Concerns over abuse of lobola

Zimbabwe’s age-old lobola or dowry system - traditionally a groom’s gesture of appreciation to a bride’s family - has shifted from that plain cultural practice to a commercial transaction that often condemns a newly-wed couple to years of poverty.

To the chagrin of would-be couples, society now places a monetary value upon a bride – often charging exorbitant amounts of cash depending on the status of the family and educational qualifications of the young woman concerned.

President Robert Mugabe gave away his daughter Bona at a traditional marriage ceremony to Simbarashe Chikore for a reported lobola payment of $35,000, excluding an additional 15 beasts. The average price of a beast is $700, pushing the sum to $45,500.

While Bona’s respect for tradition was generally commended across Zimbabwe, questions were raised about her parents’ role in raising the lobola bar to a level too high.

Army commander, General Constantine Chiwenga reportedly paid more than $45,000 to secure his marriage to a former model, Mary Mubaiwa. The number of cattle he was charged to “ice” the union is unknown.Gospel artist Sabastian Magacha parted with $10,000 for his sweetheart, Nomsa Ndikumwe’s hand in marriage.

Compromising happiness

Social commentator and television personality Rebecca Chisamba said charging and paying high amounts of lobola had brought the practice into disrepute. “This is compromising the young couple’s happiness. They start their relationship penniless, yet parents are supposed to support them in all aspects,” she said.

She said parents should appreciate that lobola is ‘not a money making game’ where they can trade their daughters to the highest bidder.

“Girl children are not objects,” she said. “Lobola is a token of appreciation and it symbolizes togetherness, Abusing it is a recipe for disaster because parents would have opened windows of abuse for their daughters.”

Despite a national concern among gender activists about lobola and its consequences, many young men continue to part with varying sums of money and head of cattle far beyond their normal earnings. In many cases, young women support the trend despite the dangers that lie ahead.

New value systems

Like most African traditions, lobola has come under attack from new value systems leading to a distortion of its original definition and purpose. Such a fundamental change has tainted the lobola system, leaving young people, especially men, confused as they face difficulties to come to terms with settling down.

Young men and women interviewed by The Zimbabwean were of the opinion that Mugabe, as a national icon whose actions shaped people’s culture, should have considered the impact of such a move on society generally.

Given the widespread poverty in Zimbabwe today, it is ironic that families demand between $5,000 and $50,000 from young grooms merely to bless a marriage – money a young couple would desperately need to start their life together. In addition, families are now demanding a lavish wedding before they let their daughter start her new life with a husband.

The majority of Zimbabweans hardly earn $500 a year. What this means is that grooms have to depend on donations from their families to raise the required amounts.

Nothing wrong

Reverend Lindani Dube, the Executive Secretary of Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, said it was important for society to understand the origins of lobola. “Biblically, the Jewish had their ways of paying the bride price and the practice varied from area to area. There is nothing wrong with the principle but people are now departing from the main reasons why it was instituted.”

Paying large amounts has the potential to destroy the newlywed’s relationship, and can ruin new couples financially at a time when they need a solid start in life. “Their relationship can be rocky because the husband feels that he was cheated by the bride’s parents,” he added.

Annie Tsopotsa, whose niece got married last week, said her family considered the groom’s background against the bride’s educational qualifications. “We cannot just give her away because she has an accounting degree and his (groom’s) family are going to benefit from the investment that my brother made in his daughter,” she said.

The family demanded $6,000 but the young man only managed to raise half the amount. He promised to start saving to offset the balance, she said.

Few cases of protests over lobola negotiations are made public. Young men have a tendency to accept what their prospective in-laws demand, only to retreat quietly and impregnate the bride so that she is forced to leave home and join the groom.

Private deal

Under Zimbabwe’s marriage laws, lobola is no longer mandatory; only considered as a private deal between families. What this means is that a young couple can marry in a court of law without the knowledge of their parents. Only two adult witnesses are required.

Sharon Dube of Harare said inflated lobola charges often lead to domestic problems inside the new couple’s home. The bride could find it difficult to claim her space as an equal partner once lobola is viewed as a commercial transaction.

Activists say the ridiculous charges fuel society’s perceptions of women as commodities and expose them to abuse inside the home. Some women are even abused by members of the extended family because of the practice of lobola.

“There are a lot of women who are abused because the men argue that they paid lots of money in bride price,” said one gender activist. “We witness a lot of cases where women coming from very poor backgrounds cannot get out of relationships because they fear that their families cannot afford to pay back the money they charged their husbands as lobola.”

Family planning

But Daisy Gwanhure of Warren Park, Harare, said she saw nothing wrong with high lobola charges. “If he values and loves me enough, he will have to sacrifice and pay a high bride price,” said the college student, 22.

Others, like Florence Moyo, said they believed that the richer the groom the more they were expected to pay. But David Shonhiwa disagreed, saying it was actually rich families which demand too much money.

Some blamed Zimbabwe’s use of the multi-currency system as the source of the lobola distortions. Families now want to make as much money as they can from young men under the guise of lobola.

Kevin Hazangwi, the director for gender at Padare/ Enkundleni Men’s Forum, said prospective husbands must help society to stop disfiguring the essence of lobola by agreeing to part with exorbitant amounts.

“Some even show off by paying more than they have been charged to prove that they are rich,” he said. The whole essence of lobola rested on “building respect, a stable union and mutual understanding between the two families,” he said, but this was being perverted.

Women advocacy groups fear the abuse of lobola and its potential to compromise the young bride’s rights as she enters a groom’s home an unequal partner, with little control over family planning.

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