In Setswana culture marriage is not as simple as walking down the isle to “here comes the bride” after you both sign on some dotted line which then becomes your marriage certificate.
We do a cultural practice called patlo.
I must admit, on this one I had to consult with the elders because I have never participated in this very respectable practice, simply because I have never been married. What grabs my attention is the fact that in Setswana a couple can never be regarded as married until patlo takes place. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the wedding ceremony was.
Batswana parents insist that the reason why most marriages fail amongst their younger generation is that patlo could have been somehow compromised if not entirely.
Patlo means ‘to ask for a woman’s hand in marriage’.
What this means in our culture is that the groom-to-be, asks his parents to approach the bride’s parents and ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage. Once this has been done, the ball is then set rolling for all the negotiations about bride price or ‘bogadi’ to take place.
Bogadi is one very important aspect of patlo.
A woman does not get pronounced as married until the groom’s parents have parted with a number of cattle and this may vary between tribes, these cows are simply called ‘dikgomo tsa bogadi’.
The families then agree on a date on which the couple is set down separately to be given counselling by the elders. This is normally the morning of the wedding celebration.
Only men and women in the community who have themselves been married in the same fashion are allowed to give the counselling, even if you were a qualified marriage counsellor you still would not have the privilege unless you got married the same way.
There is a certain attire that the counsellors are expected to dress in but this, I am told, is only known to people who have had the opportunity to participate in patlo. The significance of patlo is that the counselling is apparently centred around how the couple is expected to behave towards each other and in society. They are also formally welcomed into their new families and promised all the support they could need throughout their journey.
While common law marriage is also recognised in Botswana, we come from families and communities who respect customary law. The wedding day is about the couple, family and friends being happy for the marriage and celebrating together. Marriage on the other hand is about uniting two extended families.
When storms arise in the marriage, it is expected that the couple should be able to turn to their parents, uncles, aunties and so on for advice and I guess it makes all the difference when the platform to do so has been granted. Couples who have not been through patlo are said in our culture to have gone and married without the blessings of their parents.
There is some magic that happens when we know we have a strong support network, especially when this network is family. I suppose this also brings a lot of peace into the marriage.
Maybe the reason why today’s marriages fail so much is that we are forgetting where we came from. Patlo is a big part of who we are. I have always envied women who get to do patlo. I think it is such a privilege.
Having been to so many wedding celebrations and observing all that happens, the people who do patlo remind me of that cool group in high school that was not very easy to penetrate! Why would anybody not want to go through patlo? It is very highly esteemed in our culture. It gives the married couple a lot of respect and sets them apart from other men and women.