Lobola has been transformed from being a mere cultural practice into a business venture, where the bride has a clear monetary value attached to her. Payment negotiations are characterised by intense bargaining leading to the payment of a high fee –almost equivalent to the selling of a commodity on the open market.
While lobola has been commercialised, it does still retain its cultural significance to some extent – namely the art of joining two families together and appreciating the important role played by the in-laws in raising and educating the bride.
Some historians argue that lobola became commercialised in the colonial era, but it is clear that the colonial era only set this process in motion and did not see it become fully-fledged. Indeed, it was changes during Zimbabwe’s serious economic melt-down (from 2000 to 2008) and the ensuing multi-currency era (from 2008 to date) that really saw an acceleration in the commercialisation of lobola.
Daughters for cattle
In Shona society, the payment of lobola – the main part of which is called roora – is the basis of marriage and family obligations. It is a form of marriage payment in which the bride’s family receives payment of goods, money, or livestock to compensate for the loss of a woman’s labour and the children she bears into her husband’s family.
There is no direct reference to the payment of lobola as the purchasing of the bride, but it is implied and therefore points to the idea that women are, through the payment of lobola, commodified. It is highlighted that early colonial interpretations of lobola in Zimbabwe were linked to the sale of daughters for cattle.
However, it is noteworthy that the purchase of women is not akin to that of other market commodities in the sense that the initial owners of the commodity – the bride’s family – still have a say in how their daughter is treated by their in-law, and can in times of serious marital turbulence intervene and make decisions. In the commodity market, the seller of a product instantly loses control over the product the moment that it has been fully paid for.
Interviews with 50 female and 10 male respondents in one of Harare’s high density suburbs clearly demonstrated that lobola has lost its traditional, cultural meaning of uniting two families and has become a money-making endeavour.
Some women said they were happy with the idea of lobola because it conferred a certain status on them in society and among their kin. Others argued that the commercialisation of lobola has resulted in many family problems such as domestic violence.
Essentially, the study showed that the payment of lobola goes together with both explicit and implicit obligations. Failing – or merely the perception of failing – to meet these obligations may result in serious problems. Most women complained that their husbands abuse them out of bitterness for the huge amounts of money paid for lobola.
Conjugal rights are central in all marriages. My interviewees concurred that men’s understanding is that conjugal rights are purchased through the payment of lobola and therefore should not be denied them at any point. Women feel that sexual rights should be negotiated – not controlled by one person.
The situation is made worse by the fact that women still find it extremely difficult to report cases of marital rape, even though the act was finally criminalised in Zimbabwe in 2002 through the Sexual Offences Act. Women feel this is not only a betrayal of the husband, but also a disgrace for her family.
Many admit that it is harder to press charges when the husband has paid a large sum for lobola. Married men’s control over sex does not only infringe women’s rights, it also exposes them to HIV infection. Some married women find it very hard to negotiate safe sex since their husbands simply say ‘Dzakaenda dzakapfeka macondom here?’ (Did the cattle we paid go with condoms on?).
In addition, men who have paid lobola sometimes resort to violence to ‘discipline’ their wives since they believe that it gives them a license to abuse their wives.
It is critical to note the major role played by aunts (tetes) in arranging marriages and in the lead up to the payment of lobola. And the tetes continue to intervene after the marriage to resolve conflicts. They ensure that marriages are safeguarded at all costs, even if it sometimes means sacrificing the rights of the women.
Where lobola has been paid, it is very difficult to get a divorce because they will always prod the woman to endure. One respondent indicated that it is very common to hear the tetes saying “Chingotsungirira mwana wehanzvadzi yangu, yeuka kuti murume wako akabvisa pfuma. Kana ukamuramba tinoiwanepi mari yekumudzorera?” (You just have to endure my niece, remember your husband paid lobola. If you divorce him, where will we get money to reimburse him his lobola?).
The study also found that charging of exorbitant lobola fees can result in enmity between two families. A very bitter lady who participated in the study said her husband normally speaks harshly every time they have an argument, saying “Vabereki vako vakandidhurisira ende vakatopfuma neni.” (Your parents overcharged me and they are now rich because of me).
The traditional purpose of lobola – to bring two families together – is therefore sacrificed for the love of money. In contemporary Zimbabwe, some bitter husbands no longer treat their in-laws with respect as in the past as their relationship has been poisoned by the commercialised nature of the process.
While some women noted that a large sum of money paid made them feel truly loved, they were put off by the negative effects. It is against this background that I suggest that lobola should be regularised so that it ceases to be a millstone around women’s necks. Men, who play a central role in the negotiation process, should also be urged not to turn lobola into a money-making project.
The state should also be implored, in its protracted efforts to curb domestic violence, marital rape and other social ills, to consider re-educating society on the dangers of allowing exorbitant amounts of money to be paid as lobola in marriages. – first published in BUWA!: A Journal on African Women’s Experiences.Post published in: Lifestyle