Lobola is a traditional African custom that is practised in at least seven southern African countries and some parts of East Africa. Lobola is a dowry/ bride price that a groom pays to the bride’s family for the right or privilege to marry their daughter. The negotiation and payment of Lobola is an integral part of Shona culture and tradition. In Shona society, the payment of Lobola – the main part of which is called roora – is the basis of marriage and family obligations. There is general consensus on what Lobola entails in Zimbabwe and in other African countries.
The purpose of Lobola according to Shona culture is for ‘Kuwaka hukama” which loosely translates to ‘building relations’. Lobola is meant to facilitate the creation of a bond the two families – that of the bride and grooms. Before a price is set, family members from each side sit down to agree on a suitable price. A strong emphasis on the family unit is shown in the negotiation process, because it requires so many family members from both sides to sit in on the discussions. After several meetings the two sets of relatives leave with a sense of familiarity of the people they will soon call family.
Lobola is actually a process – not a one-off thing. Our elders used to say, mukuwasha muonde, hauperi kukohwewa, ‘the son in law is like a fig tree, you keep harvesting.’ Traditionally it was therefore considered a sign of disrespect for the groom to pay it all off at once. In fact he was never supposed to finish paying thus ensuring he always had cause to continue interacting with his new in laws. And that was our ancestors fail safe mechanism to ensure that a bond remained between the two families.
The payment of Lobola is also supposed to be a form of tribute paid to the parents of the girl for raising a bride for the groom as well as for the sons and daughters she will bear for him. In fact, a storyline is usually built into it to make it exciting. The story goes like this: “the man scouted and stole the girl from the unsuspecting parents. The parents have since found out and are fuming. They will let their daughter go, since she likes her captor, but the man has to pay, quite literally. The man obliges and pays for his sin. A big party is then thrown, and they all live happily ever after as one family.” It’s actually a beautiful thing.
In some interpretations of Lobola it is also used as a sort of litmus test by the bride’s family to ascertain the future husband’s ability to financially support his bride-to-be.
In pre colonial times, long before the white man came, Lobola, was paid by use of a hoe made from iron smelted in the Hwedza mountains by the Mbire people. That was long before Zimbabwe was colonised by the British. In those days, people from all over the country moved from one place to the other, trading in gold, copper, iron ore and other minerals. Smelted iron was used to make hoes, axes and spears. When a man failed to present a hoe, or badza, as lobola in marriage, he asked for kutema ugariri, meaning he would stay and work for his bride until the father-in-law was satisfied with his labour.
There is a school of thought that argues that Lobola became somewhat commercialised during the colonial era. That after colonialism the method of payment evolved into cattle which had already been a sign of wealth amongst many indigenous African communities. The same cattle would serve as Lobola when the bride’s brothers and cousins got married, following the system of chipanda. It was an exchange of cows in marriage from one family to the other, back and forth, depending on the number of daughters and sons. That way, wealth was nicely redistributed in the community.
Nowadays most Lobola payments are made in the form of cash, groceries and clothes for the bride’s family. Although in a throwback to the days when cattle were the preferred payment method some innovative techies in Zimbabwe have set up a Remote Livestock Marketing System (RLMS),a start-up that allows trade of livestock online. The website offers a platform for them to pay their Lobola cattle via RLMS. It offers a selection of cattle on display on the site, from which a prospective groom can choose. Also, If there is no space in the in-laws’ residence for the cattle, not to worry. Each animal you choose and buy can be ear tagged, branded, entered into a national database, kept at one of their partner farms, looked after. It’s a perfect union of the old and the new ways.
Unfortunately the concept of Lobola is often misconstrued by those alien to the cultural nuances as the process of ‘purchasing’ a wife. But even when Lobola has been negotiated and is paid for the bride’s family still have a say in how their daughter is treated by their in-law. They can in times of serious marital problems intervene and make decisions. So purchasing doesn’t really apply because the groom does not gain ownership of the bride as he is still accountable to his in laws.
In conclusion, there is nothing wrong with the concept of Lobola. It’s of the very few aspects our Shona culture that most of us still hold on to. It’s part of our identity as a people. The practice only becomes bad when it is abused for commercial purposes or when men treat women badly because Lobola was paid for them.