Friday, 29 August 2014

The Anatomy of lobola: A High Price To Pay

I saw this picture on the internet, and I found it funny but sad and offensive at the same time. It shows how much lobola costs across different parts of Zimbabwe. Lobola (usually translated as ‘bride price’) is a gift that a family asks of a man who wants to marry their daughter.

In its original form, it is supposed to be a form of tribute paid to the parents of the girl for raising a bride for the groom. It is actually a process – not a one-off thing. In fact, a storyline is usually built into it to make it exciting. The story goes like this: “the man scouted and stole the girl from the unsuspecting parents. The parents have since found out and are fuming. They will let their daughter go, since she likes her captor, but the man has to pay, quite literally. The man obliges and pays for his sin. A big party is then thrown, and they all live happily ever after as one family.” It’s actually a beautiful thing.

But it has changed over the years. Foremost, ‘payment’ used to be done using cattle. Now it is mostly done in cash (sometimes clothes, blankets, groceries, etc. are included). And with cash the whole idea has taken a different meaning. Many people now approach it from a business perspective. Hence that graphic, which is basically a price list. To be blunt about it, the graph shows how much on average a Zimbabwean man has to pay a girl’s parents for permission to marry her (excluding wedding costs). Note, these ‘bride prices’ are usually paid in installments. Why? Because most people cannot afford lump sum payments. To give you an idea, bride price can be $7,000 (as alleged in the picture). The average worker in Zimbabwe earns about $3,500 in a year. Now you have an idea.
The Anatomy of lobola: A High Price To Pay
Now onto the graph. Somebody probably created it as a joke, but it has some element of truth in it. As you can see, some places are high (relatively speaking), while some are ridiculously low. Here’s the interesting part: many guys would balk at paying something extremely high (like the $8,200 for ‘Masvingo Urban’). It’s like someone is being sold to them, they would say. Conversely, many guys would find it ridiculous to pay something as low as $200. It’s like getting a cheap girl, they would think. (In all honesty, it can never be as low as $200. That was probably done to make fun of Bulawayo girls – that they are ‘cheap.’). The extremes are meant to provoke some debate.

The debate is this: if there is ‘too high’ and ‘too low,’ there must be ‘just right’ somewhere in the middle, right? That could be the case, but the truth is, there is a sliding scale. Adventurous parents have introduced some modifications. They will say things like, “my daughter is educated; therefore, I need all the money I used on her education back.” They will therefore ask for something ‘high.’ The actual ‘price’ is very subjective, and nowadays it depends mostly on the girl. Is she previously married? Is she educated? Is she beautiful (whatever that means)? In the end, the process slowly begins to feel like an ordinary transaction – like an item is being valuated and sold – which is certainly not what it was intended to be. It was meant to be a tribute paid to the parents of the girl – one that the groom was all too happy to pay, especially right when he was ready to settle with his lover.

Or perhaps that’s how things have always been? In the past, weren’t daughters of kings more ‘valuable’ than other girls? Isn’t that why one paid more for a king’s daughter than one would for any other girl? But in those days only rich people married daughters of kings, so they could afford it…now most girls are like king’s daughters, and most guys are paupers. Nonetheless, it may be that things haven’t really changed. I’m still sure of one thing though – today lobola really feels more like a cash transaction than it does a tribute.

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