Lobolo or Lobola in Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa and northern and southern Ndebele (Mahadi in Sesotho, Roora in Shona, and Magadi in Northern Sotho), sometimes translated as bride price, is a traditional Southern African custom whereby the man pays the family of his fiancée for her hand in marriage. 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. (Compare with the European dowry custom where the woman brings assets.)
Traditionally the Lobolo payment was in cattle as cattle were the primary symbol of wealth in African society. However, many modern urban couples have switched to using cash. Some families even use electronic transfers and credit cards as a form of payment.
The process of Lobolo negotiations can be long and complex, and involves many members from both the bride's and the groom's extended families. Often, to dispel any tensions between the families, a bottle of brandy is placed on the table. This is usually not drunk; it is simply a gesture to welcome the guest family and make everyone feel more relaxed, and it is known as mvulamlomo, which is Xhosa for 'mouth opener' i.e. price for opening your mouth (to speak) to express the purpose of your visit.
Shona culture and Ndebele culture
A man marrying a woman from the Shona culture or Ndebele culture has to observe lobolo or roora. A man is seen to love his beloved when he strives to save and pay for his beloved lobolo or roora. In the Shona cultures and Ndebele cultures in Zimbabwe, Lobolo(called roora in the Shona language) takes place in a number of stages. At each stage of the ceremony, there are traditions to observe and small amounts to pay. Lobolo/ roora is not paid up at once but is a culmination of many different amounts. The amount paid is determined at the negotiations and dependent on various factors. If the groom has been saving up in preparation for the marriage after hints from his beloved of what the lobolo might be, in the Ndebele culture the process of lobola can be as short and smooth in two stages - the first stage, the mouth opener stage or isivulamlomo where the groom is given a chance to state his intentions to marry his beloved after putting money in a woven basket and the brides family tells the grooms family what they want as lobolo and set a date agreeable to both parties to meet again. A cow in Zimbabwe costs $500 and the brides family can ask for a cash equivalent of the number of cows they want. The second stage, where the grooms family present themselves on the agreed date, places money in a woven basket to be allowed to speak and fulfills the brides family requests by presenting all of the lobolo. Note that this happens, the tendency is to follow the below process which is lengthy, but the key points are the same in terms of lobolo.
The price and ceremony for meeting the in-laws is called "Mbonano" and is entry to the house. This is followed by "Guzvi", a second price for greeting the in-laws and accompanied by the traditional greeting (special clapping depending on culture, noting that the Shona people are 12 different ethnic groups). Subsequent gifts of cash or food are then placed into a special plate that is used for the occasion. This is either bought or borrowed and has a price and ceremonial reference as well: "Kubvisa ndiro" (the price of buying or borrowing the plate).
Other gifts or prices include "Vhuramuromo" (meaning opening of mouth) for the greeting of the guests, similar to the Xhosa Loloba mvulamlomo. "Dare" for calling of the witnesses to the marriage and "Matsvakirai kuno" for the explanation of "How did you meet my daughter" or "Who told you that I have a daughter?"
Gifts for the mother of the bride then include "Mbereko", for carrying the bride in a pouch or sling when she was a baby, and "Mafukidzadumbu" for "covering of the belly"; this is alternately translated as "carrying the baby in the womb" or "tucking the baby in with a blanket (when she wakes in the night)". Among the various stages of the roora ceremony, the groom to be has to provide outfits for the mother of the bride. These are called "Nhumbi dzaamai" and will traditionally include a blanket alongside a standard outfit, while the outfits for the father are called "Nhumbi dzababa" and will often be a suit of choice to later wear for the European wedding ceremony (if the couple has one).
A special gift for the father of the bride is the "Matekenyandebvu" to acknowledge him for "the pulling of the beard" as she sat on his knee, or putting up with the playful antics of his daughter as a child.
This is followed by a small allowance for "Mari inouhongwa nemusihare" or the purchase of household or cooking utensils, and this amount is given to the bride. If there are younger sisters or siblings, she may give them a portion of the money. This money is for all the cooking that will have taken place for the party which the groom will finance after the ceremony is concluded.
Next comes the actual "bride price". This is called "Rusambo" and although the whole above process is referred to or called "roora", this is the name given to the whole ceremony and all of the gifts, not just the bride price or dowry. Traditionally a gift of cattle, this is most commonly paid in cash, although the amounts will still be representative of fair market price for cattle.
The new groom will also pay for "Munongedzi wedanga", a stick used for driving the cattle into the corral. If the cattle are cash equivalents, the stick will also be its cash equivalent. Normally this is given in the form of a walking stick.
Grocery items and outfits are at the discretion of the bride's parents, and will be included and inspected after the Rusambo. Adhering to the stated requirements of the new in-laws is a show of respect from the new son-in-law. It is often advisable to do exactly as stated or better, to ensure smooth relations between the newly united families.
The final stage includes a party financed by the newly acquired groom.
After the gifts, the groom greets the in-laws as a new groom (no longer a prospective groom or stranger, but a member of the family) with the special traditional clapping greeting and is permitted to be a part of the household. In some traditional circumstances, the younger siblings of the new bride may also see the groom as an alternate husband and he may be responsible for their welfare. In older times, the younger sisters could also be offered as alternate wives in the case of death of the bride (older daughter), in similar fashion to ancient (Mosaic) Jewish tradition. This tradition has fast fallen away due to urbanisation, migration and HIV/AIDS. Once welcomed to the family, the groom may be given an animal totem depending on the ethnic group with which he marries into. He would be given a respectful title such as 'MUKWASHA' which means son-in-law. Other titles could be 'babamukuru' or 'babamunini' depending on the relationships in the family (if he marries an older sister, he becomes babamukuru to the younger siblings and if he is married to a younger sister, he is babamunini to those sisters who are older than his wife).
In certain shona groups, even after the main ceremony, roora still needs to be paid in small amounts after the birth of a child or after 20 years, this is to continually thank and acknowledge the wife's family.
Lobolo may have some unintended negative effects. It may create a financial barrier for some young men looking to take a bride. It is common for a couple that is emotionally ready to commit to each other to stay unmarried if the man does not have the financial resources to satisfy the impeding traditional ritual, and in some cases the bride-to-be who has the financial resources secretly pays her own Lobolo by giving the money to the man who in turn hands it over to the brides family. For those who do have the financial means, the issue can be Lobolo's opportunity cost. Young men who are in the wealth-creation stage of life may feel that their future is better secured if they invest their money elsewhere to receive significant financial returns.
Lobolo is seen by some as an extravagance that has little relevance in a society where young Africans are trying to lift themselves out of poverty. However, the tradition is still adhered to as strongly as ever, and in families where tradition and intention override greed, Lobolo can be a great way of showing commitment between families, not just between the bride and groom. Many traditional marriages utilise a cash-based Lobolo; this can be then followed by a European-style wedding ceremony, where the Lobolo funds are used to pay for expenses. In this way, any outlaid costs are returned to the payer in another form, preserving tradition, honour and finances.
Gay marriage controversy
In December 2005, the South African National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL) condemned the Constitutional Court decision to legalise gay marriage, primarily because this decision would go against Lobolo practices.