Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Worth of a Mosetsana (Motswana girl)

On Thursday, we went to a wedding. Actually, it wasn’t a wedding, but rather the exchange of the lebola (bride price).  It happened at the main kgotla in Kanye. The kgosi (chief) and other important people were there, along with many men and women from the community and all of the PC trainees. Typically, only married women are allowed (widows are impure/bad luck, and single women are not welcome either), but they made an exception and allowed all of the PCTs to attend so that we could learn more about Setswana culture. There are very strict dress requirements (some of which we were not told, oops!). Women have to wear long skirts that cover the knees, a shawl draped over the shoulders (more like a wool blanket, very practical for the weather here), and a head covering.  Men have to wear ties and jackets. There are certain places where you are not allowed to walk, which is confusing, because usually you don’t find this out until you are already walking in that spot. Men sit on one side of the kgotla, in chairs, while women sit “in their rightful place” (kgosi’s words, not mine) on the ground. My feminist hackles were raised. I’m talking old, OLD ladies, forced to sit on the ground while a bunch of young dudes sit comfortably in chairs. But I digress.

So, a lot of what we witnessed went uninterpreted, but the gist is as follows.  If you want to get married in Botswana, you have to have permission from your parents (both bride and groom). Then, the groom has to raise lebola (the bride price). The amount is different depending on where the bride is from. The women in Kanye, for example, go for 8 cows and a male sheep. To me of course, this is absurd. The idea of trading a daughter (a niece, actually, since a woman’s maternal uncles negotiate and receive the lebola) for livestock is appalling. However, it was explained that this is more of a gift to say thank you for sharing your daughter with us as a family. This makes it sound better (maybe?), but I’m still not on board. So anyway, misogyny discussion aside, the lebola may take many years to raise for some men. Once they have raised the appropriate sum, they can present it to the family, which is the ceremony we witnessed on Thursday. The kgosi presides over the ceremony and makes sure that certain requirements are met. He asks the parents whether they approve of the marriage and then grills the bride and groom about how they met, how long they’ve known each other, and what their first conversations were like. It was actually really touching to watch because the bride and groom appeared so nervous and because everyone chuckled when the groom said they met at church and discussed the Bible together. Side note- it made me reminisce about my wedding when I was really nervous and there was lots of laughter at our ceremony. Sigh! Love to monna wame (my husband). The bride and groom receive a certificate saying that the ceremonial marriage is complete.  Everyone cheers and makes lots of noise and is generally in a celebratory mood (I love listening to the women make their celebratory noises- I have yet to master the technique, but it involves yelling and moving your tongue around a lot in your mouth). For legal, federally-recognized marriage, they proceed to the district level with this customary certificate and they receive yet another certificate. Typically, they will have a party at one or both families’ homes with a big tent and lots of food and dancing, no invitations necessary. FYI, divorce is common in Botswana and accepted. Only about 20% of Batswana get married. Part of this may be because it is so expensive. Lebola aside, wedding receptions are very expensive because you have to feed so many people and because tent rental is not cheap. They do the typical white-wedding ceremony that many couples have in the U.S., too. Gay marriage is a long way away in Botswana, as homosexuality is still illegal here, punishable by imprisonment. I’ve had a few conversations with my host family regarding the subject (which is great) but there is still a lot of fear and use of “morals” and religion as a way to defend homophobia (does that remind you of anywhere familiar??). South Africa has legalized gay marriage, though, and as a very close neighbor, perhaps the influence will travel north to Botswana and beyond… across the Atlantic? Who knows.

I have yet to go to a wedding reception, but I am looking forward to doing so eventually. Perhaps when I get to my village? Which brings me to my next point. Today is the day we find out our sites! I’m nervous. I’m looking forward to getting it over with, though, and moving on to the celebration/drowning in sorrows which will follow. 


  1. Lovely, you are absolutely right. The lebola is absurd. Hope you don't mind that I'm off to sell your engagement ring...