Kaombona Kanani, a reporter with Echo newspaper, is not seeing anyone and is not about to start looking. But he knows by the end of this year he would be happily married and live merrily ever after with his bride. Chasing a female life companion is a matter for his folks in Toromoja to spend sleepless nights over.
In his early 30s Kanani is one of few remaining Batswana proud to entrust this matter, largely seen as singularly that of the heart, to his parents. It’s not love first for Kanani. He may have schooled at the elite Camphill and lived the better part of his life in the bright lights of Gaborone but the young man is resolute on a close cousin for a bride. Neither working the controls at Btv nor chasing the front page scoop in the trenches has changed his view of his Mbanderu customs. In his world, tradition overrides everything.
It is not only a source of pride for him. It gives him a sense of self in a concrete jungle that has made many lose sight of who they are as they hop onto the pilgrimage to the heart and spirit of materialism.
“I don’t want my culture to disappear. It has served us well through the years. I don’t believe that my parents could make a wrong bridal choice for me.
Whether they find one in a cattle post who cannot read or write I would accept her with gratitude and start a family,” he says.
For him love is a process. It develops and gets better with time. It is not that he cannot score well with the fairer sex on his own, he argues, choosing a life partner is too important a thing to be left to him alone. Marriage is, on another level, a tool to re-populate this side of the equator with his own after a lot of them perished at the sword of the Germans during the historic 1904 war in Namibia- a war that had them seeking refuge in Botswana.
“Only a handful was left. That’s why you don’t hear much of us. We need to continue our tradition of inter-marrying lest we are wiped off the face of the earth. I would be happy if our sisters could just continue with the tradition because if they marry elsewhere we will lose out,” he cries.
Venjonoka Ndjarakana is publicity secretary for the Mbanderu Youth Association of Botswana. He is part of the movement to save this age-old tradition. In 1995 he was shown his current wife, then a junior secondary school student.
“I let her sit for her Cambridge before I could approach her. I then courted her until she agreed to the arrangement. I didn’t want her to say that she was forced into the marriage. I would write her letters. you know I was not allowed to show up at her parents’
place. I married her in 1998. She is now a teacher,”
Even if she had objected to the matchmaking, chances are Ndjarakana would still be married to one of his many cousins (on his father’s side)- her wife’s younger sister perhaps. And if all else could not give him a chance, there was always bound to be a younger sanguine cousin on his mother’s side to spend the rest of his life with.
“The point was to ensure that the clan’s wealth stays with it,” he explains.
There are criteria to selecting a suitable bride. She needn’t only be a cousin. She also has to be well behaved and younger than the husband.
‘Even if in your heart of hearts she is what you desire if she is not well mannered you have to give up the affection. We are grown to understand these subtleties,” he explains.
Marrying one’s cousin is not only done to keep the clan’s wealth. The arrangement assures the bride protection, as she is, after all, family-not by virtue of the union but family in the true sense of the word.
The blood that courses through her husband’s veins, is the same that runs through her’s.
“My wife is part of me. As a result both of us strive against all odds to remain family. You cannot tell her to get lost. Where do you expect her to go because your house is hers?” he asks, rhetorically.
Kanani would tell you that their kind of marriage’s success rate is well around 99%. His tribesman, Ndjarakana, offers that where the marriage crumbles, often the groom has chosen his own wife.
“You see when I have problems I don’t trouble myself. I let the parents take care of the matter because the
whole project is their will,” reveals Ndjarakana.
But as all things are subject to change, this tradition has had its fair share of knocks. Things are not the same, even for those who still cling to the tradition. Girls today statutorily recognised, as minors could also find themselves weighed in by conjugal duties then. Now that the human rights movement would not hear of it, they have not dared to go it as it used to be done. And in the past one would marry a bride he hasn’t met before.
“Today they would tell you who they have chosen for you and ask you if you would not mind her for a wife,” Ndjarakana says.
Others, sadly (for the Kananis), do not only marry outside the clan they go as far out as a completely different tribe.
Arranged marriages, though once the staple of many Tswana tribal groupings, are a terrain for many contesting views- an opportunity for a diversity of issues to be voiced. Reigning Miss Botswana 2006 Malebogo Marumoagae who is on a crusade to promote women’s reproductive health in the country, especially in rural areas finds the practice outdated. She is of the opinion that arranged marriages put women under pressure to make choices that they do not want. The expectation when you are told as a woman that you have been found a good suitor, she argues, is to agree.
“If you don’t you know that you will shame your parents and yourself. I know instances where women are not even allowed to make a choice at all. I fail to see the distinction between arranged and forced marriages. You may find that in some cases the man is too old for the girl. This can have economic and social implications for the young woman. Some may even forego their careers and other opportunities just so tradition has its way,” she contends.
But is the practice not taking the pressure off women to dig themselves into bulimia and anorexic frames in search for the right combination to win the marriage lottery as Kanani argues?
“Women do not starve themselves to get noticed or get married. They do it to feel good about themselves.
They stay thin for their own sake. I know a lot of fat girls that are married,” she asserts.
Francistown’s Tatitown court president, Kgosi Margaret Mosojane is however of a different opinion. She knows well to differ. She has presided over cases involving the Zezuru, another people still sworn by this form of marriage. A typical storyline; a Zezuru woman’s husband dies. She decides to quit the tradition because she does not want to marry the deceased’s brother. She finds herself a man of her own liking. As fate has it, her baby dies thereafter. Her parents do not want anything to do with the burying of the baby.
They disown her.
“It is a complex multi-faceted practice. You cannot say that it is either bad or good,” she argues, “These kind of marriages are however still relevant.
You cannot tell a Moslem or a Zezuru to stop arranging marriages for their children. For them a parent’s responsibility goes beyond fending for her/his children. Successful parenting also means ensuring that the children are duly married off to the right kind of people.”
She contends that unlike other peoples, communities that continue the practice do not give their children the freedoms that others do as they grow up- a fact that readies them for eventualities like the marriage.
“Arranged marriages keep them together. It is a deep rooted thing that adds value to their culture,” she adds.
It is an issue that even Emang Basadi’s Joyce Anderson admits is not an easy one to take a stand on. She however sees it as an opportunity for women to be exploited.
“If a man has looked after a woman from a young age just so he marries her there may be a problem of the man thinking that he owns her. It can also be bad if it is used to escape poverty by selling off the girl child,” she cautions.
It also serves the interests of men, she argues, as there would never be a point where the man is younger.
“I can’t take a fresh faced pick when I am as old and grey haired as I am whereas you may find my age mate can,” she says, laughing.
She is however positive that if a girl isn’t denied schooling or engaged a minor, then the practice may as well be helpful match making. The arrangement has to be a consensual contract between adults.
If you ask Enole Ditsheko, the National AIDS Coordinating Agency’s principal public relations officer if the practice can reverse the fight against the pandemic, he would argue it may be the way for all us to go, as there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.
“With arranged marriages young people are grown to respect tradition and value each other. Young men grow up knowing that a woman’s body has to be respected and that it is good to be faithful to one’s wife. Where would cheating comes into the picture if all the parental grooming is followed to the letter?” he opines.