The Patlo

A patlo, we know you are intensely curious, is one of the elements in the traditional wedding ceremony. There are several ways to “get married” in Botswana and traditions vary greatly by region so this post describes what is done here in Gabane. Patlo means ‘to ask for a woman’s hand in marriage’.

Marriage Method 1 is to have two patlos- one for the groom with the men and one for the bride with the women. Holding those two events plus paying the lebola (bride price- usually about 8 cows and often involving gifts of clothing to the bride, aunts, uncles, and anyone else who can get in on the deal) makes you married. You then register with the government but there is no civil ceremony.

Alternatively you can just go to the registrar and fill out the paperwork and be married. Or, you can have a church ceremony. Some pastors are sanctioned to make the marriage official. If your pastor is not so honored, you also have to go to the registrar to make it official.  No matter which method is followed, many families will not consider the woman married unless/until she goes through the patlo. You must have participated in your own patlo  to fully participate in the patlo and to be involved with future marriage negotiations. This is particularly important if you are the oldest sister and therefore will be the oldest aunt some day. Marriage negotiations are typically handled by the oldest aunt of the bride and uncle of the groom. I was honored they allowed me to attend, given I am married but did not have a patlo. If I hadn’t been married, I would not have been allowed.

Or, you can have any combination of the above described methods of getting married.

But, I digress again (did that last post too).  So, back to the patlo. This post will talk about the bride’s patlo as only Teresa got to go. Gary has not been to one yet. It takes place usually the day before the wedding (this one was a week before because that pesky independence week is really messing up people’s plans).  Kerri Rodkey, Bots 17 PC Trainee, was shadowing me so she got to go too since she is also married.

It usually takes place early in the morning. For us it was 8 am which was fortunate because it has turned bloody hot here and you can see from the picture that we were not dressed lightly. My supervisor, Mma Leburu, obtained a traditional wool blanket for Kerri (I have my own and as of today I even have the pin to close it up) and skirt and apron for each of us. The white blouse and kerchief (dukwe) are mine. I feel I bear a strong resemblance to a nun but Kerri’s husband Paul, was thinking Amish. Then again, possibly my Russian roots- think babushka.

We proceeded to a location near the bride’s house where we could see a group of about 50 women gathered.They were sitting on the ground on plastic tarps with their legs stretched out in front of them. When the groom’s women arrived, we formed a line and snaked our way into the courtyard where we sat down facing the bride’s women with our legs stretched straight out. When I tried to bend my legs to get more comfortable I was told I couldn’t do that. Kerri and I were given people’s handbags to put under our knees which made a huge difference. (right about now you are all getting out of your comfortable chairs and sitting on the floor trying this- now hold that pose for about an hour with no back suppport). I am in total amazement how these women can hold this position for hours on end.  In total, there were about 100 of us.

They placed a tarp in the center and brought the bride out. The bride is covered by a heavy blanket (it is a miracle she didn’t faint from the heat) and she is placed sitting down facing the groom’s people. (This is all being done “to” her since she can’t see). She is never uncovered during the roughly 1 hour ceremony. There was a prayer (as there always is to open events) and then one of the groom’s women says, “Ke kopa metsi” which literally means, “I want water”. In this case, it is referring to the bride. Then, one by one, various women from the bride’s side get up and sit by the bride (stretching their legs in front of them) and give her advice about marriage. Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand it as it was all in Setswana. I did keep hearing the word “lorato” which means love so that’s good. At the end, they get the bride up and lead her back into the house. She will not appear uncovered  before the groom’s family before her wedding day which is usually the next day, so not sure what will happen this time since it is a week away. Seems similar to our custom of the groom not being allowed to see the bride on her wedding day.

The bride’s women then got up and danced while we thankfully got to move to chairs and shade (still keeping the blankets on). We were then served tea and magwinya (fat cakes)- think fry bread but a big ball.

I am sure there are those of you out there with inquiring minds who now have all kinds of questions- why is she covered? why do our legs need to be stretched out? why do they equate the bride with water?  Answers to all of the above- I don’t know. I should ask I suppose but my guess is the answer is, in the voice of Zero Mostel- TRADITION. Why do we have something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue? Why do we throw the bouquet and the garter?

It was not appropriate to take pictures during the ceremony so these before and after will have to do.


However, turn about was fair play. Several women insisted on taking OUR picture 🙂





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