Lobola for my love

Forsaking the ritual of “drink, eat, relax and do the laundry” which usually characterises my weekends—I went home to Harare a few weeks ago to become an adult. I was getting engaged to be married, the old-fashioned way.

I was not entirely prepared for this rite of passage as I boarded the plane. When people enter discussions (often heated) concerning the practice of lobola, few mention that after successful completion of the ceremony you become a “grown-up”.

Instead, as “modern” women we pour over the meaning of this practice: is this the sale of, or rather the transfer of, a woman from her family to her new husband? Or is it a historically justifiable tradition, which must be protected in light of the desecration of “African traditions” characterised by our post-colonial, globalised world?

To be honest, I boarded the plane with a sense of dread.

I wish to marry a man. Lobola is a means of achieving this goal, as my father explained to me. Lobola is a process, a negotiation that results in the coming together of two families—a means of legitimising the union between two people.

Wonderful. Romantic. Awfully idealistic.

Is it necessary for money to pass hands to unite two families? What are the implications for the woman and the man involved when money is transferred for the purpose of a legitimate marriage? What is being “negotiated” and what are the terms on which this marriage will be agreed? Who decides?

Thankful that my suitcase—laden with the “basics” of mealie meal, rice, salt, sugar, cooking oil and the like—had made safe passage to the arrivals lounge of Harare International Airport, I tried to prepare for the days ahead.

The day of my lobola was described by a great-aunt as a “blessed day”. Blessed it certainly was because the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority made provision for uninterrupted power! The city even provided water for a full three hours!

This meant my day—spent clamouring over pots, pans and a large meal for the many guests—was made easier. Under different circumstances—such as waterless, powerless ones—I could easily have spent it outside attempting this banquet on a wood fire.

Of course, I should not have been slaving away myself—my (many) sisters (cousins included) should have been at the forefront of this task, but I figured I needed the distraction.

My main job on this day was to be a desirable maiden: the cherished prize for my husband-to-be.

My (many) fathers (uncles included) and my (many) mothers (aunts included), with other people of importance (my grandmother and great-grandmother) were seated in the main meeting room. These were the people who negotiated on my behalf: the representatives of my interests. The “meeting room” was a large reception room in my parents’ suburban home in Borrowdale. My prospective groom’s parents were in a smaller lounge at the other end of the house.

The “representatives of my interests” communicated to me only through my tetes: my father’s sisters.

There was the “other room”, where the representatives of my new husband waited, discussed and negotiated on his behalf.

I was invited into the main meeting room on one occasion.

Instructed by the tetes to “pick” enough money to buy two pots, four plates and other household goods for my “new” home, I entered the room and sat down.

I was asked if I knew “those people” and I answered “yes”.

I was asked to “show” that I know them; I then looked to my younger sister, who “picked” some money on my behalf.

My uncle then asked if I was still “acceptable” or “beautiful”—a question which caused a great deal of commotion.

They asked if I was “damaged”.

We smiled, “no”.

The only way of knowing whether this was true was to search for visible signs of pregnancy.

Had it been known that we were “cooking pots” (living together before marriage), a charge for “damages incurred” could have been added to our bill.

I left the room and was invited in again only at the end of the negotiation. Then food and drink—many drinks—and merriment abounded. I was free to “enjoy” the bizarre experience of hearing my wedding discussed as I sat, bound to silence by the protocols.

On my return to Johannesburg I found myself watching a production of The Lion and the Jewel at the Market Theatre. In the play Sidi refuses to marry Lankule because he refuses to pay the bride price. He refuses on the grounds that this custom makes it difficult to set the stage for a marriage in which a man and a woman are “equal”. For him this custom is “barbaric”.

Sidi’s view differs. She insists the tradition would prove her value in the village.

An aunt shared a similar view, attempting to calm my nerves, saying: “Does a king ever decide what he wears? What he eats? This day is in honour of you.”

The day of my engagement was the day my future husband showed how much he valued me.

It is true, the “village” was very proud of me. I was congratulated for my ability to “stay intact” and to find a respectable husband.

I was given a new title, that of an adult woman: Mai.

But I wish to ask, at what cost?

As far as I could see the terms of my marriage were decided for me and my role as a wife was constructed as someone who would bear offspring, cook and clean.

A tete thought she was being encouraging when she told me that “at last” I could go to my husband’s traditional home and work on the munda: the farm.

I can see how contributing to planting and harvesting the land is a useful job for a new wife in agrarian societies, but why should I jump for joy at this prospect now?

For me it comes down to a question of power. A person should have the opportunity to speak on his or her own behalf. A person should have the opportunity to fashion his or her own values in a marriage.

When money is calculated and transferred between men, “in the interests” of an absent young woman, whose interests are in mind? Whose power is legitimated? Whose agency is compromised?

I can ask these questions now because I am an adult. On reflection, my new “hubby” and I were quite naive about the process and if we ever reproduce, I suspect we might consider an alternative practice for our own little ones.

In the meantime, with one rite of passage out of the way, we are faced with another patriarchal drama: the “white” wedding set for April 2009.

Danai Mupotsa is a feminist researcher. She works in the department of comparative literature and cultural studies at Monash University, South Africa

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