This is the article that I wrote in January 2011 for the BBC Radio programme, ‘From our own Correspondent’.
I’m sitting in my car, in a quiet side-street in Soweto, fidgeting. Beside me, my friend Mpho is telling lame jokes to try to ease the tension. Outside, I can see a long row of bungalows, each with individually designed steel gates and brightly painted walls. There are BMWs and Mercedes parked on neat driveways. These days most of Soweto feels like a cosy suburb. A far cry from the anti-apartheid street-battles of the 1970s and 80s.
My mobile phone buzzes. It’s a text from Bra Gugu. He’s one of my key negotiators. “It’s sorted,” he says. I feel a surge of relief, and adrenalin. Then Gugu and the team appear at the gate. And behind them, the tall, slim figure of Kutlwano – the woman I’ve just paid for. According to local custom, we are now man and wife.
Here in South Africa they call it lobola or bohali. But the tradition of paying a dowry of cattle for your wife is practised across Africa. When I first met Kutlwano, two years ago, the tradition struck me as archaic and somehow demeaning to women. But I’ve seen how important it is here and how seriously it’s taken.
When I realised that I’d finally met the woman I wanted to marry, I knew I had to do things the African way – and hopefully earn the respect of Kutlwano’s family. Bohali isn’t a simple procedure. It is a long, elaborate process with many rules – each depending on the tribe and inclinations of the families involved. My first duty was to write a letter to Kuts’ father, informing him that my family intended to pay a visit. But the letter was supposed to be written in the Sesotho language – by my mother, who’s English and doesn’t speak a word of the language. Initially, Kuts’ father wasn’t inclined to compromise on this. But eventually he agreed that my mother could send him an e-mail, in English. She let him know that she would appoint a team of South Africans to negotiate on her behalf. I turned to a friend, Bra Dan, who is from the same tribe as Kuts’ family. He’s a smart operator and good with people. I also asked a fellow cameraman, Gugu, and two other close colleagues, Ezra and Connie – all from different tribes.
As for Kutlwano, she was excited but also worried that her family would expect too high a price for her. She is educated, beautiful and doesn’t have any children. All of which puts her at a premium. And people here tend to assume that white foreigners are rich (I’m certainly not). Kutlwano spoke in private to her mother, word came back that we shouldn’t worry. The price would be fair, and not based on my nationality.
Back home in Leicester, mixed-race couples are not a big deal. Here in South Africa they are still very rare. People often stare at us if we hold hands in public, though mostly they’re just intrigued. When we’re out shopping, young black women will approach Kutlwano and ask, in a whisper – how can they meet a white guy too? Apparently the young ladies think that we have a reputation for being devoted and taking care of those we love. Race is still a complicated issue in South Africa. But I’ve found most people very open and welcoming.
Finally, a date was set for our negotiations. Outside Kutlwano’s home, her family deliberately kept my team waiting for a good half hour. A traditional tactic. Eventually, they went inside without me. Bottles of whisky were exchanged, and the cash value of a cow agreed upon. Even in modern, urban South Africa, the cow remains the unit of negotiation. Then the bidding started.
It’s considered bad form in South Africa to talk openly about how much you paid for a wife. Let’s just say it cost me a herd. And it was worth every cow. But that’s not the end of the wedding ceremony. Twelve weeks later, I’m back on the same street in Soweto. This time I’m wearing a traditional lampshade-shaped Sotho hat, an off-white linen suit and brown sandals. Not my usual style. I’m dancing, clumsily, down the road – my entourage singing Sotho songs and laughing at my footwork. The whole neighbourhood is out in force, singing and shouting encouragement. I reach Kutlwano’s home, and push my way through the wall of people surrounding her, pulling her away from her family, and into mine, completing the ritual. The women ululate and the men grin and sip their potent home brew – Mqombothi. It’s a true township welcome. And suddenly I feel very at home.