Tswana Marriage Practices
BEING AFRICAN- AFRICAN CULTURE EXPLAINED
To have an in depth understanding of the Tswana marriage process we highly recommend you:
Wedding: Botswana Culture (Setswana)
Botswana is a landlocked country in Southern Africa, located to the north of South Africa, East of Namibia, and South of Zimbabwe and Zambia. The country covers a total surface area of approximately 582 000 square kilometers with a population of 2 million people. Botswana is a multi-cultural country with more than 15 ethnic groups.
Just like any other culture, Setswana (the culture and language of Botswana) gives very special attention to the institution of marriage, which is widely seen as a sacred union and a necessary act for the preservation of the family unit. For a wedding to occur in Botswana, there are processes to be followed before the celebration. This write-up will explore the processes and stages involved in a typical Setswana wedding.
:NB: There are some differences from one ethnic group to the other, but they are very minimal since the overall interpretation and understanding are standard across the ethnicities, making it easy for cross-cultural/ ethnic marriages to occur.
(a). Patlo: Literally translated, the term Patlo refers to the search for the bride, and it `refers to the traditional/cultural process whereby the groom’s family (led by malome and rakgadi) approaches the bride’s family to negotiate for their daughter’s hand in marriage. This process involves several stages ranging from pulamolomo (opening one’s mouth) to go isa Ngwetsi (delivering the bride)
(b). Bogadi/ Magadi: lobola or the bride price. The lobola negotiations are a process that involve sub-stages, and these stages are discussed in detail below.
Please note: that the negotiations mentioned above are strictly attended to by legally or culturally married family and or community members.
KEY ROLES: WHO IS INVOLVED?
- Bagwe refers to the groom’s family. It is also used to describe the team that negotiates on behalf of the groom during the lobola. The negotiating team typically includes the elderly, married neighbors, and extended family. The singular form is mogwe, and it refers strictly to the groom immediately after paying the bride price (bogadi).
- Bogadi is cattle that the groom’s family gives to the bride’s family as part of customary marriage.
- Bagwegadi: This refers to the bride’s family and the team negotiating Bogadi on behalf of the bride’s parents. It is essential, at this point, to note that the bride is referred to as ngwetsi as opposed to mogwegadi (to be explained more later in the write-up).
- Malome: this is the groom’s uncle (mother’s brother), and the uncle acts as an intermediary between the two families during the negotiations and even during the day of the celebration. He is the chief negotiator on behalf of the groom’s team/family, and he can stop the whole process if he believes there is gross misconduct or disrespect.
The bride’s paternal uncle and his wife (mmamalome) determine the bride price on the bride’s side. It is common practice that with the bride price (cattle and or money), one female cow will be reserved for malome to honour him and thank him for being the delegation leader and ensuring his niece or nephew gets married.
Malome also acts as the chief counselor during the marriage counseling sessions. He must be a married man to lead and delegate during negotiations legitimately. If the malome is not married, they will appoint a married member of the family to take the role of malome.
- Rakgadi & Mmamalome: simply put, mmamalome refers to malome’s wife, and she automatically assumes the same role as her husband, but more on the women’s side alongside rakgadi.
- Rakgadi refers to the groom/bride’s paternal aunt and must be the bride/groom’s father’s sister. Rakgadi is the female version of malome; they are the pillars in the Setswana traditional wedding. On the groom’s side, rakgadi also acts as the groom’s advocate during the lobola negotiations. She is the groom’s best friend as she is expected to take care of her brother’s son.
In the Setswana patlo/magadi process, pulamolomo means opening someone’s mouth to speak. It is an incentive extended to the bride’s family to compel them to agree to listen to the groom’s party. It is traditionally paid in the form of a female goat or hen in some ethnic groups. It is given to the bride’s parents, who will then call malome and rakgadi to give them their share and officially give them their respective responsibilities in the ensuing process of patlo (the hunt/search for the bride). Pulamolomo is paid in the form of money or prescribed whiskey bottles (especially in the Kgalagadi District area), so the elders can quench their thirst as they discuss this very important process.
2. Go kokota-‘knocking on the door
Go kokota marks the beginning of negotiations for the bride price. It follows pulamolomo, in which the bride’s family agrees to start the negotiations. Go kokota, therefore, marks the very first phase/step of a series of negotiations to follow. It can also be understood better as an expression of interest in their daughter’s hand by the groom. As soon as the groom’s malome and rakgadi have been granted permission to enter (preceding the knocking on the door), the bride’s malome and rakgadi will then summon their team to welcome the groom’s party. Both parties will then sit down for the first time. The groom’s uncle will kneel before the bride’s party and present their case. The bride’s team will not give a prompt reply; instead, they will provide a verbal acknowledgment that they have received their proposal and will look at it. The bride’s malome and rakgadi will lead their team in reviewing the proposal and send a reply through a letter to be delivered by delegated members of the bride’s family (does not necessarily have to be malome or rakgadi, but any married member of the family or immediate community.
3. Lokwalo- Letter of response
The term ‘lokwalo’ basically translates to ‘the letter .’ The bride’s family representatives write a letter of response to Go kokota by the groom’s party. Through this letter, the bride’s family, through malome and rakgadi, outline and explain their demands on the bride price. They also use this letter to explain and clarify their cultural/ethnic ways in a cross-cultural union. They will outline all they will need for the bride price, including traditional garments for the bride’s mother, father, malome, mmamalome, and rakgadi, which will form the total bride price to be paid.
If a child was born before the negotiations, this letter would also be used to pronounce the Tlhagela charge (to be discussed at No.5).
Who receives Lokwalo?
Upon delivering the letter to the groom’s family, the bride’s representatives will be met by the uncle (malome), the chief negotiator. He is usually in the company of rakgadi, who will gladly receive the letter over a feast of pan-baked bread and tea. They will use the time to talk casually about life in general, but no marriage negotiations at this point. As soon as the bride’s representatives are gone, malome will then summon a meeting of the relevant people to read the letter from the bride’s family. The team will then discuss the bride price demands presented in the letter. At this point, the groom will also be invited since he is paying this price. He can then communicate to his representatives whether he is comfortable with the bride price or needs malome to return to the bride’s family to negotiate a reduction (discount). Upon completion of this discussion, the groom’s party will go back t the bride’s family home to announce whether they agree to the proposed price or would like to request a price reduction.
4. Puisanyo- Response to Lokwalo
Puisanyo means dialogue. At this stage, the groom’s party goes back to the bride’s family (usually the bride’s mother’s house) to respond to the demands in the Lokwalo. Per culture, malome, mmamalome, and rakgadi will lead the groom’s party. They will acknowledge receipt of the letter and negotiate should they feel the price is too steep. The bride’s family can refuse or accede to their plea, but both families should agree at the end of this process.
NOTE here: culturally, the uncles and aunts can refuse to negotiate, but the bride’s mother will have the final say in supporting both the groom and her daughter, the bride. On the other side, the groom’s rakgadi also advocates for the bride’s family needs. This ensures balance and fairness and a sense of building togetherness between the two families (who will automatically consider each other relatives as soon as the bride price is paid).
At this stage, the two families become informal friends, and the groom’s party will also use the meeting to set their proposed dates for paying Bogadi and the wedding celebrations. Before the negotiations, the bride’s family will announce the Tlhagela charge if a child was born before marriage.
5. Tlhagela- Sneaking-in Charge
Tlhagela is a charge, usually a cow, paid by the groom to the bride’s parents, through malome and rakgadi, as compensation and/or an apology for sneaking into their compound or yard without permission/ authorization. It can be seen more as a sign of restoring respect and dignity to the bride’s family for having a child before marriage and appeasing the bride’s parents. There is a penalty for breaking their daughter’s virginity before the marriage.
On an agreed date, the groom is expected to drive the cow on foot to the bride’s parents’ home, and he will not return home without entering the bride’s homestead. The groom’s party will then slaughter the cow and cook it all for the bride’s family, who are not supposed to help but sit there and wait to be served. It is upon the discretion of the bride’s malome to decide whether they share with the groom’s party or not. If he decides the groom’s party should not join, the bride’s mother and aunt then come in to request their brother (malome) to be lenient.
Note here that after skinning the cow, the groom will have to work on the leather and give it back to the bride’s father in a workable state (in a state where it could be cut to make ropes or clothes/shoes). The curing of the hide (leather) further proves to the bride’s father that the groom is ready and has the potential to take good care of his daughter.
Nowadays, it is acceptable for some families to charge tlhagela in cash (money), though this is still rare across Botswana. This trend is usually followed by those metropolitan, urban families who do not have decent space for the slaughtering of the beast. It is also important to note that in paying this price, the groom’s father or malome can decide to pay on behalf of their son (usually where the groom is still young and has not yet amassed a lot of cows for himself).
1. Go Pega- forever hold your peace
Go Pega means to hang up in public, and it comes after the two families have agreed on the bride price. It marks the beginning of preparations for major celebrations, and it precedes the puisanyo. Go Pega is the time before the actual paying of bogadi (bride price). At this point, the groom and bride’s names are published/publicized for the first time. Should anybody have reservations or objections with the proposed union, they should come forward before the groom commits by paying bogadi. The grace period for this is usually 14 days, and it is done at the District Commissioner’s office and/or at the village ward through the headman’s office (if it is 100% cultural wedding).
2. Bogadi/Magadi- Bride Price
Bogadi is the singular form, while magadi represents the plural form of the lobola price. It is important to note that the latter is used only in cultures with a bride price inclusive of other goods on top of the cows charged. For example, the Kalanga of Northeastern Botswana require the groom to dress the bride’s parents and paternal uncles and aunts- so in these instances, it is referred to in the plural form.
Bogadi can be described as a price paid by the groom to the bride’s parents as a token of appreciation to them and their entire family for raising and nurturing his future wife. It is also a way for the groom to assure the bride’s parents of his ability and capability to take care of his future family, especially their daughter, who will bear the responsibility of bearing him children. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to note that for Batswana, the bride price is not meant to ‘buy’ a wife but rather a token of appreciation, as already stated.
The bride price is typically paid in the form of cows (strictly heifers). The number of cows differs from one ethnic group/ tribe to another, but they usually range from four to eight in some cultures (other cultures like the Bangwato do not require the bride price if the groom is marrying a lady from the same tribe). Although paying this price is sorely the groom’s responsibility, his uncle and father usually contribute a cow each as a sign of supporting and expressing their approval of the union.
During the day of paying the bride price, young men from the groom’s ward will help drive the cows to the bride’s place, who will be expecting them to arrive in the early morning hours (around 0430- 0500). Upon arrival, they will pen them in a designated kraal, and the groom’s malome and rakgadi will lead the groom’s party to sit quietly in front of the bride’s parents’ yard. None of them can enter the yard until the bride’s malome and rakgadi officially usher them in. To test their seriousness, the bride’s family can decide to ignore them for a period extending to an hour before attending to them.
It is, however, of paramount importance o note that for those families that do not have cattle posts or for any other reason, the price is alternatively cash, which is calculated according to an agreed price tag for each ‘cow.’
Who receives the bride price?
The price is received by the chief negotiators (malome and rakgadi) on behalf of their respective siblings (malome on behalf of his sister- the bride’s mother, and rakgadi on behalf of her brother- the bride’s father). The bride’s uncle is also entitled to one cow from those paid as bride price as a token of appreciation for having successfully led negotiations and many other activities and responsibilities towards the wedding. However, the bride’s rakgadi will only get her reward from the bride’s father when the heifers give birth to their very first calves, usually a year or so later. The symbolism behind this is to encourage fertility in the newlyweds so that they are blessed with more children/happiness. The bride’s parents will keep the rest of the cows or money for their daily upkeeping.
NB: if both the bride’s parents are late, it is malome who takes on the responsibility to disperse the bogadi equitably amongst deserving family members. For example, if the bride’s parents passed while she was young, whoever assumed the role of caring for the bride is given a bigger portion.
3. Pholoso- End of forever, hold your peace
The term pholoso can be loosely translated as bringing something down from whence it has been hanging/hanged. This context refers to bringing down the bride and groom’s name from the notice boards following Go Pega. Pholoso is only done if:
- No one has come forward to oppose the idea of the two getting married
- None of the two (bride or groom) has changed their mind.
Pholoso, in a nutshell, marks the beginning of the wedding celebrations (Lenyalo or setapa).
4.Lenyalo/ setapa: The Wedding Celebration
Lenyalo or setapa means the union brought about by marriage. It is also called setapa, derived from the English term ‘step,’ meaning or signifying that the two are coming together in marriage and therefore will walk the same steps together in life from then onwards. It is, however, important to note here that, traditionally, one is considered a married man as soon as he has paid the bride price. It is, however, made public during the celebration since the bogadi process only involves the selected few.
During the lenyalo, all community members, extended relatives, and friends are invited, and the two families are publicly introduced. Family trees are narrated by the elderly since this also marks the beginning of a union between the two families. The narration of the family trees is essential in teaching the younger generation their bloodline so that they get to avoid issues of incest and to allow them to appreciate where they come from. Depending on what the two families agreed upon, the celebrations can take the form of a ‘white’ wedding or a traditional form of wedding. The latter is held at the village ward/ kgotla and is led by the headman and village elders.
It is also the groom’s responsibility on this day to ensure that guests are fed. He has to provide the tent, groceries, and a cow to be slaughtered at the bride’s parents’ house and his parent’s house for the usually two-legged celebrations. The first leg is held at the bride’s parent’s home while the second goes to the groom’s parents. The invitation is normally open to all regardless of relations.
5. Go Apesa- Dressing up the Bride
In the Setswana culture, after the payment of bogadi and lenyalo celebrations, a woman has to be separated/distinguished from the single, unmarried women in her community/society. The separation is done by dressing the bride in the traditional khiba/leteisi/mogagolwane (African attire worn with a blue shawl on the shoulders). This traditional dress or uniform is strictly reserved for married women to differentiate them from their unmarried counterparts. It is worn during special occasions like patlo, lenyalo, and other important community gatherings. This dress code is also used to symbolize a married lady’s stature. In a way, it demands society’s respect for the married lady. Overall, this dress is meant to make other unmarried women look forward to getting dressed up. It is another way of encouraging young people to get married.
Go Apesa (dressing up the bride) is done specifically by mmamalome or rakgadi. The next step after go apesa is Tao (marriage counseling). It is usually done in the presence of all the aunts from both the side of the groom and the bride.
6. Tao- Marriage Counselling
The term Tao means counseling and giving direction. Elderly (married) members of the community are invited together with the two families’ representatives to provide marriage counseling and advice to the newlyweds. It is conducted on the day of the celebration before sunset, and it is done in secret, away from the unmarried. Note, however, that the bride is taken aside first by the ladies, led by mmamalome and rakgadi, while the groom will be with the men under the guidance of malome. The ladies will teach and explain to the bride how to take care of her man, and similarly, the men will give advice, education, and direction on how to take care of the wife and, eventually, children.
After the separate counseling sessions, the uncles and aunts from both sides will summon the bride and groom for a joint counseling session. The bride’s party will officially hand over their daughter to the groom’s family.
7. Go Isa Ngwetsi- Delivering the Bride
Please note that this stage marks the end of the celebrations, and it is done at sunset.
Go Isa Ngwetsi
After the counselling sessions, the ladies from both families (married ones only) will lead the bride in a line ululating to the groom’s parents’ house. Rakgadi leads this party with the support of mmamalome. It signifies the bride’s final and permanent relocation/separation from her parent’s home to join her new family and eventually start her own with her husband. The contingent will carry all the presents given to the bride by her family and friend on their heads. These presents are usually kitchen utensils and sorghum to start cooking for the husband and his parents.
Meanwhile, the groom and his party will be waiting at his parents’ home to receive his wife and retire early to bed. The groom’s rakgadi prepares the bed.
As soon as the bride and groom disappear into their hut/house, the celebrations will be officially over, and the two of them are considered official partners- husband and wife!