Saturday, July 20, 2013

ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN: Weddings in Botswana

I received another invite in the mail today. A friend is getting married this September. It is July now which is the tail end of winter and our wedding season tends to be the first and last quarter of the year. My first thought was beautiful invitation followed immediately by a desire to warn her or at the very least make sure she knows what she's getting herself into - logistically.

I don't much like the word 'brideprice' and 'dowry' tastes unfamiliar on my tongue so we will stick to magadi or lobola meaning a gift of cattle given by the boy's family to his beloved's family, though they are received mainly by the girl's maternal uncles. Magadi is not a simple matter of 'How many cows do you want? Here you go'. Its days sometimes months of negotiations between two families. There is and has been room for abuse with this system, delayed marriage dates, lengthy betrothals, weeping almost-brides, broken-hearted boys whose families had no farms of their own (though this was rare as we were mainly a pastoral people) or could not raise the funds to purchase cattle. One Kgosi (Chief) asked a friend of mine why he wasn't marrying the girl in-community-of-property. The stalemate became if you don't trust our daughter enough to share all of yourself with her, then be on your way. It took his family a while to break down their perspective of the business-versus-family-security reasons behind wanting separate asset ownership and accountability for their financial lives, needless to say their patlo took much, much longer than they had planned (hoped). 

Bridal showers and bachelor parties (of course they aren't called groom's parties, thats a tad too much commitment) are mostly sedate affairs but a few gentlemen have taken to hosting their bachelor parties out of the country -there are no exotic dancers in Botswana, to my knowledge- and so I cannot vouch for the nature of the cross-border partying but really at this point he's asked, you've said yes or vice versa and one hopes you (sort of) know what he won't get up to just because he's out of sight.
All Botswana weddings must first begin with a civil ceremony in front of the 'molaodi' or magistrate. This I believe can only be done on a Thursday but there is a whole process involving voluntary marriage counselling, registration with a government office responsible for public placements/announcements of the impending nuptials i.e. 3 consecutive weeks of publishing banns (so any wives can come out of the woodwork and out any scheming almost bigamist grooms :-)).  You can only marry one woman by/through law but men have sometimes taken additional wives through traditional means. My maternal grandfather had three wives.   
As a former wedding witness I can attest that the magistrate takes this all quite seriously and that both bride and groom and their 2 required witnesses must declare the nature of the relationship and the purpose of them being in attendance eg I so and so am the brides friend, I am here to bear witness that she is not and never has been married/ or is legally divourced etc etc before any exchange of rings can happen. Some couples choose not to exchange rings at the magistrate's office but rather to have them blessed by their pastor of choice at the church ceremony that we will talk about later.
And so this civil ceremony is the legal bit but in addition to the religious requirements (80% of Batswana practice Christianity) we have certain cultural norms. The Patlo is the seeking of the bride and this is the process that culminates in the giving and receiving of magadi. It can be as lengthy or as short as the girl's family desires - two meetings or two years of negotiation. It involves the wearing of head kerchiefs by the women, hats and coats (sometimes in 40 degree centigrade weather) by the men and meetings by the boy's family with the girl's to discuss magadi ie how many cows are to be given to the girl's family in order for her to become engaged to the boy. Although in truth this is the real marriage for some as Setswana recognizes a woman who is betrothed in this manner as already married. Despite the world's biggest diamond mine being located in Botswana, the engagement ring is much more a fashion statement as far as some of the elders are concerned, a kind of new language in place of or in support of cattle to say back off she/he's taken. There is a secret ceremony for married women only, to meet with the soon to be bride go mo laya ie to instruct her in the ways of being a good wife, you can imagine the gist of the conversation - patience, faith, prayer, patience, compassion, forebearance, patience ... you get the idea.
When I was growing up in the late eighties/early nineties very few people had double barreled surnames. And those who did were arguably mainly women married to foreign men. As a trend/political statement it has been on the rise but is in no danger of taking over the default of taking on the man's family name as your own. I think most patriarchal cultures go about things this way. Of course my friends in Burma (they tell me no one has a surname to begin with), and in Singapore don't know what the whole hullaballoo is about because (some/most of?) the girls there just keep their last names - no changing, no barreling, just you are you, I'm me, we are now you and me. 
Sometimes couples have a two part wedding; a party at the girl's family home and then the following weekend it moves to the boys. This is mainly for weddings that are hosted in the respective villages of the bride and groom, which tends to mean the whole village can pitch up and you better have enough food. Somehow its always enough. Invitation cards are for the city friends in their stilettos, your village assumes they are honoring your celebration by attending your wedding so out of this civic duty they simply pitch up.
There is a tradition of the dressing of the bride and many a modern bride has been stripped and re-dressed because she had in her 'eagerness' already dressed herself. This I'm told is a literal dressing-up from your birthday suit through to the last bit of fabric by an aunt/group of elder women. The ubiquitous white dress has found its way here. And post the midweek civil ceremony it makes its grand debut during the weekend walk down the aisle. Here we mostly follow the global north's (soapie) script, the father walks blushing daughter down the aisle while the groom and guests look on, but instead of the wedding march the church choir or a local band might belt something out. The bride will eventually change out of her white dress into her 'second attire', if she is from a multi-cultural background there may be more than one change of clothes. 
We like attendants (and they work hard) 4 to 10 bridesmaids and a maid/matron of honor, a best man and enough groomsmen to partner with the bridesmaids. Tailors love wedding season as we tend to have bridesmaids clothes tailored so they are unique to each bridal party. 

My friend Yaa and her husband Eddy with their bridal party. Yes I am somewhere in that shot. This was an amazing early evening outdoor wedding

There are rehearsals for months before the wedding so the bridal party can learn a sequence of choreographed dance moves for the wedding reception. It is not uncommon to have to learn 4 or 5 full length sequences. An amateur choreographer is usually commissioned to tailor random moves to the bride and groom's song selection. At the wedding reception, although there is usually other entertainment such as a poet, singer, band or traditional dance troupe everyone waits to see the dancing bridal party welcome the bride and groom to their wedding reception. By now as I'm sure you've guessed it is late afternoon to early evening, as by law you cannot be married after sunset in Botswana i.e. in legalese "vows can only be solemnized between the hours of six o'clock in the morning and six o'clock in the evening". The dance floor is opened after both sides of the families have been publicly re-introduced to each other with the guests as witnesses (after all the local assumption is that marriage is between two families not two people), lots of speeches made, dinner had and the bar opened. The father-daughter dance is not very common but it does happen every so often. 
    Wedding menu - quite a number of people are now choosing to book hotels and have meals (usually a buffet) catered from the hotel's dining selection. They still tend to lean towards lots of meat and the hotel chefs are accommodating about adding traditional dishes. Traditionally and I would suggest that outside the city this is the case in the majority, a cow or two are slaughtered by some neighbours or relatives who also spend the early hours of the morning standing over open fires preparing everything from samp to sorghum to dumplings, pumpkin to boiled bean leaves, seswaa, fried beef, stewed goat meat, chicken...we could be here all day and the guests usually are.
Traditionally (and by that I mean a mean of the various cultural practices found in Botswana mostly pre-1966/independence but a lot of which are still in practice) not only were the soon to be bride and groom not spending the night together but the assumption was they had never spent the night together. Ehem! today its a little more difficult to pretend that this is the state of affairs, especially in the cities where we are getting married later and later, announcing our relationship statuses and more on Facebook ala "this morning when I woke up from my boyfriend's bed I said to him blahblah" etc.
Flower girls and a ring bearer (who is usually a boy still too young to tie his own shoelaces) are fairly common especially if the couple already has a child together, but not necessarily with every wedding.
I've heard that some cultures, Greek and German included, break dishes as a way to wish the bride and groom good luck, I have yet to witness a local equivalent of that. In Germany someone told me the bride and groom then has to clean up the shards, the closest we've come to that is a case I heard of where the woman had to clean up the three legged pots that were used to prepare the wedding meal. Urrg thankfully most of my friends have had their weddings catered and so this hasn't come up with any of my peers.

Honeymoon - schmanymoon. We don't really do honeymoons, not in the fly to Cabo or Bora-bora way, most couples are usually too busy trying to recover from the limousine hiring company's invoice, which also doesn't encourage taking any more unpaid leave from work but its really just not a big part of the culture here.  Often the opposite is true as lots of friends and family want to help the new couple settle into their new home, co-habitation prior to marriage was frowned upon and is not so common and so there is often some literal settling in that needs doing. Some couples have had the civil ceremony, hosted a small lunch for friends and family and left it at that. Others have hosted 500 to a thousand people without batting an eyelid. In truth you don't have to be wealthy to have what seems a large wedding, yes you need some disposable income but a lot of the labour (if you go the traditional route) is gratis; the pitching of the marquee, slaughtering, cooking, serving of guests is all neighbours and family, you could even borrow the cooking pots from the local Village Development Committee or primary school. You still need to buy the ingredients and the ring and the cows and the...oh well I guess it would be easier if you have loads of cash but the bottom-line is you can work it out.
I'm absolutely certain that I've missed so much but hopefully this does give you a small sense of the commosshh... I mean celebrations that make up the average wedding in Botswana. 
ps My friend, the soon-to-be-bride, has happily lost the surname battle and is looking forward to the dress and menu wars. Aaaah to be in love.

Footnote: homosexual relations are illegal in Botswana and so by definition the only marriages I am able to refer to are heteronormative.


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