To Lobola or Not to Lobola

Photo from Wikipedia by Azekhoria Benjamin

The practice of lobola is mostly common throughout Africa. It includes a payment (in cattle, money, or other material forms) by a prospective son-in-law to his future bride’s family. This cultural tradition originated a long time ago with the purpose of building relationships between two families and to promote love. It was seen as “a token of gratitude on the part of the bridegroom’s people to those of the bride for their care over her and for allowing her to become his wife” (Mutua and Chinchen, Dowry in Africa: A Wife Purchased or a Wife Cherished). Unfortunately, greed and commercialisation have crept in along the way and, in many instances, lobola has gone horribly wrong. Given this exploitation, the question needs to be asked: is there a place for lobola in Christian marriage, or even in society at all?

Unfortunately, greed and commercialisation have crept in along the way and, in many instances, lobola has gone horribly wrong

Lobola: Setting the scene for marriage

Back when lobola started, there was no monetary economy in operation, and so a young man who wanted to prove himself strong and responsible would give ‘at least two cows’ to his bride’s parents. His father would support him in being able to make this contribution, and the families would meet to agree on different ways the price could be paid if they didn’t have the means presently. If a man was poor, he was allowed to take his wife without lobola, and then give a portion back to his in-laws one day when his daughters married. Alternatively, he could stay and work for his bride until his father-in-law was satisfied with his labour, much like Jacob worked for Laban for many years in order to marry Rachel (Genesis 29).

Lobola created a bond between the families and was an outward expression of a man’s love and value for his bride—much like a diamond engagement ring is a symbol in Western culture

In its original form the traditional and cultural practice was centred on relationship building. On the day the groom brought the lobola with his family, the bride’s immediate and extended family would also gather. The two families would sit together negotiating the payment. After reaching an agreement, a big meal was prepared in celebration. It created a bond between the families and was an outward expression of a man’s love and value for his bride—much like a diamond engagement ring is a symbol in Western culture. According to my experience of the Shona culture, if a man fails to give his wife’s parents at least a very small amount, the woman feels unloved and unvalued, resulting in an unhappy wife.

Extortion and excess:

Clearly, the institution of lobola had a far deeper significance than simply the acquisition of cattle and other material things. Today’s picture, however, is greatly distorted. Daughters are seen as a means of financial gain, and parents can be known to charge exorbitant amounts as “bride prices”. This exploitation has led to many speaking out against lobola, in light of the consequences it can lead to. Firstly, they argue that the payment of high lobola is unfair within the tough economic climate of Africa. A bridegroom may decide to go into debt in order to marry his love, which will adversely affect their marriage. Another argument against lobola is that it delays marriage unnecessarily. A man knows that it will take years to get a wife and so in many cases this leads to premarital sex and sexual immorality.

The most common argument against lobola is from the feminist voices, who say it is nothing else but the purchase and sale of women. They dismiss the whole practice as illegitimate, evidence of an antiquated patriarchal view of women. They argue that wives are treated as property, at the mercy of their out of pocket husbands. In cases of barrenness, it is not uncommon for the bride’s young sister to be brought to bear children on behalf of her sister, because the lobola paid requires some benefits. A husband may be bitter towards his wife when he considers how his in-laws treated him regarding lobola, and this adds to an all-round unsuccessful situation in marriage.

A better, gospel-centred way

When done properly, it has many benefits, and in no way goes against the biblical emphasis of love within marriage

Interviews conducted at the Great Zimbabwe University in 2010 (The Journal of Pan African Studies, 3(9): 214) however show that lobola is not something that can be quickly dismissed as wrong. For example, 75% of the students agreed that lobola shows that the man values his wife. The response when it came to whether lobola makes a husband superior to his wife was quite evenly split. Four out of five students agreed that it brought families closer together.

The practice of lobola is deeply rooted in African culture. When done properly, it has many benefits, and in no way goes against the biblical emphasis of love within marriage (Genesis 2:24). It is not the culture or practise that is inherently wrong, but the people who are involved in it. To restore lobola to its primary purpose requires an understanding that God is above all cultures. Therefore lobola needs to be challenged and shaped by the gospel. African Christians holding to this tradition must be prepared to cut out the ungodly aspects, showing healthy attitudes towards money. They must shine as lights in a crooked generation (Philippians 2:15), trapped by greed (1 Timothy 6:9). Churches and parents need to teach and model that lobola is in no way a business for making profit. They must instruct that it is a bride gift as opposed to a bride price, for the latter makes it vulnerable to abuse. The Kenyan term for lobola, kegoita, means to “prepare a gift”. This is not something that is charged or billed. It is a token from the groom’s family. Shifting the view back to this principle will help Christians to see lobola as an opportunity to further God’s love, by creating a harmonious atmosphere for both families.

Lobola needs to be challenged and shaped by the gospel. African Christians holding to this tradition must be prepared to cut out the ungodly aspects, showing healthy attitudes towards money. They must shine as lights in a crooked generation

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