In southern Africa, when two people marry, it is two families that are getting married, not just two individuals.
A marriage in southern Africa brings two families together and establishes a relationship that will continue well after the marriage has broken down.
That marriage is most often ‘cemented’ with the payment of or agreement to pay ‘lobola’, or dowry, to the family or relatives of the woman being married.
Lobola is an age-old African custom that is as alive today as it was centuries ago. A woman living with a man who has paid no lobola paid for her is not viewed in good terms by family members and society. A derogatory term is used to describe such a woman.
Thus, lobola positively establishes the position of the woman in the family and grants her certain authority, albeit mutely, over family issues. Both the families of the bride and groom would be scandalized if they did not adhere to this custom.
Interestingly, even the Internet has a lot to say about our tradition.
“On the surface,” says one site, “lobola is a complex and very formal process of negotiation between the two families to come to a mutual agreement of the price that the groom has to pay in order to marry the bride. This may seem like a purchase and a sale, but this custom is the very opposite of a commercial transaction.”
Another site trumpets lobola as “a traditional southern African dowry whereby the man pays the family of his fianc├® for her hand in marriage.” The custom, it says, is aimed at bringing the two families together, fostering mutual respect, and indicating that the man is capable of supporting his wife, both financially and emotionally.
In southern African custom, it is the man who pays lobola or dowry to the family of the woman he intends to marry. But in other cultures, like in India, for example, it is the woman who pays dowry to her man’s family.
India’s deplorable “bride burning” has been well publicized and criticised from both within and outside India.
“What began as gifts of land to a woman as her inheritance in an essentially agricultural economy has, today, degenerated into gifts of gold, clothes, consumer durables, and large sums of cash, which has sometimes entailed the impoverishment and heavy indebtedness of poor families,” says Aruna Gnanadason on ‘Run For Our Sons’, another on-line information site, “The dowry is often used by the receiving family for business purposes, family members’ education, or the dowry to be given for the husband’s sisters. The transaction of dowry often does not end with the actual wedding ceremony, as the family is expected to continue to give gifts.”
Ranjana Kumari, who runs seven domestic violence refuge centers for women in Delhi says, “Sometimes women are tortured to squeeze more money out of their families and in extreme cases they’re killed. Then the husband is free to remarry and get another dowry.”
As often documented on news broadcasts, dowries have become such a burden that many families in India are desperate to avoid having girls. Pregnant women can determine the sex of the baby and abort the female foetus. The 2001 census showed that there were 933 women for every 1,000 men in India.
India passed legislation against sex determination tests nearly a decade ago, but the practice is still widespread.
However, in Africa, what makes lobola so important for marriage is that “it is based on a process that brings the two families together. Mutual respect and dignity are woven into the process, and the love between the man and woman is expanded to include the immediate and extended families.”
But, like all traditional customs, lobola is open to abuse and distortion in the modern world.
Traditionally, Africans gauged their wealth in livestock, particularly cattle, and so lobola payment was always in cattle as cattle were the primary source of wealth in African society. However, most modern urban couples have switched to using cash.
“It is a pervasive and enduring feature which, though not originally practiced by a number of matrilineal ethnic groups, has been universalised by society at large and the Local Courts in all customary law marriage cases that come before them, to the extent that where no “lobola” is paid, there is no marriage,” says Women In Law Zambia. “In turn, society agrees with this because payments are no longer in kind but are huge beneficial sums. Due to this economic value that has now been placed on ‘lobola’ we notice that even those ethnic groups which never practised ‘lobola’ are now demanding huge sums for their daughters hence this has become an acquired “custom” by everybody and legally sanctioned by the Local Courts.”
Many people do not realize that there is no sense of personal enrichment in lobola. The money received by the bride’s family is used to help the young bride set up house. Lobola is also a gesture of gratitude on the part of the groom’s family for looking after and bringing up the young bride.
“Lobola was thus an element in the social organization of society, and served the function of binding families together, and gave certain rights to the parties and its meaning was well understood,” says Women in Law (Zambia). “The practical payment took the form of whatever was the main economic activity of a particular ethnic group, for example, cattle among the Tonga, Ila, and Ngoni and cloth or farm implements among the Bemba. This indicates a link between ‘lobola’ and the socio-economic and political environment.”
Ruth Tate, writing in Business Day, says that the lobola payments have so far been based on the good word of the people involved, but with the introduction of money rather than barter goods, the system has become open to corruption while unexpected issues, such as a death, have never been accommodated.
“Official contracts or receipts are unheard of and in the case of a misfortune, the woman can be left the victim with no proof of payment and, therefore, no ties to her partner’s family.”
In Zimbabwe last year in March, two relatives of a deceased woman appeared in court “charged with refusing to bury her over unpaid bride lobola.”
“Prosecutors say the two relatives refused to bury her before their in-laws gave them more than $10 million as part of the lobola,” said the (Zimbabwe) Chronicle. Because of the proliferation of acts in which parents of a woman, whose lobola had not been paid, refused to ‘take part in the burial of their daughter’, the Zimbabwean government had to pass a law against ‘holding a corpse hostage.’
“The practice of paying lobola has gradually shifted from being a traditional ritual meant to cement relations, to a commercial transaction, where each side bargains to get the best deal,” said Christella Langton of Zimbabwe’s Financial Gazette (July 11, 2007). “At a recent lobola ceremony, which this reporter attended, the groom ÔÇö a civil servant ÔÇö was charged a massive $40 million, excluding the compulsory cattle and clothes for the bride’s parents. He was then charged ten head of cattle, including the customary beast for the mother “for nurturing her daughter”. The price of each beast was set at $2.5 million, but was later reduced to $1.5 million after negotiations.”
Women in Law Zambia says that in these modern times, men have interpreted ‘lobola’ as giving them ownership of their wives. This attitude, it says, has been thought to encourage wife beating.
“Additionally, the link between ‘lobola’ and economic activity has created the inherent danger of economic interests overriding the intention of unifying families. On the whole, ‘lobola’ has both negative and positive aspects to it. On the one hand, it can be a basis for claiming certain rights and privileges and, on the other, is used to justify men mistreating their wives. It would appear that the payment of ‘lobola’ has lost its original intention.”
“Although many deny that payment of ‘lobola’ constitutes the purchase of a woman, the fact that a man or his family has parted with resources – either money or cattle – in order to acquire a wife, affects the man’s perceptions of the nature of the marriage relationship.”