By Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)
Lobola is adaptable and redeemable for the purposes of modern middle-class society. This has been proven already in the way that the payment method for lobola has been adapted over the ages to remain relevant to the times. For example in its genesis in Shona culture, as many of the young male readers would be envious to read, a few field mice were paid. This then moved on to cattle as a means of payment and now cash is the main tender. So, in the same way, let’s adapt lobola to eliminate the unfavorable aspects of the practice to keep it relevant to society today.
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article, class considerations were not included.
Illustration by Sarah Britten: ‘The Pink Blue Bull’
To some, I present a contradiction: I am a young, well educated, well travelled woman who has grown up with Destiny’s Child’s Independent Woman as the soundtrack to my life, and in the same long breath, I am a self-identifying Africanist who would like any future husband of mine to pay the bride price, or lobola, for my hand in marriage. To me, this isn’t a contradiction. I recognize that a sad legacy of colonialism is that it often leads us so-called Africanists to be defensive and protective over traditional practices that no longer serve the best interests of our people. If we are honest, the practice is often abused and leads to a number of regrettable consequences. I do, however, think that this traditional institution can be ‘reformed’ and retain its relevance for the middle class woman in a modern African society.
In outlining my thoughts on ‘reform’, it is important to note that the fact that I have the ability to stand up for myself and make demands on how my culture should better serve me as a woman, independent of the success of my demands, is because of my economic standing. This is a middle-class perspective that I offer and as such, I do not see the upsides and the reforms that I outline as applying in the saw way to women of ‘lesser’ economic status, for example, rural women. That, alas, is a topic for another day.
That said, these are the upsides for women in my position:
Firstly, lobola has symbolic value. It represents an acknowledgement of the role that my parents have played in my upbringing as a woman, a valuable member of society as well as a gesture of good faith and sincerity on the part of my husband and his family.
Secondly, lobola strengthens ties between our families. In the same way that the wedding ring symbolizes unity between two people, the payment of lobola is a symbol of unity between two families. Lobola is not a once-off deal. It is continual relationship that must be maintained by the families. For example, in my Shona culture, when the designated calf given to my mother during negotiations gives birth its own calf years own, my family is to host a celebration in honour of their son-law and to symbolize the fruition of the marriage. In this way lobola is a give and take between both families, strengthening their relations.
Thirdly, going through the process of lobola can be quite onerous and so, a willingness and desire to proceed with negotiations is an indication of how ‘serious’ my boyfriend is about the relationship and affairs in his own life. There are a number of processes that need to take place and in addition to that, my guy would also need to get his house in order and undertake some sort of financial planning to ensure that he and I are in a position to pay the cattle. All of this isn’t something for the faint-hearted or a guy going on a whim. This is invaluable because marriages are not built and sustained on romantic love alone.
As for the downsides:
To begin with, the abuse of lobola is often perpetrated by families who see their daughters as, excuse the pun, ‘cash cows’. The fathers who see their daughters as money-spinning projects charge hefty prices, and this in turn has a number of consequences:
The first, is that the hefty price tags are often seen as a license for my husband to treat a me as a ‘purchased good’, and in worst cases, as an indentured slave. In turn, women also see that it is acceptable for their husbands to beat them because they have been ‘bought’.
In addition to my husband’s sense of ownership, there might also the sense of ownership by my in-laws. This is particularly problematic if I am to live with or be in close proximity to my husband’s family. With this mindset they are unlikely to hold their son accountable for any abuses he perpetrates against me and, might even enforce some of their own abuses of me, most usually in terms of domestic tasks to be performed. The abuse might also see its ugliest side if my husband were to pass on before me. Think of the movie Neria. Not seen it? The basic plot is that on my husband’s passing, his family would feel that they are entitled to my husband’s property, including me, and would then appropriate it, using it as they see fit.
Lastly, hefty prices can be financially punitive to my husband, and by extension, to me. This is part of myopic and short-sighted thinking where parents (and even some daughters) don’t see that in ‘overcharging’ their son in law, they are only taking away from their daughter’s future household.
These downsides, however, are not irredeemable. Lobola, like many other traditional practises, is adaptable for the purposes of the modern middle-class society. This has been proven already in the way that the payment method for lobola has been adapted over the ages to remain relevant to the times. For example, in its genesis in Shona culture, as many of the young male readers would be envious to read, a few field mice were paid. This then moved on to cattle as a means of payment and now cash is the main tender. So, in the same way, let’s adapt lobola to eliminate the unfavorable aspects of the practice to keep it relevant to society today.
Let me outline my ideas on how to do it at various stages:
To ensure the issue of lobola does not instill any inferiority complexes, the importance of women in society should be reinforced more strongly. The principle of lobola as a token of appreciation, a priceless debt, to parents who have raised a virtuous woman should be emphasized. Girls from a young age, as well as women already married, need to be taught that they are not bought and hence owned in the relationship. This will go towards women not accepting the abuse they may potentially face in marriage. Not only that, boys and men alike also need to be brought into this re-education, so that they too can appreciate the true value of women in their lives.
During the Negotiation:
The key word is moderation. To address the issue of lobola being seen as a price tag , the amount paid should only be a nominal amount, so that it remains a symbol and not a price tag. I will go as far as to suggest a cap on the lobola paid, that it should never go above, say, the cash equivalent of a couple heads of cattle.
Accountability should not end with the closing remarks of the negotiation but a man should be constantly evaluated even after the marriage has been legitimized. We already have mechanisms for accountability within our culture. As woman I could be sent back to my family for a ‘re-education’ if I was not able to look after my household. Men should now be sent back for mistreatment and there could also be damages for mistreating me. Where the abuse becomes physical, the law must be brought in. Abusers must be sent to jail and importantly, families on both sides should not ostracize the women who make use of the law.
With conditions such as these we don’t have to throw the proverbial baby out with the water, lobola as an institution is redeemable. If reformed, it can be relevant to the life of a middle class African woman, symbolizing the unification of two families, an indication of emotional and financial readiness and one that adds accountability.