1 August 2017

Zimbabwe: Lobola - a Blessing or a Curse?

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For those of you who do not know, lobola is a dowry or bride price that is given to the bride's family by the groom's.

The word encompasses a marriage custom that has been practised in Africa for generations and has evolved as society has changed.

I attended a relative's lobola ceremony where we represented the bride's side of the family. It was only the second time I had been a part of one and it was both a pleasant and an unpleasant experience. It made me think. I want to raise some issues that the custom brings up and I welcome your comments.

Lobola: a blessing or a curse?

Every custom and traditional practice serves a purpose for that particular group of people who observe it. Or at least it is supposed to. Traditionally, lobola has been one of the ceremonies that forms a part of the process of solemnising a marriage as well as bringing the two families together.

From beginning to end, there are steps that must be followed and ways of doing things that are very specific. For example, there are certain people who can attend the negotiation and presentation ceremonies and others who are excluded. The groom's family should be especially careful to perform their obligations, lest they offend the bride's family.

There is a blessing and a curse in lobola. It is blessing because it provides a framework within which a couple can make their relationship official, before those closest to them and before the world. This is in contrast to the "hook up" culture that prevails among us today. Very importantly, it makes sure that both people know the family that they are marrying into, which ensures that the couple will not be isolated.

On the other hand, the focus on the idea that two families are coming together, while promoting a sense of community, can take away from the fact that it is actually two people coming together. I have countless stories of people whose marriages were wrecked because of interference from parents, aunts and uncles. Every decision that the couple has to make must pass through the family council first and needs their approval.

The role of women and men

A large number of women today have been raised in single-parent households, usually by their mother. And yet, in many families, the process is still dominated by male family members who consult with other family members but ultimately, are in charge of making the decisions. There is a share of the bride price and gifts that are given to the mother of the bride, but the father as the head of the household, receives most of it on behalf of the the family.

I attended a ceremony where the father acted as the father of the bride, even though he had made no contribution to the raising of his daughter. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. I think it is worth saying that I have no issue with a father occupying a position of honour, but I think that, in that situation, he occupies a position he is not entitled to. And it just looked like he was showing up at the end for the financial benefits. Surely there is something wrong with this?

I am also struck by the fact that in these kinds of ceremonies, women often occupy a subservient position. And regrettably, it is not just at events such as this but is a prominent feature of our culture. The men sit in the house waiting to be served while the women slave away all day - peeling, chopping, cooking, cleaning and minding the children. The men discuss important matters and call for more beer every once in a while. Someone suggested that in times gone by, the men were probably in charge of slaughtering the livestock, chopping the wood etc, but convenience has changed things.

But if things have changed for men, why do women still bear most of the burden?

Tradition for tradition's sake?

There are so many more issues I could raise, like overcharging by families and marriage being delayed because families cannot agree, and the culture clash that arises as a result of mixed marriages. What do you think?

Is lobola important to you?

Do you plan on observing it when you get married, do you have a choice?

Finally, has lobola lost it's meaning or does it serve a legitimate purpose today?

This article first appeared in The Tembisan and is republished with the permission of the author.

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