Paballo Thekiso –
A few years ago, one of my close friends Thabo* proposed to his girlfriend Mpho*, and she said yes. They had been dating for a few years and all of us who knew them were delighted for them. We all thought that this was the beginning of an amazing journey for the two of them.
In Western culture, once a man has popped the question, the couple is free to start discussing wedding arrangements. For most black people, however, this is only the beginning of a process called Lobola. This is effectively a negotiation process between the bride and groom’s families that can take months before the ‘white wedding’ happens. Wikipidea explains it well: Lobolo or Lobola in Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa and northern and southern Ndebele (Mahadi in Sesotho, Roora in Shona, Magadi in Northern Sotho, and Lovola in Xitsonga) is sometimes referred to as ‘bride wealth’ or ‘bride price’. This can be property in cash or kind, which a prospective husband or head of the husband’s family undertakes to give to the head of a prospective wife’s family in consideration of a customary marriage. Historically, this property was in cattle, but over time it has moved to being mostly in cash. Some people still practice the tradition of offering cattle, or even a combination of cattle and money.
The process of Lobola in my culture
It is important to mention that there is no single ‘black culture’. The ways of African people are complex and different and the breadth of the culture itself is vast. There are at least nine ethnic groups in South Africa and though the common aim of lobola is to bring families together, all of them are independent and have different methods and approaches to this process. Most cultures, including Zulus, Xhosas and Tswanas, still practice the old fashioned way where a hand written letter is sent to the woman’s house through a messenger informing them that their son has seen a beautiful flower in their home and his uncles would like to arrange a meeting to discuss the ‘acquisition’ of this flower. Similarly, a hand written letter of response will be sent back to the groom’s house advising them on a suitable date.
Since culture has evolved and technology has advanced, some families just pick up the phone and make meeting arrangements. The negotiations will still be face to face however. In some cultures, the lobola process is handled by uncles from the future bride and groom, and no women are allowed. Sometimes, as was the case with Thabo and Mpho, aunties are allowed and have equal say. Again, in some cultures parents only play an advisory role to the delegation and are never involved in negotiations, while in others, parents are in the forefront of the negotiations.
While Thabo was happy that he now had a fiancè, the ring on Mpho’s finger meant nothing to her elders – in actual fact, it was the reverse because it was seen as a sign of disrespect. In most black cultures, a man must first send his delegation to the woman’s side of the family to announce his intentions before he introduces any western processes into the picture.
As a result of Thabo’s ‘disrespectful act’, before negotiations could even begin, Mpho’s culturally strict uncles hit him with a R2 500 ‘fine’ for not following the right procedure. After much persuasion, this was negotiated down to R1 000 by Thabo’s elders who pleaded ignorance on behalf of their son. If Thabo and Mpho had a baby out of wedlock, another fine, which can be anything from R1 000 to R10 000, would be levied. This fine is for ‘damaging’ their daughter before marriage. There are other cultures that will not even utter a word to the prospective groom’s family until they put something on the table. This can be a bottle of whisky or cash, and only when the women’s uncles are satisfied with pula molomo do they start talking to the man’s delegation. It is therefore possible that even before negotiations begin, the groom, depending on the circumstances mentioned above, can be a few thousand Rand poorer.
So how much does a bride cost?
One evening during dinner with Thabo, Mpho and other friends, we started talking about how expensive it is lately for one to get a bride. During our discussion, I remember Thabo casually asking Mpho what she thought her parents would charge him, and without even thinking twice, she responded: ‘my parents are very modern and not material people so even if you just buy my dad a hat and a blanket for my mom as a token of appreciation for raising me, they will be satisfied.’ I suspect she had more than a few glasses of red wine that night because what her uncles put on the table during negotiations almost gave Thabo a heart attack.
Prices of lobola can be anything from R25 000 to R100 000, and this is solely determined by the bride’s family according to what they think their daughter is worth. The primary purpose of lobola is to build relations between the respective families as marriage is seen as more than a union between two individuals. Lobola is a token of appreciation to the bride’s parents for raising a woman for the groom and should not be seen as a chance to make a quick buck. Unfortunately, this process can be abused and handled wrong, and it can be torturous and divide rather than unite families. The commercialisation of lobola has undoubtedly turned many people from practicing it, but if this process is handled well and all goes smoothly, lobola is a beautiful practice that should be embraced, celebrated rather than be abused and looked down upon. For Thabo and Mpho, the process was torturous and sadly it did not just divide their families but ended their relationship.
In the olden days, a man would pay way more for a virgin and way less for a woman who had a child out of wedlock. Today, prices are set according to how well mannered the bride to be is, how educated she is, meaning the more educated she is, the more expensive the lobola will be. Sometimes families also look at how well off the future son-in-law is and go all out to milk him.
On the day of negotiation, Thabo gave his uncles R25 000 to start the negotiations, and because of what Mpho told him, I suspect he thought that would cover it. But when he received the phone call from his uncles, he almost had a heart attack; R150 000 was the amount the family was demanding for their daughter. Thabo was a freelance graphic designer and though he made decent amount of money, this was too much. Thabo ordered his Uncles to pull out of negotiations and take the R25 000 back and inform Mpho’s family that they would return in the near future to continue negotiations. Sadly, the negotiations weren’t successful, and Thabo and Mpho even ended their relationship. Until today, years after their dilemma, Thabo and Mpho have not recovered from the trauma.
My wife and I have two daughters who, by the will of God, will get married one day.
As followers of Christ, should we demand lobola for them and if yes, how much do we charge? The conclusion we arrived to is yes, we will ask for lobola for both of our daughters, because we believe the meeting and joining of two families is important and should still happen. But what we won’t do though is make this process a stumbling block for our children to get married. While we believe that a man should show proof that he will be able to take care of my daughter, (another symbol of lobola) for us marriage in front of God is more important.
So can culture co-exist alongside Christianity especially with the Lobola process? In my next post I’ll invite you into my own personal lobola journey.
* Not their real names