White Wedding in Itsoseng #4: The Magadi

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In the Molale living room, after the magadi.

When Mike asked me to represent the family in the negotiations over the bride price, I was incredulous:  I thought I was a terrible choice to negotiate anything, much less something as nebulous a bride price. However, he needed someone who was both married and planning to be present at the wedding.  Pickings were pretty slim.  I said I would consider it.

During meeting for worship, I silently asked for guidance.  I considered requesting a clearness committee, but by the end of meeting, my mind was clear. I abhor the very idea of purchasing a bride, but that was not important.  I would gain nothing by refusing to participate in this ritual except a sense of self righteous purity, and I would be insulting my hosts.  I wanted the cross cultural experience.  Besides, I loved the irony.  I told the meeting of my decision: “In my mind, I hear George Fox screaming ‘No!’ and Elias Hicks screaming ‘No!’ [I didn’t mention Lucretia Mott or any of the other Quaker suffragettes], but I don’t always listen to those guys.  I appreciate the invitation to this African wedding, and I appreciate Tsholofelo’s desire to honor her family’s traditions, so I am agreeing to participate in negotiating the bride price.”  In a different century, I might have been read out of the meeting.

I knew that I had no idea what I was getting into.  We needed to set a price that honored the African tradition without placing an undo burden on the finances of the young couple.  However, I had no idea of what was customary in Africa, and even if I found something useful on the web, I had no idea of how that might apply in the social class of the bride’s family.  How do you set a fair price for something that cannot be bought?  I was told that this was something I would not have to worry about.  The negotiations would be a mere formality: a price would be agreed upon before we got there.

Before we left, the Cincinnati crowd had a comically chaotic information session about the plans for the trip.  At the end of it, I got the impression (correct as it turned out) that nothing about the entire week was certain except that the magadi would begin at 8:00 am on Friday, the day before the wedding, and that we had a clear target price.  My wife Footie and I would be joined by the other married people attending on Santu’s side: Kosta and Beccah, a young couple from Cincinnati, and Impu, a close family friend coming from Finland.

We were told that when we arrived, the gate would be locked.  We were to announce our presence and intentions: they might ignore us.  We might have to offer a small gift, a bribe as it were, to get them to allow us in. The bride price would be negotiated in cows.  Since we had no cows, we would offer money, which would be translated into “pocket cows”.

There were rules. One of the rules was to avoid offering an odd number.  Another involved showing a lack of respect, for example, by a woman not covering her head.  There might be more rules, but we didn’t necessarily know what they were, and, of course, the bride’s family was our adversary in the negotiations and might not be the most trustworthy source of information.  If we violated the rules, a penalty might be extracted in the form of a higher bride price. Santu insisted we would be paying any such penalty ourselves.

At the end of the negotiations, we would offer additional gifts.  Someone suggested bourbon: Tsholo knows her uncles like to drink.  She thought they might even open the bottle during the meeting.

Once in Itsoseng, we learned more. Mapula, Tsholo’s oldest sister, liked to tease us, saying, for example, that we should come at 5:00 am to show respect, or that Santu would have to slaughter an animal.  (In fact, Santu was supposed to slaughter an animal, but they allowed him to merely hold the head of the sheep while it’s throat was cut.)  Another said that we should praise Tsholofelo in romantic, poetic terms.  One thing was clear: our main informant, Tsholofelo, didn’t really know much about what actually happened in a magadi because she had never participated in one.

The day before the event, we did get helpful information from Tsholo’s parents.  Kerileng, Tsholo’s mother, told my wife Footie to come at 7:30, and that she should start things off, saying that we were there to “negotiate the bride price”.   Sioto talked to me a bit about the significance of showing the bride’s family that the prospective groom’s family was one of substance, able to support and care for a wife.  He also gave us an example as to how the negotiations might start.

We had intended to get our magadi team together with Santu for a planning session, but like so many such intentions, it seemed not to be happening.  Finally, late Thursday evening, we all got together with Santu.  I asked what I was most concerned about: did the people on the other side know what price had been agreed to? “I don’t know,” was Santu’s reply.

We decided to follow Kerileng’s recommendation.  We would arrive at 7:30, and not attempt to do anything until 8:00.  Footie would be the first to speak formally.

I had my own plan for the negotiations.  I fantasized that it might even result in a lower bride price.  When I counted the money to put in my briefcase, I put aside R10,000, so that in the unlikely event that we actually agreed to a smaller number, they would not have to see that they had left money on the table.

On Friday morning, we assembled in front of the Molale home shortly before 7:30 in the morning.  We were dressed up. Kosta and I were both in suits. Footie and Impu both wore hats.  Beccah had covered her head with a shawl, honoring her Jewish heritage by emulating her grandmother.

We were surprised to find the gate open.  However, we waited patiently outside in the street.  Promptly at 8:00, Simon came and welcomed us in.  As we entered, Footie instinctively took off her hat and put it down.  We were led to the other side of the room where the chairs were still being arranged.  As planned, Footie was the first to speak.  However, she realized, looking at the African women with their heads covered with scarfs, that she had made a mistake before even opening her mouth.  She was visibly nervous and quite tentative as she spoke.  David replied for the Molale family, and he picked up the nervousness.

I thought we should introduce ourselves, especially since we were not Santu’s blood relatives, so that they could understand our relationship with the groom and how we came to have standing in this negotiation.   Then I thought we might wax poetically about the beauty and intelligence of the bride.   I introduced Impu, who had known Santu’s mother since they were teenagers.   However, David cut these preliminaries short.  We got down to business.

Things began in the manner that we expected.  We were there to settle the bride price.  Traditionally, this price is set in cows.  I said that we were not farmers, we did not have cows, and even if we did, they would not have allowed cows on the plane.  What we had was money, and the Africans responded, saying “pocket cows” were acceptable.  The price of a pocket cow was set at at R2000, about a third of the price of the real cow that Sioto had purchased for the feast.

I knew that things were going to be fine as soon as I heard the initial asking price: it was just a few cows more than our target, exactly what Sioto had told us the day before.  Whatever pain the bride’s family might have inflicted in a typical magadi, to us they were being kind.  They knew we were clueless.  We were showing respect for their traditions, and I think they cared about that respect more than the money.  We fairly quickly arrived at the target that had been agreed to before we started, though I was careful to always counter offer an even number of cows.  Once we agreed, the women announced the success to the world by ululating briefly.

We moved the table aside, and I counted out the cows on the floor.  When I used up all the money in the rubber band, I said, “I have to get more money.  I thought you would accept our first offer.”  They laughed.  After counting out the cows, Kosta and I offered the bottles of bourbon, Jefferson Reserve and Woodford Reserve, that we had brought as gifts, telling them a little about the history and characteristics of fine Kentucky bourbon.

David documented the agreement in pencil on lined paper torn out a notebook, using carbon paper to create a copy.  It read as follows:

This serves to certify an agreement reached between the two families, Molale and Potticary, over Lobola toward marriage between Santeri and Gladness.  The Lobola ran over R …. and agreed upon.

Signatures

1. David Masasi                                        1. John Peter Lund

2. S. Molale                                              2. Konstatin Rybalski

After the document was signed, we introduced everyone present.  I asked for permission to write about this in my blog, which they granted, provided the bride price remained private. They introduced themselves with their English names, as they do when dealing with whites in a business context.  I said that we wanted to know their Tswana names as well.  They laughed.  The first name was Redibapalo, and after my stumbling  attempts to get the spelling right, David wrote out the names for me to speed things along.

Representing the Molale family:

  • Simon Redibapalo Molale, paternal uncle
  • Conny Molale, Simon’s wife
  • David Losiamanc Masasi, maternal uncle
  • Nkgwetja Evelyn Masasi, David’s wife
  • Peter Lerumo Molale, paternal uncle
  • Onicca Sechel, paternal aunt
  • Ntebo Evelyn Monamodi, cousin
  • Motshidisi Tlhakanyed, maternal aunt

Representing the Potticary family:

  • John Peter Lund
  • Mary Foote Wingfield Lund
  • Irma Tamminen-Vitasoi, from Finland
  • Konstatin Rybalski
  • Beccah Rybalski

Santeri and Tsholofelo came in with their parents. They were dressed up, but Tsholo was not covered to her mother’s satisfaction, so she was given an extra shawl.

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Uncle David, Tsholo, Santu, and Aunt Evelyn

We are convinced that the broom that aunt is holding has some symbolic significance, but we are not sure what is was.  I found a possible explanation here (page 3).

The last of the sheep in the back yard was slaughtered, and divided between the two families.  The Potticarys gave their half to be eaten during the feast.

Crossing cultural lines is complicated.  To the Potticarys, the bride price was one of the ways they helped pay for the wedding celebration.  However, to the Molales, this was central.  I don’t think they cared that Tsholo and Santu were already legally married in the states.  I don’t know whether they ever registered the marriage with the home office in South Africa.  For the Molales, the couple was married when the bride price was paid.

Mpho Lebogo explains it this way: ”The concept of a ‘bride price’ is not about buying a wife but about marriage and the building of relationships between two families. The paying of cattle in years past, for instance, was the foundation on which families cared for another during times of poverty. Lobola forges an entire cultural and community network.”

Our community network now spans two cultures, continents apart.

White Wedding in Itsoseng #3: Life in the Township

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Tsholo’s aunts in the steet outside the Molale home.

Itsoseng lies in the North West province of South Africa, between Lichtenburg and Mafikeng, the provincial capital, near the border with Botswana. It was established during Apartheid, in the 1960s, on land that used to be a farm, as a township for African blacks (“Colored” was a separate designation). The population of about 20,000 is still 99% Black African, with a smattering of Asians and coloreds. As far as I know, nobody of purely European ancestry lives in the township.

The people we met, like almost everyone in the town, are Tswana. They speak Tswana, English, and Africans.  They are comfortably multi-lingual, and listen to a radio station where the disk jockey would frequently switch from one language to an another.

The township looks run down. Many of the residential streets are not paved, but even the paved streets are full of potholes. There is trash strewn around. Everyone has electricity, but there are occasional black outs, “load shedding” by the local utility. There is clean drinking water, but they have almost no water pressure, so cannot make much use of it. Some homes have a private cistern and a pump.

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The remnants of a shopping complex, burned in riots 20 years ago.

As we were going through the town, Tsholo’s sister Matebogo pointed out the remnants of a shopping complex that had been burned down in the riots that accompanied the end of Apartheid 20 years ago. This was never rebuilt. There are stores around, where we did some shopping during the week, but nothing that would attract somebody who had easy transportation elsewhere. They do their shopping in Lichtenburg.

The general feeling is that the African National Congress has neglected the North West province in general, and Itsoseng in particular. While touring through South Africa, we saw other townships, Langa outside of Capetown, and Soweto, near Johannesburg; most of the roads in these towns looked much better cared for than Itsoseng, though to be fair, these are older, larger, and more established. On the other hand, Itsoseng does not have any of the large, rather dismal, informal areas, where migrants move in seeking work. There isn’t much around Itsoseng to attract workers: only one cement factory not far away.

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The Molale’s Home, with a white flag announcing the wedding.

Our hosts are well off compared to many of their neighbors: they are what Americans would think of as middle class. They drive late model cars. Their homes, though small, are nicely furnished. Everyone had a big screen TV. In a couple homes, I noted fine wood paneling on the ceiling, a decorative touch that I don’t remember ever seeing in America. Sioto, the bride’s father, is a school principal, and Kerileng, the mother, is a teacher. The adult siblings are all educated and have jobs. Like several of the people we met, Sioto has a farm outside of town, where he has cattle, a traditional form of wealth in the Tswana culture.

One thing struck us the first night of our visit: security is a major concern. Every one of the nicer homes was surrounded by a high barrier, topped by very sharp metal spikes, or sometimes, even razor wire. People had small yards, but every yard had enough space for a driveway, so that they could park there safely inside the outer wall. In the house where my wife and I stayed, they normally kept large dogs, not as pets, but for protection; for our visit, Dinanas, our hostess took these dogs out to the farm. Another family later showed us their sophisticated alarm system.

The night after wedding reception, we learned what could happen when these normal precautions were not followed. The reception tent was in the street outside the Molale home, and some fences around their house and their neighbor’s yard were down to allow access to more space. That night, the family awoke at around 4:00 am to find somebody rummaging through their house, looking for something to steal. He escaped when people woke up.  A few blocks away, uncle David was hosting so many people that some of the cars had to be left out on the street. These cars were broken into and some valuable stuff was stolen.

I learned that they discovered one of the thieves, confirming their suspicions by finding stolen items in his house. They did not turn him over to the police, saying the police would not do anything. Instead, this group of vigilantes beat him, beat him severely, much to the distress of one the Americans who witnessed it. They got the thief to tell them who else was involved, especially with the break-ins to the cars. He implicated the local chief of police. I don’t know whether of not they believed him, but they could not meet out this rough justice on the police.

The last day that I was Itsoseng, well after the wedding, Kerileng, Tsholo’s mother, asked me how I thought life in Itsoseng compared to life in America. I could point to many things. In America, the infrastructure necessary to modern life is so much better developed. We have better roads, potable water that gushes out the tap, more reliable electricity, and access to the internet. We also have a government that is, on the whole, free from corruption, though this requires constant vigilance. Finally, there is no fence around our yard. My family has confidence in the social order: we feel safe in our home.

On the other hand, the community in America is fragmented. Although we have no fence, we live cloistered in our air conditioned or heated home, without much contact with our neighbors. In Itsoseng, they have a vibrant community. They are surrounded by Tswana, which helps give that community a cohesiveness that our diverse, integrated population simply cannot duplicate. For this wedding celebration, they were able rely on, to impose on, their neighbors to a degree that is unimaginable in America. Such a community can be a source of great resilience in times of trouble and adds immeasurably to the joy of celebrating a happy occasion like this wedding.

White Wedding in Itsoseng #2: Arrival

Singing and Dancing together as we arrive at the Molale's home in Itsoseng.

Singing and Dancing together as we arrive at theMolale’s home in Itsoseng.

On the Monday before the wedding, at 3:00 pm, those in the wedding party, the bride and groom, bridesmaids and groomsmen, and the parents, needed to meet with the tailor in Mafikeng, a town about a half hour drive past Itsoseng, in order to be fitted for their traditional African garb to be worn in the second part of the reception. Those of us not in the wedding party planned to arrive with the main group. We all scheduled our flights into Johannesburg accordingly. Some of us flew in the previous evening, some were arriving that morning. Everyone was to gather together at the airport in Jo’Berg, meet up with Tsholo’s uncle, who was driving a pickup truck (which the Africans called a ‘van’) for the luggage, and then drive to Itsoseng in a caravan of rented cars in time to make the 3:00 appointment.

Shortly after 10:00 am, there were 14 of us, one from Finland, one from Germany, and the rest from America, gathered together in the airport. We enjoyed sitting around in the terminal, getting acquainted with each other. However, nobody knew where Tsholo’s uncle David was. It turns out that he had gotten lost on the way to the airport. (We later found out how difficult it is to get across Jo’berg, getting lost ourselves.)

When David finally arrived hours later, accompanied by two of Tsholo’s sisters, a niece, and a young man to help with the luggage, there was much greeting and hugging. Everybody was introduced to each person. I lost track of the time, but I noticed that nobody seemed in a hurry. What was important was that we have fun and feel welcome.

Eventually, we loaded up the pickup truck, and it took off. Then we went to get our rental cars. This took a surprisingly long time even though the paper-work was already taken care of, but eventually our caravan of four cars got going.

After about an hour, we pulled into a gas station and convenience store. This was a surprise to us, but it was evidently a place that they had chosen to meet up with Uncle David. Uncle David, despite his long head start, wasn’t there yet. He had evidently made a wrong turn.

Tsholo, Christine, and Maria behind the meat pie.

Tsholo, Christine, and Maria behind the meat pie.

The convenience store was very much like one in the states, but with meat pies and biltong in addition to the snacks that you might find in the U.S. We used the facilities, bought snacks, and  stood around talking.  When David finally got there, they got out of the truck, greeted everybody, used the facilities, bought snacks, and stood around talking. Tepu, the groom’s mother, expressed some concern that we were going to be very late for the tailor, but she was assured that there would be no problem: the tailor would wait for these very important customers. So we hung around the rest stop for a bit longer. Eventually, Nate, one of the groomsmen, shouted out, “OK everyone, we’re leaving”, and, amazingly, we left, Uncle David leading the way. Of course, things were not well organized, and our caravan was divided into two groups before we were even out of the parking lot. But we were on our way.

Along the way. we stopped several more times, each stop a surprise of those of us in the rear car of the caravan. First, David waited under a tree to allow the two groups to come together. Then, we stopped again in a dirt parking lot, where some families were picnicking under a tree, to get beer, to take pictures, relax, and enjoy ourselves. After this pleasant stop, we got under way, only to be diverted again, this time to join some friends who were hanging out and drinking in a park next to a small lake.  2015-01-12 Group at the Lake  At this point, it dawned on the Americans that we were not going to make it to the tailor’s today. Somebody broke out a bottle of tequila from the luggage, which was shared with the crowd. After a while, we got under way, only to stop again as we passed through Lichtenburg, this time at a liquor store. At this point, Tsholo (the bride) was getting exasperated: she told us not to get out of the car so we would get going again quickly.

We finally arrived in Itsoseng at David’s house about dusk. As we approached his house, the lead cars started honking their horns. As soon as people got out of the cars, everyone started singing and dancing, the women ululating, the westerners joining in, somewhat clumsily in my case. In the dirt street outside the gate, a swarm of about two dozen little kids gathered around to see what was going on, fascinated by the appearance of white people in their neighborhood. We went inside David’s home, said prayer of thanksgiving for our safe arrival, and had a short visit.

After a while, we went a few blocks to the home of Sioto and Kerrileng Molale, Tsholo’s parents, to have dinner. It was dark when we got there: really dark. The electricity was off throughout the neighborhood due to a “load shedding” event, curtesy of the utility company. Imagine expecting two dozen people for dinner, not being sure exactly when, half of them foreigners you have never met, only to have the power go off shortly before they arrive.

Regardless, people were in the mood to have fun. Again, there was honking of horns on our arrival, followed by even more singing, sometimes in Tswana, sometimes in English, and, of course dancing.

Some of us became very lightheaded. It was too late to make it to the nearest restaurant in Mafikeng before it closed. We broke out some nuts and granola bars to hold people until food could be served.

With the whole neighborhood being so dark, the stars were brilliant.  I found Orion right away, and then tried to orient myself, looking for the North Star, until I remembered where I was. We noticed an occasional shooting star.  We forget how beautiful the sky can be on a clear night, unencumbered by light and air pollution.

Eventually, power was restored. Food was served: the traditional pap that South Africans eat with almost every meal, grilled chicken wings, and some spiced vegetables, which were added to the menu to please the foreign guests. Soon, many of us older folk toddled off to he homes where we were staying to get some sleep.

I presume that sometime during the day, the tailor was informed that we weren’t going to make it.  We had another appointment the next day, at 1:00.  The wedding party did make it that day, arriving about 5:30, after his helpers had all gone home.  The westerners found this haphazard, disorganized, and disrespectful to the tailor.  To the Africans, it was more important that we have a good time, that we celebrate, and that we feel welcomed, and they were not willing to sacrifice the celebration just for this appointment.  Almost everything happened on African Time.   The tailor was used to this, expected it, and coped.

It was all good. We felt welcome.

White Wedding in Itsoseng #1: Intro

Santeri and Tsholofelo
Santeri and Tsholofelo

On January 17, Santeri Armas Potticary, a Finnish American who grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Tsholofelo Gladness Molale, of Itsoseng, North West, South Africa, celebrated their marriage in the home town of the bride, following the Tswana customs as currently practiced.

As long time close friends of the family, we were invited.  We saw it as a unique opportunity, and enthusiastically accepted.  Since Santeri’s uncle was unable to get off from teaching school during that time, I got the opportunity to serve as honorary uncle, representing the family in the Magadi (more about that later).

Only the groom was white, but people in Itsoseng called it the “white wedding”.  It was the first such wedding celebrated in this black township, which had been established during Apartheid. Symbolically, it was an important event for many in the community.

For us, it was a unique opportunity to encounter another culture.  We were welcomed into the homes of the extended family.  We got to see how they lived, and to join in the celebration as members of the community.

In America, marriage is often treated as a private contract between two people, isolated from the rest of the community.  Such an idea is totally foreign to the Tswana.  For them, marriage is about uniting two families and building the community.  In this case, we were also uniting two cultures; the community that we were building has global reach.

To digest it for myself and to share it with others, I plan to follow this with a series of posts, each devoted to a different aspect of this experience.  Two cultures came together, not without occasional difficulties.  For me, it was wonderful.