Lobola is one of those customary marriage practices which are common all over the world, and slow to die out.
Clearly, marriage is not and never has been a matter of “going to the chapel of love” – it’s a social contract and lobola is a formal means of expressing that.
Lobola is an agreed sum or value which is paid by the man and his family to the family of the woman; before the couple is considered fully married, it must be paid in full.
Traditionally it is paid in cattle, though in urban settings that will be converted into money or other goods.
Because of the expense of lobola, few men can afford to marry while they are still young – and by the same token, only the very prosperous can afford to marry several wives.
At its best, this system therefore provides considerable protection for women.
At its worst, they can end up being treated like chattels, not only by their husband but also by his relations, and have no protection from abuse. Problems are more likely to arise in rural areas or in families affected by migrant labour, poverty, unemployment, landlessness or other social dysfunctions of Africa.
The price will be set according to the woman’s marriageability (beauty, strength, fertility, capacity to earn etc), so an educated woman will be worth more. Unlike “dowry” systems (for example, those practiced in India), where the financial burden is on the woman’s family, lobola recognises that a woman has value.
Because of it, African families have been supportive of women’s efforts to improve themselves, e.g. through education.
Poor communities that practice dowry inevitably view females as a liability to their parents, and don’t want female babies; in Africa women and all their children are assets.
For this reason, South Africa at least has a history full of strong, powerful and respected women.
However, lobola is also a problem for many South Africans. It places a heavy burden on young couples and quite commonly results in marriage being delayed; so babies are born to couples which are not yet stable.
The difficulty of affording lobola may have contributed to the horrific practice of “marriage by abduction” (or, to call a spade a spade – rape).
Families can also get greedy which causes conflict. Many think that the money would be better spent on necessities for the new couple – though the same applies to “Western” customs like hiring stretch limo’s, wedding dresses and receptions costing thousands of rand, sit-down dinner for hundreds of people, and the rest.
Family feuds that break out around weddings are certainly not unique to Africa and should also be familiar to your American friends!
Lobola is a difficult area for educated or independent young women. They probably don’t wish to defend it; most consider it a problematic tradition that is potentially degrading to a woman, because she is being treated as goods for sale, and has little or no say in the matter.
There are many questions about how best to understand or practice Lobola in a society where women are now recognised as equals of their husbands, having full human rights, and no longer “legal minors” as was once the case (not so long ago, and not just Black women).
Nonetheless, because of the strength of the tradition in their community, and respect for the elders, even university-educated women might still feel that Lobola should be paid when the time comes for them to marry.
Like all traditions, the meaning of Lobola is changing as society and people change; there are the horror stories, there is also the positive side and most of all, the need to listen to those who are still supporting the practice however reluctantly at times.
The real challenge, as always, is not the customs surrounding marriage but how to make the human rights of women a reality, which is a problem in the USA too, and everywhere else