The Meaning and Significance of Lobola

Known to many as a “bride-price” or bride-worth” and to some extent as a “down payment” or “dowry” but in the African culture, it is a ritual that brings two families together.

Words: Unathi Nkanjeni

According to the English usage ‘dowry’ is the gift of money, goods or both, offered by the bride or bride’s family towards establishment of her household, whereas a bride-price is a marriage payment made by a prospective husband or more often, by his family to the family of the bride.

Andre M Photography

As a link between two families, lobola negotiation is a tradition that was implemented in the old days where a man pays the family of his fiancé for her hand in marriage. Although it is practised differently today, in historical times a man would pay much more for a virgin and less for a woman who had a child out of wedlock. Today, prices are set according to how well-mannered and educated the bride-to-be is. The more educated she is, the more expensive the lobola will be. Other factors also include the relative wealth and status of the family the prospective groom wishes to marry into, i.e. a young woman from a royal family would be much pricier than that of an ordinary family who may be known as “commoners”. However, it should be noted royal lobola and marriage is much more complicat complicated and these are often pre-arranged, to the exclusion of choice from either groom or bride. Traditionally, lobola usually amounted to eight heads of cattle, but today the value of each cattle head forms part of the overall negotiation. Prices of lobola can be anything from R25,000 to R100,000, and this is solely determined by the bride’s family according to what they think their daughter is worth. The primary purpose of lobola is to build relations between the respective families, as marriage is seen to be more than just a union between two individuals. The relationship is seen as life-long and in some cases, even after the death of the groom. The widow then, in a way, is bound to the groom’s family forever, especially if there were children that are born to the marriage.

Unfortunately, there can be a downside. This process can be abused and handled incorrectly; it can be torturous, and divide rather than unite families. One example of this, the negotiations are usually handled by the extended male family members of the respective families, to the absolute exclusion of any females (at least in Xhosa culture ) .

Lobola is a token of appreciation to the bride’s parents for raising a woman for the groom and should not be seen as a chance to make a quick buck.

When the price is being decided upon, the ultimate decision goes through much debate of the value of the bride-to-be and it has been known to reach peak levels of impasse – especially when destructive family members are entrusted with the delicate process. Therefore careful selection of the negotiators is key.

There is a Xhosa saying that goes ‘One never stops paying lobola’

Also, the prospective groom has an interest in not letting their negotiators be bullied into paying an unjust price for the bride, which is most likely to happen if the negotiators do not know what they are doing. This does not say he does not love his bride-to-be, but keeps the interests of all parties involved in proper check.

The commercialisation of lobola has undoubtedly turned many people from practicing it, but if this process is handled well and all goes smoothly, lobola is a beautiful practice that should be embraced and celebrated, rather than be abused and looked down upon. However, there is a Xhosa saying that goes ‘one never stops paying lobola’. This, meaning that the family link is the important part of lobola, as it is a union that must be constantly renewed by visiting one’s in-laws and inviting them around and in general, maintaining a very good relationship between both families.

Pic Credit: Andre M Photography / Styling by Extravaganza Weddings

(Featured image: Thinkstock by Getty Images)

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