When one hears of someone who’s just paid lobola there is a great interest in how much it all cost. Together with the interest comes the arguments for and against lobola; that it puts a price on women, does not allow for equal rights within a marriage and fuels violence in relationships but also that it is our culture and we should preserve it from the constant denigration by western values. The general view is that it has been commercialised to varying degrees but this has taken place for a long time, more so with an unstable economy.
There has been a loud and persistent call for us to go back to the values that our ancestors instilled in lobola. It is said that in the golden years roora/lobola mainly constituted badza (a hoe) and four or five heads of cattle. The bride’s father was also in a position to request the labour of his son-in-law in lieu of payment for a year. I do wonder though if we are considering these gifts in today’s economic terms and thus consider them small and ceremonial in their effect. Given that our society was agrarian then, I would like to think a hoe and four of five heads of cattle were significant, never mind the prospect of a young man laboring for a year or whatever time was required, for his in-laws as part of the bride price. In an era of employment and remuneration I personally cannot imagine my husband working for my father for a whole year. That would be a lot to pay I think. And during the time when the son-in-law was bound to work for his father-in-law, who would provide for his new family? Truthfully speaking what we know of the history of lobola is from what has been passed on from generation to generation through oral tradition and the documented observation of the first European settlers. We do not know how the women of that time truly felt of the practice or whether by the economic standards of the time such payments would have been viewed as fair. The question is, where money and property is involved can there ever be a true meeting of minds?
What I found interesting in my personal research and having asked various women for their opinions was there was not much of difference in opinion. For most women the feeling was that the practice was worth saving because it was a way of bringing two families together and most importantly, an outward sign of the man’s commitment to the woman and the relationship. Like one woman put it, “Where your money is, your heart is!” It was interesting too to find women totally against the practice but who themselves had lobola paid for them. I personally went through the practice and found it very interesting and even entertaining. The anticipation was a killer but overall the day was filled with good vibes and laughter. Maybe my experience was different to most (one respondent called her experience sad as money took centre stage with little celebration).
There is one argument that the practice keeps a couple who are emotionally prepared to commit apart because the groom is not able to come up with the funds required. Another argument against it has been that women have very little say in the process and the men pretty much conduct the entire proceedings without any input from the women in the family let alone the bride. This is true for some families but in my case the female relatives were involved in the process. My mother and my aunts were involved in the meetings prior to the big day and most importantly the occasion where the bride price was decided. I have heard of cases where the mothers and tetes (aunts) of the brides have caused mayhem where the fathers have been hard-headed and refused to negotiate thus risking a breakdown of negotiations. Needless to say women can offer more contribution than a last-minute uprising to preserve negotiations or to just be muted observers. In that case I would say this argument holds true for a particular family structure. I would like to believe that women are more involved in the process today than before. On the actual day there isn’t much for the women in either family to do apart from the bride herself and her tete and the cooking of course. I feel the argument in certain regards snorts on the progress women have made in the home. As a woman and mother I feel my opinion matters as much in my family; granted there is room for improvement. Hopefully, with time the parties to the negotiations will be chosen purely on merit thus making way for Amai Kuda, known to be a fierce haggler as part of the negotiating team.
Another observation I made was of the woman who is proud that their/their daughter’s lobola was so enormous. For them it is a reflection of their value to their family and when they tell friends of the amounts charged you catch that slight glimmer of pride in their eyes. My worry is always with regards to one’s in-laws. Are you then now expected to live up to expectations which are undoubtedly created as a result, unless of course money is no object to them? The feeling among some of the respondents was that the bride price should reflect the groom’s station in life with one opinion that if the groom’s family was well off this should be reflected in the amount paid. It is common practice to only pay part of the bride price (until the bride has had a good progress report, I spouse) and in some communities a full payment is shunned upon. I wonder how many grooms have paid in full since the beginning of this practice especially in the last few decades. Often I have heard of my uncles with grown children and sometimes even grandchildren going to pay off the balance of the lobola. In such cases some of the parties to the initial agreement are late. Which has made me wonder if there are men who have indulged their in-laws and paid part of the huge bill and just gone on with life without paying the rest of the debt? I am told though that the ancestors wouldn’t be pleased with this.
With a significant amount of our population living in the Diaspora, the lobola debacle acquires new arguments against it. What with excessive charges on the basis that the bride is in the Diaspora (therefore worthy of a large payout) or the groom lives in the Diaspora (and thus can afford the large payout). No doubt, this sort of exploitation is disgusting and requires a decisive clampdown. Another issue is mixed marriages especially where our daughter marries into a culture that does not practice lobola. Should we insist on it, regardless? One could argue that it’s unfair to subject the young man to a culture he is not accustomed to but that could be turned round to argue for it; the young woman in question having been raised in the said culture and thus it being unfair to deny her the exercise. In such a situation we could say it’s up to the young woman to sell the culture to the young man. There are many cases of young Western men paying lobola for their African brides. For the young African man this is decided for him (with few likely to accept any payment for their daughter) but the problem persists for our young women. Where the partners of these young women have sought to respect our culture and pay lobola I feel we have exposed our greed by charging exorbitantly (after all they fit into the lives-abroad-hence-can-afford-the-huge-bill category). Having a daughter myself and living in the Diaspora this is one for further thought for me. I would like to believe I have at least 20 years to actually consider it. The realities are she may meet someone of a different ethnic background and thus this may one day be an issue. All I do know is that I would do my utmost as a parent to ensure my daughter’s happiness.
It is however necessary to point out that the practice of lobola is not practiced throughout the continent. It is more prevalent in Southern Africa than anywhere else. One of the respondents of Nigerian descent and Yoruba pointed out that in her family’s experience payment has been notional ranging between £20-£100; paid during the engagement/marriage ceremony. If one chose not to have such a ceremony then no amount would be paid. I would like to believe that the ceremony in itself is important as this is where the in-laws get to meet each other. However, these days with people living in different countries it’s not always possible. The thinking is that it would be unfortunate to have people introduced to each other at the wedding.
Then there is the issue of violence and women being viewed as sex objects. There is no doubt that this is a serious issue and one which requires a greater voice and attention from society at large. Most respondents felt that huge bride prices were to blame as they left men disillusioned by the concept of marriage and start to view their women as objects they own. But when we look outside the box and take into account the world in general, violence and sexual oppression are serious issues for the global community to address. Hence, if we do away with lobola will this eradicate these issues? I think not. If a man has little or no respect for a woman and chooses to subject her to violence and use her for his personal sexual gratification, he’s going to find an excuse (after all that’s what it is I paid for you!) to assert this behavior, lobola or not. Domestic violence exists in cultures where lobola is not practiced. As a society these are issues we need to deal with through educating ourselves, our peers and most importantly our daughters so they never feel that someone has a right to treat them as such. Should the resulting effect be a total revolt of the lobola practice then thus is the result. The primary objective is respect for all. The argument for or against lobola will always draw a wedge between people, even people who all agree that violence and oppression against women is despicable.
There is no doubt that the dialogue on lobola and its place in today’s society is an important one and one in which we should all have a say. At present there is a stronger argument against the practice in its current state. All respondents agreed that they would not like to see the custom legislated as it would take away from its essence. One respondent added “There are too many variables to consider such as the family’s socio-economic levels, number of daughters in the family, how loved that particular daughter is, how educated is she, is she an unmarried mother, how old she is, education level of the parents/guardians, what time of year it is etc. Most families would not adhere to the prescribed law and what with globalisation; I don’t think we could fully incorporate different geographies and influence of new cultures.” . One respondent however asked that where one has put themselves through university, who should receive payment? This is question which, if anything, reflects the complexities one would face in trying to legislate. Some have called on some sort of guidelines to ensure that the practiced is safeguarded from abuse and preserved. The feeling is that this would enable people to understand their roles and most importantly the purpose of the practice. One called for a cap on the amount payable. But lest we forget the ceremony in itself is a negotiation. If we regulated in any way then what would be left for the negotiations? Any negotiation requires both sides to listen to each other and come up with an arrangement that is reasonable and acceptable to all.
Personally, as far as lobola is concerned it is each one to their own. In Zimbabwe, the Legal Age of Majority act provides that anyone above the age of 18 has the legal right to marry without payment of lobola. If we were to legislate and deem it unlawful to pay and receive lobola the chances are that we would just become creative in our practice (bootleg lobola). And, how many of us would report our family to the police should they insist on it. There is already a fear of reprisal and isolation in the event that one refuses to have their partner pay lobola from them. For some women, the fear of not being valued (easy come, easy go) floats in their mind and sometimes is the deciding factor. Ultimately if you’re not for it you can marry without the hassle in the hope your family understands. If the practice is still valuable to you, you have the choice of being influential in the process (after all you don’t want to start your marriage heavily in debt) or do as is expected of you as per your family‘s protocol and hope for the best. At the end of it all we have choices to make; it’s the ramifications that most of us aren’t willing to take on. Most importantly, how we interpret and exercise this practice has a strong and decisive impact on how our children and their children with view the practice.