Lobola, like other good practices in Zimbabwe, is beginning to lose its value and purpose because of greed and poverty, especially in the current economic climate.
The custom, meant to establish ties between the families of the bride and groom, and symbolise the groom’s gesture of appreciation towards the bride’s family, has become a huge source of income for many families, with every family member wanting a share of the bride price.
Recently a 60 year old Masvingo woman in Eastern Zimbabwe, Dorothy Mwanyisa, was thoroughly beaten by her son for denying him a portion of his sister’s lobola. Aspinas Masaze was charged with domestic violence for the assault after his mother told him she had little to spare after giving a portion of the cash to his late father’s elder brother as required by traditional customs.
It is therefore not surprising that even long lost relatives show up on the day of lobola negotiations knowing fully well that they stand to benefit and get money just for being present.
Former Education Minister, historian and educationist and now a traditional leader, Aeneas Chigwedere defines lobola as a form of marriage payment to build relationships and to demonstrate the ability of a man to take care of his family. Chigwedere, in his book Lobola: Pros and Cons (1982), explains the practice thus: the bride’s family receives payment in the form of goods, money, livestock to compensate for the pain the parents of the bride went through in raising their daughter and the children that she would bear into the husbands family.
In the Shona culture, the groom is supposed to also pay the bride’s father to thank him for his patience when his daughter was pulling his beard as she sat on his knees. This is called Matekenyandebvu.
Over the years, the practice has become a gateway to quick riches, and the commodification of women, but in the process it has also become a barrier to marriage for many young men.
And who doesn’t want to get married in Zimbabwe?
It’s as much a dream for young men as it is for the parents to see their daughter get married – but not for free.
“It is no wonder that many of the youth are resorting to cohabitating; they cannot afford what some parents demand as lobola,” said Pastor Anglistone Sibanda.
Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe received over $35,000 in cash and 15 head of cattle as bride price for his daughter Bona. The average price of a cow is $700. Mr Mugabe’s son-in-law Simbarashe Chikore was reported to be a pilot. How many a suitor could afford that figure what with many – still employed – earning less than the poverty datum line that lies at around $540 per month.
Even former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai has allegedly had lobola-related problems, with some rags claiming he used party funds to pay the bride price. And Big Brother Africa housemates Ghanaian fashion designer Elikem Kumordzie and Zimbabwean socialite Pokello Nare have had to bide their time while Elikem saved up for lobola, reported to be about $25,000.
To Pastor Sibanda, for any suitor to decide to get married is to invite financial punishment. This is how you end up with local headlines like Man steals uncle’s two dogs to pay lobola and Man demands lobola back claiming wife ‘broke his manhood’.
A cultural and traditional practice meant to cement families, and strengthen relationship bonds has been ruined by greed.
“It has been turned into a business and this is the main driver of omasihlalisane (cohabitating) which is against cultural, moral and biblical principles. Cohabitation is also driven by migration and poverty among other things, and it threatens formal marriage,” Sibanda added.
Sex is not free
People need to value their children’s marriages for what they are, not for what they can get out of the union. This is what lobola should stand for. Lives can be lost, otherwise.
In June, 42-year-old Stane Ncube of Gokwe in the Midlands province was jailed 12 year for taking an axe to his father-in-law who had threatened to take back his daughter over non-payment of lobola.
Ncube reportedly axed Tarawedzera Mbiti (may his soul rest in peace) when he came to his homestead demanding lobola and making the threats.
According to men’s rights group Padare/Enkundleni, high cases of domestic violence can be directly or indirectly linked to the commercialisation of lobola. As a result, men are using the payment as justification to oppress and abuse women who they view as bought property.
Such men believe the high charges that some parents demand during lobola negotiations entitles them to own their wives – it’s like they have bought enough shares in a company to more or less own the company.
Marriages have been known to collapse because of parents’ lobola demands. They demand that their daughter be returned if the agreed lobola is not forthcoming, their argument: pay up or no sex.
Earlier this year, Shepherd Gumbo from Harare told the Harare Magistrates Court that he separated with his wife after his in-laws banned him from having sexual intercourse until he paid the balance on the bride price.
Gumbo said his wife Patricia Sabawo was taken away from him by the in-laws saying the comfort he had enjoyed was equivalent to the lobola he had paid so far.
His wife was now demanding maintenance.
Maybe calls for regulation should be supported to preserve the age old lobola practice, especially in this capitalized and modernised society.
Thabani Nyoni, an analyst from Bulawayo, however disagrees.
Nyoni argues that regulating lobola is difficult but introducing the subject in formal and informal educational institutions like churches, schools might foster understanding of the practice and stop its commercialisation.
Khanyile Mlotshwa, a Pan-Africanist and post graduate media studies student, believes that Africans should re-think how this culture of lobola continues in a capitalist world.
“We have to return to the initial aims of paying lobola, then we will appreciate why we need it and why we have to save it from commercialisation and abuse,” says Mlotshwa.