A gendered insight into the lobola debate

When news of the USD 36 000 bride payment made by Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai broke, a grand debate around the commodification of lobola ensued. Additionally, the reported decision made by the respective families to go ahead with marriage negotiations in the traditionally ‘taboo’ month of November stirred even more emotions among the general public eager to raise debate around whether lobola is being uprooted from its traditional grounding in culture, or whether it is simply evolving to reflect the dynamism of tradition and modern life.

It has been half a year since these conversations took place; and because they were largely couched to feed sensationalist perspectives on the Prime Minister’s private life, they have sadly since died an inconspicuous death.

What remains, however, is the crucial need for Zimbabweans to re-engage in critical debate and interrogation of lobola and the evolutionary role that it has played in the adoption of various roles significant to the status that women acquire and assume in society.
A gendered insight into the lobola debate
Background to lobola
Zimbabwe has three types of recognised marriage unions; the civil union, the registered customary law union and the unregistered customary law union. While each of these unions affords women different levels of legal and social status, the one common thread that binds them to each other is the payment of lobola, which remains of paramount importance to all these unions’ general functionality.

And while lobola is not a legal requirement for couples who have their marriages registered, it is usual practice to first hold a traditional marriage ceremony (involving the payment of lobola) before a marriage is officially registered. This is because, as many legal and social commentators have noted, a Zimbabwean marriage is not merely a union between the two lovers concerned, but also the joining together of the two families involved 1.

Traditionally, marriage and child-bearing are thought to be the pinnacles of a person’s life. Mbiti (1969: 133)2 observes that:

For African peoples, marriage is the focus of existence. It is the point where all the members of a given community meet; the departed, the living and those yet to be born. All the dimensions of time meet here and the whole drama of history of is repeated, renewed and revitalised.

In traditional Ndebele culture, the spiritual ancestors, amadlozi, are consulted and their approval sought during marriage proceedings3. And in Shona culture, the lobola procedure involves a range of players within the immediate and extended family who initiate and finalise transactions.

Lobola is thus viewed as a socially cohesive practice that maintains equilibrium between the two families by compensating for what is removed from one family – the productive and reproductive potential of a woman – with cash, livestock and other resources deemed suitable to acknowledge this ‘loss’.

Lobola in perspective
Lobola is, however, understood variously. From one perspective, it can be seen as a noble and respectful gesture wherein the family of the groom shows appreciation for the wealth the prospective bride will bring to their lives; and the void that her absence within her family will create. Yet on the other hand, lobola can be seen as a perpetuation of patriarchy and women’s subordination; the commodification of a woman’s roles and functions in the home.

While the exchange of wealth is intended as a gesture of appreciation to the entire household for having raised the bride, it is apparent from how this wealth is divided that greater emphasis is placed on the transfer of wealth to the father of the groom (who generally receives the bulk of the cash or stock of cattle) with the mother usually being recognised with a small fraction of this wealth through the mombe yohumai or inkomo yohlanga (“motherhood beast”), traditionally considered one of the most important forms of property a woman owns.4

In some instances, even where a beast is given to the mother of the bride, it may be subsumed under the paternal wealth (without due notification of the bride’s mother). While it can be argued that this wealth represents the collective pool of family resources, it often occurs that inheritance of wealth accrued from lobola is passed down to male members of the family, to the exclusion of the women who play an important role within its acquisition.

As feminist activist, Everjoice Win5, observes;
The myth of what lobola signifies for women is one of the most enduring in Southern Africa, and needs to be shattered. Lobola does not benefit the woman. It benefits the men in her family; brothers, father, uncles.

Lobola and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)

A wife is expected to be hardworking and respectful to her husband and family-in-law; but arguably, the most important responsibility placed upon her shoulders is to bear children. A woman is supposed to give birth in proportion to the number of cattle that has been paid for her6; and if that ‘duty’ is not fulfilled, the woman’s position within the family becomes severely compromised. In fact, she may even be sent back to her parents’ home and a lobola refund demanded.

Alternatively, her husband may be encouraged to take one of her unmarried female relatives as a second wife as compensation for her assumed infertility (generally, it is assumed that the fertility problem lies with the woman). In a perpetuation of the idea of ownership of a woman (by virtue of the exchange of wealth made to guarantee her entry into her husband’s family), the solution for challenges in childbearing is to substitute the bride with another women from her family (usually a sister or niece) who, by association to the bride and lobola process, is seen as the collective property of the marital union.

Win 7 notes;
Lobola is paid for a woman’s reproductive capacity or loosely translated, it buys her uterus.

In many instances, lobola, is used to buy not only the uterus of the woman being married, but also those of her female relatives who are given no say in the yielding of their own reproductivity.

But the power that lobola can take away from women’s autonomy over their sexual and reproductive health stems deeper; prominent women’s rights lawyer, Sylvia Chirawu8, notes that lobola is often viewed as a woman’s perpetual consent to sexual intercourse in that her husband has purchased the right to demand sex from her at any time. Such thinking has exposed many married women to domestic violence, marital rape and HIV infection (wherein the husband may have extra-marital sexual partners, such as a small house, and demand to have unprotected sex with his wife).

Lobola and power
Patriarchal power is further amplified in instances where a woman is forced to stay within a marriage by virtue of the payment of lobola. In some cases, a family will refuse for their daughter to return home, even under the worst circumstances of domestic violence, because a ‘price’ has been paid for her. And in other instances, the value of the wealth that has been paid for a wife may be equated to her value as a woman.

For example, a 2011 newspaper article9 reports of a Bikita woman who was denied a divorce by her local chief due to the ‘sizeable’ lobola (15 cattle and a sum of cash) transacted to her parents for her hand in marriage. The article further mentions that the woman wanted to leave her husband because of his alcoholism but that the chief ruled that she should stay and look after him. The woman is quoted as saying, “It is true my husband loves me. He paid 15 cattle and a hefty sum of money as a bride price to my parents.”

In essence, this woman has lost her decision-making power based on the grounds of a commodified form of ‘love’ that dictates that since much wealth has been paid for her, she has no option but to stay with her man, regardless of how he much suffering he may cause her.

In its oldest traditional form, lobola represented a goodwill exchange between families; a token of appreciation and unity-building. But with the advent of the cash economy, well-meant gifts of exchange have since been replaced by cash. And for many families, particularly amid the trying circumstances of Zimbabwe’s current economic status, the potential wealth that lobola brings provides a financial mainstay.

Because of the large costs usually involved, it is not uncommon to hear of women who assist their grooms in paying the lobola fee. One may then ask: What is the purpose of lobola if the woman to be ‘acquired’ partakes in her own ‘acquisition’? Does such participation allow women to reclaim power over their bodies or does it co-opt them within their own subordination (ie. a woman helps to pay the very bride wealth that takes away her marital decision-making power)?

Additionally, dialogue around the significance of lobola and weakening family ties within diasporic communities is essential. As Pasura10 notes from a study conducted among Zimbabwean couples in the UK, a lack of access to immediate family (for conflict resolution) coupled with multiple social and gendered pressures has led to high divorce rates. Furthermore, living in the diaspora has allowed many Zimbabwean women the space and scope to question hegemonic gendered roles and relations, thus providing them the opportunity to create new gendered identities. The questions follow: What role does lobola have to play amid the evolving dynamics of relationships between and among Zimbabweans abroad? How socially cohesive is the practice among families that are widely dispersed, since in-family arbitration is negated by distance?

The lobola debate brings up many complex dynamics that Zimbabweans – facing a variety of evolving circumstances – need to continually interrogate, lest the practice lose it place and esteem within the preservation of the culture of this nation’s peoples.

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