told us Elbou must pay 150,000 francs ($500) to the family, an amount known traditionally as "the family's debt." For the next two hours, the three of us fussed, fumed, argued and perspired until we were drenched. On this, we would not yield until the price came down. It did, gradually, to 60,000 ($200). We paid and they accepted.
Elbou visibly winced later that day when we told him the final price was 112,000 francs ($373) but was grateful that we had come in 25,000 francs ($83) below his upper limit.
To soothe any ruffled feelings that might have developed during the bargaining, Florentine's uncle gave us 2,000 francs to buy ourselves drinks. He then stood at the threshhold of his house and made a long incantation in Appolonien while sprinkling gin on the floor "to pacify" any malevolent ancestral spirits who might mischievously seek to disrupt the marriage. When the last drops of gin were poured, the marriage was sealed.