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Has the bride price lost its value?

Lobolo/Lobola (mahadi in Sesotho) is a traditional Southern African custom whereby a man pays the family of his bride-to-be for her hand in marriage. Comparable to the European dowry system, the custom is aimed at bringing the two families together, fostering mutual respect, and indicating that the man is capable of supporting his wife both financially and emotionally.

What is lobola?
Lobola involves the two families discussing how much will have to be paid for the groom to marry the bride. Not one of the negotiations between the parents of the families is done in person as the families discuss the terms in writing, a process in which the extended family’s involvement is very important. The process of lobola negotiations can be a long and complex one, involving many members from both the bride’s and groom’s extended families.

Often, to dispel any tensions between the two families, a bottle of brandy is placed on the table. This is usually not opened, but is simply a gesture to welcome the guest family and make everyone feel more relaxed (it is also known as mvulamlomo, which is isiXhosa for ‘mouth opener’).

Although there can be arrangements for the families to meet directly, these meetings are usually conducted through relatives of the groom.

The ‘bride price’
Traditionally, the lobola payment was in cattle as cattle were the primary source of wealth in African society in the past, and they carry a symbolic meaning. In more modern relationships, however, cattle have been replaced with money. This money is usually given as a gesture of gratitude for the family having raised a fine bride, or as a way of helping pay for the couple’s new life. Ranging between $1 000 (R10 000) and $2 500 (R25 000), or more, some may see it as a high price to pay for love.

Is it still relevant?
What makes lobola so important for traditional marriages is the fact that it’s based on a process which unites the two families. Mutual respect and dignity are woven into the process, and the love between the man and woman is expanded to include both the immediate and extended families.

A 40-year-old Pedi woman who has been married for 15 years to a Pedi man comments, “Tradition is very important to me. It teaches us values and respect, according to different cultures.” A young, unmarried Zulu woman also highlights the value of a man having to sacrifice something for his fiancée: “I think that it’s a healthy tradition. If I decide to live with a man ‘for free’, he can do whatever he wants with me — but if he pays for this privilege, he’ll treat me better in the long run”. A married Shona woman agrees, adding that the process makes one feel more secure as a woman. The paying of lobola indicates a man values you, and that he’s prepared to pay a high price for being with you.

What are the differences between a traditional and a ‘white’/Western wedding?
“When you have a traditional wedding, you receive a letter stating the approval of your marriage from the village chief, whereas a white wedding involves going to Home Affairs to sign legal documents,” explains one woman, and adds: “The chief gives the couple a letter informing them that that they are now husband and wife. This only happens after the lobola negotiations are concluded, and a feast has been conducted to welcome the bride into the groom’s family”.

Is lobola a get-rich-quick scheme?
Lobola has been known to have some unintended negative effects, including that it often creates a financial barrier for young men looking to get married. It is common for a couple who are emotionally ready to commit to each other to remain unmarried if they don’t have the financial resources to satisfy this traditional ritual. Young men who are in the wealth-creation stage of life may also feel their future will be better secured if they invest their money elsewhere.

A question of values…
Like all traditional customs, lobola is open to abuse and distortion in the modern world. People sometimes forget that amidst all the protocol, the purpose is to build a stronger bond and create a feeling of trust between the two families. One Tswana girl married to a Nigerian man believes the tradition lacks relevance: “It doesn’t have value to me anymore because things have changed now. We live in different times where tradition has lost its value …” Although others disagree: “I’m proud of the tradition and would never change it for anything. I think people do commercialise lobola, hence some are not too sure of the tradition. If done properly, however, as per our ancestors, it can be fun,” argues one woman, adding: “Today, people are commercialising it with the result that it has lost its original meaning. People have changed lobola into a quick money-making scheme, putting a price on their daughter’s hand!”

The modern usage of lobola doesn’t always have a happy outcome, and there are many instances where families use it to acquire money to pay their personal debt. Worse still, some men see women as “goods” that they have paid for. This creates a marital climate which isn’t conducive to trust and love. There has been one documented case of an unhappy wife who couldn’t obtain a divorce from her husband because the family was unable to pay back the lobola.

These, however, are exceptions to the rule and shouldn’t detract from the essence of the lobola process itself. The custom remains popular because it promotes harmony between the married couples and their families, as well as a sense of dignity and support that can aid the marriage and promote a harmonious union.

Real life story: “Don’t let African or Western tradition limit your dreams as a couple…”

Cynthia Mopelong talks to INTIMACY4US about the advantages of both a traditional African and Western wedding …

“My husband paid lobola for me and we got married according to tradition. We had a Western-style wedding years later. Our love is stronger because of the many traditions we followed. Don’t let African or Western tradition limit your dreams as a couple…”

“My cousin had a boyfriend whom the entire family thought was in love with her because of the fact that he visited her quite often. One day, he was paging through a photo album and saw me in one of the photos. Immediately he asked: ‘Who’s that girl?’ My cousin told him that I had a boyfriend and wouldn’t be interested in him. That’s when fate intervened! We became friends soon after meeting, and I realised that I was in love. As our friendship grew, it soon became clear that I had to break up with my current boyfriend.

“We were both organisers of the choirs we sang in, and often sang together. I remember being at a night vigil where we had the opportunity to sing together the whole night. He preached that night, and I was amazed at his wisdom and presence. He said all that he heard that night was my angelic singing. We had eyes only for each other!

“Soon after this, I fell pregnant with our first child. It was difficult telling my parents, as they asked who the father was. When I told them that it was Simon, they stared in disbelief. They thought he was just a friend.

“I gave birth in July 1990. Before the child was two, Simon sent a letter to my parents to let them know that his uncle was coming to discuss our proposed marriage. We prepared food for them, and the day came when his uncle arrived. I was nervous and excited as well as anxious about the future.

“That day, my parents had to tell him what they wanted for my hand in marriage. They decided on cash, blankets for my mom and me, a coat and a smart walking stick for my dad. It’s a strange feeling when a man asks to ‘purchase’ you. You get butterflies in your tummy. I knew that he was worried that my parents wouldn’t accept his offer and that they wouldn’t reach an agreement with his relative. It warmed my heart to know that he was brave enough to battle them. The day they met, they set the marriage date as well and Simon had three months to gather all that they wanted.

“The day of my wedding came, and I got dressed in traditional clothes. It felt glorious! I had to stay in my room and wait for the proceedings to begin. I was so excited as I waited there. My family sat in one room, and his in the other. A mediator was chosen to move between the two and carry messages until the two parties agreed. More negotiating took place about how much the lobola was supposed to be, even though they had agreed previously.

“I was given the signal that all was agreed upon, and that I was allowed to appear, with a blanket over my face. Just as a little game, we sent someone else out of the room, covered with a blanket. When she got to them, his family asked “Is this the one?” The answer was given — ‘No!’.

“Finally, I was allowed to emerge and my moment came. A small amount was requested by my family so that his family could see me. I took the blanket off and all of those around me were astounded. They shouted ‘that’s her!’ and made loud shouting noises (traditional calls). The ‘sale’ was concluded, and I was finally Simon’s own. I felt so honoured that he had gone out of his way for his ‘expensive’ bride. I was precious enough to take the trouble of paying for!

“After a traditional wedding, it is customary for the bride to stay with the groom’s family. We decided not to follow this tradition, and stayed on at our separate families’ houses. We did this in order to save money for the house that we were building. We wanted to surprise everyone when it was finished. We had built our house secretly, and it was the most special time ever. On weekends, we would go and check the progress that had been made.

“Two years later, our house was complete and we invited our parents to come and look. It was lovely to move out of my parents’ home into my very own four walls. We took great pride in showing our parents our keys, and they were overjoyed at our achievement. I’m proof that one need not follow each and every custom to the letter. Discovering what works for you as a couple is better.

“My wedding was such an excitement … a dream come true, but 13 years after our traditional wedding, I still had the desire in my heart to wear a white dress and ‘walk down the aisle’. I wanted a wedding ring and to be legally, not just spiritually, united with my man.

“As always, he was my hero in every way. He wanted my dreams to come true! At first, I wanted just a small ceremony with a few close relatives and friends. When we told my family what we were planning, their reaction was unanimously positive. They refused to accept that it would be a small occasion, and all pitched in to make it a grand affair.

“I walked down the aisle with my father, and that moment will always be a special memory. My dreams came true again that day, as they had many years earlier at our traditional wedding. Somehow, it created an extra spark between us. It feels like we’re dating again! I’ve always believed that you can fall in love many times over, with the same man. Our Western wedding was, to us, a completion of our union.

“My husband and I had a second son seven years after the first one, and he’s still as loving today as he was when we met. Our two weddings gave us a joint unity, and both created memories that we cherish. Don’t let African or Western tradition limit your dreams as a couple. We didn’t, and have a stronger love as a result of combined tradition!”

Did you know?

  • In the old days, parents were responsible for choosing a wife for their sons. The son would have to return from an initiation school before the marriage lobola (dowry) could be paid.
  • Traditionally, no marriage is considered legitimate until the husband has paid lobola.
  • Lobola is a gift to the bride’s family which is supposed to compensate for their loss.
  • Most people converted their existing lobola marriages to common-law marriages in the form of marriage in community of property.
  • However, according to, lobola marriage has been legalised and now forms part of the South African law. It is treated the same as a marriage in community of property.
  • A daughter who is either highly educated or accomplished will fetch a higher lobola.