Lobolo or Lobola in Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa and northern and southern Ndebele (Mahadi in Sesotho, Roora in Shona, and Magadi in Northern Sotho, Lovola in Xitsonga), sometimes referred to as "bride wealth" or "bride price", is property in cash or kind, which a prospective husband or head of his 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 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.) Although not very common, some families even use electronic transfers and credit cards as a form of payment.
Lobolo and the Law
In South Africa, where the custom of lobolo is widely practiced, the union was previously concluded in terms of customary law, but is now governed under the Recognition of Customary Marriages, 1998 (Act 120 of 1998) (RCMA) and has the following prerequisites to qualify a marriage under customary law:
- Consensus - Historically, consensus was sought between the families of the prospective bride and groom’s families. Since 2008, the RCMA states that consensus is required only between the individuals, and not their families.
- Age Requirements - According to customary law, no specific age requirement exists however, the RCMA includes a minimum age requirement of 18.
- Lobolo - A customary marriage, under the RCMA, is valid on the agreement to pay lobolo and does not require the payment of lobolo.
- Transfer of the Bride - The transfer of a bride is another requirement for the validity of a customary marriage. The RCMA does not specifically regulate this custom and is dealt with on an ad-hoc basis.
- Absence of Common Law Marriage - Two parties in a monogamous customary marriage can enter into a common law marriage, but not vice versa
- Prohibited Degrees of Relationship - In the past, each community had their own rules about prohibited relationships. These rules have evolved over the years. The RCMA states that these prohibited relationships are regulated by customary rules.
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; normally, this would just be the uncles of the marrying parties, as well as the fathers, where custom allows. Sometimes women are also allowed to be present, but in the side-lines of the negotiations, not actively taking part in the negotiations. Often, to dispel any tensions between the families, a bottle of brandy is placed on the table, however, this is not limited to brandy, and it can be traditional sorghum beer. 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' (Sotho - "Pulamolomo") i.e. price for opening your mouth (to speak) to express the purpose of your visit. It is up to the potential wife’s delegation to decide as to whether to make use of the alcohol or keep it closed.
It is generally accepted that 10 cows, at a minimum, are required in a lobolo within the Xhosa and Zulu cultures, however, differing customs within various regions may contribute in determining this amount, as well as the value of each cow. In 2009, the average cow was priced at approximately ZAR2,000, but overtime with inflation, this has changed. Today, negotiations involve setting a price for a single cow and then multiplying the agreed price by the number of cows the new bride is deemed to be worth. The amount due is effected by many different factors including, but not limited to, the education level of the prospective bride as well as whether the prospective bride already has children. Semanya (2014) claims that even high-profile figures such as Nelson Mandela practiced the custom, by paying a lobolo of 60 cows for his wife, Graça Machel.
Shona culture and Ndebele culture
A man marrying a woman from the Shona or Ndebele culture has to observe lobolo (called roora in Shona). A man is seen to love his partner when he strives to save and pay for lobolo. In the Shona and Ndebele cultures in Zimbabwe, Lobolo takes place in a number of stages. At each stage of the ceremony, there are traditions to observe and small amounts to pay. Lobolo is not paid at once, but is a culmination of many different amounts. The amount paid is determined during negotiations and is 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, the process can be concluded in two short 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 bride's family tells the grooms family what they want as lobolo. A date is then set, agreeable to both parties, to meet again. At the time of writing, a cow in Zimbabwe costs $500 and the bride's family can ask for a cash equivalent of the number of cows they want. The second stage, where the groom's family present themselves on the agreed date, money is again placed in a woven basket to be allowed to speak and fulfills the bride's family requests by presenting all of the 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 lobolo 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" (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 process described above 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 are presented, 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 the past, 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 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, lobolo 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. Lobolo is also seen by some rural South African woman as a sign of respect in that it symbolises their worth and reinforces their dignity. 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.
The dissolution of a customary marriage occurs on the death of the husband or wife. However, the marriage could continue if the woman is transferred to a brother of the deceased to sire an heir. In the event that the woman returns to her father’s house as a result of alleged abuse, the husband may have to pay a fine to the father, prior to fetching (phutuma) her. If the husband does not fetch her within reasonable time, then it would be assumed that he had intended to dissolve the marriage. If the wife refuses to return to the husband, then the husband may make a claim to a portion of the lobola. If the husband wishes to end the marriage, he could send her back to her father’s house. Should the wife initiate the divorce, the father will have to repay some of the lobola.
- Umtsimba - Swazi marriage ceremony
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