Lobola and the meaning of marriage

In the old days, long before the white man came, roora, lobola, dowry or bridal wealth was paid by use of a hoe made from iron smelted in the Hwedza mountains by the Mbire people. That was long before this country 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.

They had a similar system in Biblical days. Jacob worked seven years for Rachel. Then Laban, his father in-law, cheated and gave him Leah instead because it was not proper for a younger sister to get married before the older sister did. Because Jacob loved Rachel so much, he worked for another seven years. In the end, it was not so much the years that Jacob worked as lobola for his wives; it was the relationship developed and sustained between Jacob and Laban that sealed the families together forever.

Back in the village, my grandmother Mbuya VaMandirowesa said one day, we would all get married and bring many cattle to fill the whole kraal. Since there were more than 15 young girls in the village compound, several cattle pens were going to be built to accommodate all the cattle. There was no marriage without cattle. The same cattle would serve as lobola for our brothers and cousins, 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.

Mbuya could see each one of us virgins being picked one by one by the local boys whose parents and grandparents she already knew. In those days, we married among ourselves, as long as the totems were different and we were not related. Tairoorana vematongo.

Sometimes Mbuya and vana tete, my aunts, compared the fatness of our bodies down at the river after a swim and during play. The fatter and lighter skinned you were, the more cattle you would fetch. Among us, the village virgins, there were a few of my cousins including Piri, my beautiful cousin Elizabeth born in South Africa and the very light skinned Martha with freckles.

Being a very dark and skinny girl, kamusikana katete katematema, they said I was not likely to fetch a man with good cows. Besides, my skills in the fields, around the kitchen, brewing beer, grinding or pounding were nothing remarkable. In comparison to my sisters Charity, Constance and the others, I was weak. I was therefore aware, from a very young age, that I would be the last to be picked by any prospective husband looking for beauty and skill as attributes to a good wife.

Meanwhile my mother was not so concerned about lobola that would be generated from her eight daughters. She cared for one thing only: skills from education. Once education was achieved, marriage would look after itself. So the daughters of my mother left the village for boarding school while Piri, Elizabeth, Martha and all the cousins stayed and married the village boys from across the river or behind the mountains. Plenty of cows were paid for Piri’s first marriage. It failed. Then she met Misheki. It was real love with no money. Misheki paid one cow and a few dollars for lobola. That marriage failed too, when they moved to Harare and could not make ends meet.

Because quite a bit of lobola was paid for her, Piri expects all our young nieces to bring in plenty of cattle. I support her in this regard. Why should a man simply take a daughter and live with her, make her cook for him like a wife when nothing has been paid to acknowledge that she comes from people? Munhu akabva kuvanhu. Like the way this young man called Philemon Mukusakura has done to our niece Shamiso.

Shamiso is our brother Lovemore’s daughter.
She left the village nine months ago having been promised work in Glen Norah B. Her mother did not hear from her at all. After a couple of trips to Glen Norah B and asking relatives and friends, we managed to track Shamiso down and found her living in one room in a rented house in Glen View with Philemon Mukusakura.

Welcome to Philemon and Shamiso’s one room in Glen View. Piri and I are sitting on the bed. In this one room everything is so well packed and organised.

You wonder how a double bed, fridge, stove, wardrobe, chest of drawers with pots, pans, plates, television with DVD, music system, prima stove, a hot plate, dishes, shoes, and even a bicycle can fit so nicely in one room. Everything is incredibly tidy.

At the entrance, sitting on a plastic stool, is Shamiso’s boyfriend, Philemon, wearing blue jeans, a Zanu-PF green cap and a red T-shirt with Fly Emirates written on it. We call him boyfriend because Philemon and his people have not come to our family to tell us that he is living as man and wife with our daughter. As Shamiso’s tete, the aunts, we are her fathers. We own her. Ndewedu.

Shamiso sits there, twiddling her fingers. Her hair is short and nicely combed. There is no hiding that she is at least six months pregnant. So it took her only a couple months or a bit to find a man, move in and get pregnant? Small and pretty, you can almost mistake her for a 16-year old. With some embarrassment or shyness, she looks down at her big abdomen. We look at Philemon and wonder: Why make such a young girl pregnant?

Piri is angry. Shamiso’s father Lovemore died when Shamiso was only three. Now she is 19, with only two subjects passed at O Level. Piri says she will take Shamiso back to the village until Philemon is ready to pay lobola for her. Philemon begs that Shamiso stays and he would bring her to the village when he is ready to pay lobola. He only needs a month or a bit more to get all his lobola money ready.

Philemon sells airtime cards and anything else like fruit, windscreen wipers, phone chargers and other gadgets. Where would he get the money to pay lobola?

“You have already used her without paying a cent. This girl was a flower. But look at her now; she is big, atokurirwa nenhumbu. And if today you say, go away, what will she do except return home? If you really want her, you will follow us back to the village and pay the lobola.” Piri said. Judging from the tone of her voice, that was final. Piri ordered Shamiso to pack her clothes in the suitcase on top of the wardrobe. Shamiso did as she was told, without saying a word.

Then we left, leaving Philemon almost in tears. In his sad eyes, I saw something passionate, a certain longing and fear of loss. Maybe love still exists.

Three weeks ago, when we were driving to the village, I repeated Shamiso’s story to my friend Alison, the one visiting from Australia. And I was laughing at how Piri challenged Philemon to do what is right by our family.

Alison then asked what was so funny about advocating for a backward system like lobola.
“Why treat women like commodities?”

I explained that the function of lobola was an age old tradition still operating in at least seven Southern African countries and also in East Africa. It was part of our identity and tradition. But Alison argued that Piri and I were simply perpetuating the exploitation of women using the guise of tradition.

“Why do you want to make your niece the property of her husband? She is not a child-bearing machine with little control over her reproductive organs. Your niece should have the right to say no to lobola.”

Then Alison gave me this look that seemed to say that I should know better. Or perhaps the look was asking why I was letting down the women’s cause like this. Did I not march with her, many years ago when I was a student on International Women’s day back in Australia demanding the rights of women to make choices about their lives and their bodies?

Why is it that since I have been back here in Zimbabwe, I now preach a different gospel?
“This is why women get abused because the man says he has the right to do so. After all, he bought her. Lobola should be abolished,” Alison said.

I argued that historically colonial administrators and missionaries viewed the use of cattle in marriage as a bad thing for women. Because they looked down upon our culture, they could not see that there were spaces within tradition that respected women. I told her that she was falling into the trap of applying euro-centric and Western feminist views on traditional African practices. This did not sit well with our cultural norms. Piri was quiet. Just as well she did not fully understand the argument because of the English limitation.

There was no resolution to the argument with Alison. And I knew that there were many of my sisters out there who share her views.  But, sevanhu vakafunda, because we went to school, differences in opinion did not mean that we stopped being.

Surprisingly, Philemon sent a message through a go between, munyai, that he wanted to pay lobola for Shamiso. So, last weekend we were all gathered in Mai Shamiso’s big hut, for Shamiso’s lobola ceremony to Philemon. We sat on the cement polished floor. On the wall were several shelves polished beautifully with special clay mixed with cow dung and charcoal, matsito. Plates and cups were nicely arranged. On the right side were the stacked polished clay pots with chevron patterns. I could tell my mother’s hand on the bigger pots, mhirimo. She was the expert pottery maker around here. In my mother’s days, every woman was expected to bring a skill to her husband’s family.
I looked at Shamiso, sitting against the wall, playing with her phone and I whispered to Piri, “What skills do you think our niece is bringing to Philemon’s family?” Piri laughed quietly and said, “Ability to text on the phone and send rude jokes to people as quickly as possible?”
Apart from the small introductory payments, Philemon paid mapfukudzadumbu, the symbol to thank the mother for carrying Shamiso inside her uterus and stretching her abdomen the way she did. Then the mombe yehumai, the cow to thank the mother for giving birth to Shamiso. He could not afford the eight cattle, danga or rusambo, the bulk of the lobola. Still, he had made a big effort. Later on, if Philemon found Shamiso to be a virgin, we will politely remind Philemon that we need mombe yechimanda, the cow that will be slaughtered and enjoyed by both families to celebrate Shamiso’s virginity. When the payments had been paid to the tune of a borrowed US$1000, Philemon and his people asked to meet the family. They came in crouching and clapping in humility. We greeted them and ululated, accepting Philemon into our family.

“Now that you have married her, do not beat her up because you have paid something for her. This girl is not a drum to be beaten. Shamiso, if he beats you, report the matter to the police and he will be arrested,” Piri said laughing but clearly stating that domestic violence was not acceptable in any marriage, lobola or no lobola.

Among all Mbuya VaMandirowesa’s granddaughters, most of us have been a great disappointment when it comes to marriage and lobola.
Out of all the 15 girls who grew up around the same time in the village compound, only a few of us got any money or cows paid for lobola, despite our education, skills and professions.

Some of my sisters and cousins fell in love and took the role of second wives to good men.
Were they content with just a simple tsvakiraikuno, “I have your daughter” as payment for lobola? Nothing else was paid to our elders after that. My “small house” cousins and sisters had already worked hard and acquired individual wealth.

Sadly, a couple of them died leaving massive wealth to the new husbands.
In the absence of alignment between customary law and Western law, does tsvagirai kuno alone allow the husband, who is already married to someone else, to inherit his small house or second wife’s wealth? Confusion and manipulation of customary marriages to suit a particular situation in inheritance laws remains.

In the end, there is nothing wrong with the concept of lobola.
The practice only becomes bad when it is abused for commercial purposes or when men treat women badly because lobola was paid for them. If the guy has no money, as in the case of Philemon, he should still respect the family enough and pay something. Our elders used to say, mukuwasha muonde, hauperi kukohwewa, the son in law is like a fig tree, you keep harvesting.

Looking back to where we came from, the hoe was not a mere exchange of cattle and a woman. No. It was a symbol to unite the two families together.

Despite the commercial aspect, lobola should keep its cultural significance in creating new relationships, kuchengetedza hukama pakuwanana.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations and works as a development consultant.

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  • Zviyo

    Dr Sekai,I applaud you for upholding our culture ,true lobola must be paid as it binds families together.Your biblical reference denoting Jacob working for Rachel for 14 yrs is yet another method of lobola payment .

  • Michael Mokwena

    I learn a lot
    about our culture from reading your articles every week Dr Sekai and the narration
    of events is excellent it gives one a vivid picture of the setting of events.
    My girlfriend is Shona and I will be paying Lobola for her in December this
    year and your articles have given me an idea of what to expect. I will contact
    you closer to the time so that you can be my go-between seeing that you have a
    good knowledge regarding our different cultures. Mina I am Ndebele and I left Zimbabwe at a
    very young age so I do not know much about our culture back home so by reading
    your articles I am drawn closer to home.

  • Munhu

    My mother in law told me that I should not pay all my lobola all at once. The son-in-law should be a fruit tree, bearing fruit every year. It was never about the money though but the kinship and the connection between the two families. I continue to pay it off, and the tree is still bearing fruit.

  • Sangodema

    Nyangwe zvazvo Phirimon akazouuya neroora, piri aka kanganisa kutora muzukuru. ko dai Phirimoni asina kuzoteera maidini

  • Robert

    i am a white man who has fallen in love very deeply with a black woman, she has had two children from two relationships that never got to the marriage stage…At the moment we have being living together now for 3.5 years. i treat her two small children as if they are my own. The younger child knows no daddy but me, as he is or was at the time to small to know his real father. Both children call me Daddy. I love them as if they were my own. My job is now stable….. far more than it was a few year ago. My Partner’s family have accepted me in a very nice way, since the start of our relationship. I have for the past 3.5 years provided for my family as i call them…. schooling, clothing, and even a house to stay in….. i have also bought my partner a car…. and yes an engagement ring which she has worn for the past year and a couple of months. We now wish to have a child of our own and yes i am willing to pay Lobolo and get married. which we are aiming for November 2014. We are trying to satisfy both tradition and christian and so perhaps who knows bring in a new way of going about paying lobolo as i have no family to represent me in the negotiations as they stay to far away. Even after 3.5 years we still love each other very very much. The problem is this, we both dont know who can or how does one represent us in the negotiations, but above all else what are the negotiations about??? I know its about the cost of gaining a wife an all that but how does one negotiate ??? do i or the person representing me say i am willing to pay say R 20 000 ?? who sets the price?? and what governs the price???….. I would enjoy comments please and yes advise.

    • ChamaKanda

      This might be too late a reply. Here is what you need to do. Ask your wife to look for a go- between called munyayi in Shona . As for who sets the ‘price’. There is actually no price. There are procedures which might translate into money but traditionally Lobola (roora) was settled in cattle and gifts. You do not need to pay everything.You do it in stages especially if you are blessed with children.Lobola is the way you express your appreciation to the people who gave you your wife and these will be her parents and and uncles and aunts and grandmothers etc
      In the end you will become your family and hers will now be related in a very special way. Your munyayi will express your wish to your in laws and you csn take it from there
      This can be a very exciting experience if handled the traditional way which is simply a way of extending families and building strong relationships based on love and respect. Taken commercially it can be a nightmare, if it is handled by people who do not understand this tradition
      For those of us in the know, we always stick to the basics and refuse anything fishy and no one can force you to do what you and your wife do not want.We always win.The crooked in this game always loose because the tradition, although not written down, has a template that you can stick to.

      • Robert

        Hi ChamaKanda, i thank you for your reply and i appreciate the trouble you took to write. I have read your reply to my wife…and we both fully agree with your comment re: “no one can force you to do what you and your wife do not want”….. For this we Thank you!!!