/ 16 October 2008

Botswana brides: Buy now, pay later

Marriage is a respected institution in Botswana. It’s still viewed as a status to have a ring gleaming on your second left finger. At times the urge to get married can seem more a social than a personal obligation.

Like many women around the world, we grew up on happily-ever-after pro-marriage fairy tales — Cinderella, Snow White. But with the recent economic downturn, the tradition of paying ”bride price” has become a different sort of challenge that necessitates all sorts of new ways to cover the ”bill”.

When a man claims to wholeheartedly love a woman, but cannot afford to pay bogadi (dowry, lobola) he has two options. The first is to let go of the thought until a later time when he can afford to marry. The second is to make the necessary arrangements to keep the woman. He can pay a small fee and lather the woman’s family with inexpensive gifts and promises to pay off what he owes. He usually lets his uncles do this bit, as is Tswana custom.

The first option, however, is a bit risky as someone might come and take this woman away. So many men devise plans to take their brides ”on credit” — a take now, pay later arrangement.

Nowadays, only a few women can boast of being married with nice fat cattle. These lucky ones are usually from posh families and educated at upmarket schools and universities. For indeed it still matters in many cases during the bogadi process that you are ”not spoilt” (have no children), not divorced and are a ”diamond” (well educated).

Now, this bride-on-credit arrangement remains a closely guarded secret among family members, even though in Botswana communities there are no secrets. Whenever arguments erupt, excitement reigns or conversations dry up, these things are likely to come out. It is embarrassing and humiliating for the woman, to the point that I have heard of women who give their men money to pay themselves off. The men, by contrast, are rarely worried because they are able to have their cake and eat it. He can take his time to pay her off and in the meantime — life and love goes on.

This was the case with a certain Bra J I know. Not too long ago he had a huge wedding, complete with two venues, a white dress for his wife and custom-made suit for himself, cute flower girls and an expensive wedding cake and catering company. I was surprised. Weren’t they married all along? I mean they have three children, share a huge house and wore wedding bands all along. Bra J chuckled and told me that he had married his wife on credit. He had now seen fit to pay off bogadi as they were both comfortable and were navigating their way to old age.

Wow! Bra J’s wife, on the other hand, was not too keen to discuss this with me as it was beneath her: culturally speaking, she reminded me, I am considered a girl (young and unmarried with children) and she a woman (married).

This bride-on-credit trend is now becoming popular. People sign promissory notes at the magistrate’s court committing to pay off the bogadi.

A would-be suitor insisted that if he married me, he would pay me off in monthly instalments as he could not afford to pay me off at one go. I had a great laugh.

So marriage is an expense and we must play it like a Sudoku game. Yet, in the middle of all this I am fascinated by the pompous affairs weddings and engagement parties are. In Botswana a good nuptial celebration is something you cannot miss. People go all out to ensure the event is a never-to-be-forgotten feast of fashion, booze and music. The best you can offer as a sign of respect and joy for the couple is to attend the event, enjoy the food, pack the cakes in your handbag, swallow the alcohol with an open throat and dance the evening away while proclaiming this to be the ”party of the year”.

For people like me who struggle to keep their mouths shut, there is a need to bite your tongue and not ask if the bride is on credit.

Keletso Thobega was born and raised in Lobatse, Botswana. She is a student journalist and a visual artist


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