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.
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.
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.