Marriage Tradition In Africa: Lobola

Lobola is a century-old tradition, still common throughout Africa. This system requires that a price be paid for the right to marry a women. This practice is still used extensively in contemporary African society and has raised both critical and supportive voices.

Lobola is an age-old African custom that is as alive today as it was 100 years ago. Both the families of the bride and groom would be scandalized if they did not adhere to this custom. On the surface, Lobola is a complex and very formal process of negotiation between the two families to come to a mutual agreement of the price that the groom has to pay in order to marry the bride. This may seem like a purchase and a sale, but this custom is the very opposite of a commercial transaction.

What makes Lobola so important for marriage is that it is based on a process that brings the two families together. Mutual respect and dignity are woven into the process, and the love between the man and woman is expanded to include the immediate and extended families. But, like all traditional customs, it is open to abuse and distortion in the modern world.

The Lobola process is often complicated and sometimes confusing for the modern couple. The process if very formal and has certain protocols that have to be adhered to. For example, although the two families concerned might have lived next to each other for years, all negotiation between the parents must be conducted in writing and not by telephone or by a quick visit. The reason for this seemingly absurd rule is that although the families might have known each other for years, they do not know each other on the level of the Lobola exchange. In other words, they do not know each other at the the level of the seriousness and sanctity of marriage

The arrangements for the meeting between the families involve endless formalities. Often negotiations are not conducted by the parents of the prospective groom at all, but can be conduced via relatives, usually uncles of the groom. The reason for this is that the extended family is an important element in African culture and especially in the institution of marriage.

Great ceremony and dignity is involved when the negotiating "teams" from the families meet. The formal tension between the two parties involved in the negotiations is often broken by a bottle of brandy placed on a table. Even though the bottle may not actually be opened, this indicates a relaxation of tension and an acceptance of the quests. This gesture is known as mvulamlomo, which, translated form the Xhosa, means the mouth-opener.

The negotiations can take up to two days and the talk will usually revolve the number of cattle to be paid as the Bride-price. There is a modern variation to this theme though. Most often it is not cattle that are being talked about but rather money. Cattle are symbolic and represent certain amounts of money. Once the bride price or Lobalo is established, the negotiations are formally over.

However, there are other rules that have to be followed before the actual wedding. The young couple are usually forbidden from meeting until the actual wedding ceremony.

The purpose of all this fuss and decorum is to create a feeling of trust and mutual understanding at a deep level between the two families; and more importantly, a feeling of community.

Many people do not realize that there is no sense of personal enrichment in Lobola. The money received by the bride's family is used to help the young bride set up house. Lobola is also a gesture of gratitude on the part of groom's family for looking after and bringing up the young bride.

The modern usage of Lobola does not always have a happy outcome, however; there are many instances when families use Lobola to acquire money to pay their debt. Worse still, some men see women as "goods" that have been paid for. This creates a marital climate that is not conducive to trust and love. There is one documented case of an unhappy wife who could not obtain a divorce from her husband because the family could not pay back the Lobola price. There is even a reported relationship between the Lobola custom and the spread of HIV/AIDS. South Africa has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world, and some claim that this high rate is partly due to the custom of Lobola. The custom is seen as a monetary transaction and the wife as a bought object; the husband often feels free to acquire mistresses and hence increases the possibility of infection, which in turn can be transmitted to the wife. However, these are aberrations and do not detract from the essence of Lobola itself. It remains a custom that is still popular because it promotes harmony between the married couples and their families, as well as promoting a sense of dignity and support that can aid the marriage and promote a harmonious union.

© High Speed Ventures 2011