The misconception of Lobola

African culture has always been in grave danger, courtesy of our fellow inhabitants of planet earth from Europe. The culture and tradition of Africans suffered a great deal under colonial rule; and to this day it still suffers nightmares from horrific days gone by. That utter disdain and disrespect for Africans and their tradition can be seen among the offspring of our former colonialists. But this piece is not aimed at the insolence of Europe, at least not directly. The writer wishes to focus the spotlight here at home.

Folks, my fellow Africans in South Africa; with your permission, please allow me to discuss the issue that has been bothering me for a while now, choosing rather to ignore it; but like a persistent fly it refuses to go away. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls let us talk about the brouhaha surrounding the age-old custom of lobola. It is commonly known in Her Royal Highness in Buckingham Palace Queen Elizabeth’s language as ‘dowry’. Bless Her Majesty, for she had always permitted me to abuse, bastardise and stretch her language to achieve my own personal ends. I hope she too, conveys her blessings for I have turned a blind eye to her seemingly permanent attachment to the throne. Unlike the Presidents of the ‘third world’, she does not seem to invite the criticism of the ‘First World’ and derogatory titles; dictator, tyrant or despot and so on and so forth. Oh, don’t we just love our Queen? Of course experts, as it is their job, will hasten to enlighten me about the difference between monarchy and democracy. I know, I know. Now humbly calm down I am trying to address matters of importance.

Now for those souls who are not familiar with the custom of lobola or maybe have been fed wrong information, may I please borrow your ears, in this case eyes. I am also here to educate you. Lobola is simply a token of gratitude offered by the groom’s family (gaabo-mosimane) to the bride’s family (gaabo-mosetsana).  I have used the word ‘simply’ to define what lobola is; do not be fooled. The actual process is far away from simple. The politics of the negotiations are more complex than that. This token of gratitude is an assurance by the groom to the bride’s family that he fully commits himself to providing, protecting and caring for his new bride for the rest of their lives. It is usually accepted as a compliment by the bride’s family if they see a delegation of uncles from the boy’s family stopping by to ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage. Another compliment that is conveyed to the bride’s family upon arrival – usually pronounced when the boy’s delegation is about to delve into the matter that has brought them to the girl’s family – is the acknowledgement that they have raised a beautiful, respectful daughter with good values and morals.

As it is human nature, the unwitting reader might be curious to know what this token of gratitude is; in what form does it come in? This token of gratitude, a thank you if will comes in the form of cows. Note that as times changed money came to be accepted as cows. The bride’s family can for example name a price for their cow and depending on how many cows they wanted, the boy’s family would offer those cows; that is if they agreed to take out that number of cows, in this case that amount of money. It is at this point where the politics arise hence they are called lobola negotiations. This is where those who are gifted with sharp tongues excel and those with hidden agendas are betrayed by their greed. Unfortunately this is where the cracks of this once respectable custom began to show. Families started to pay attention to how much material wealth they can accumulate using their daughters. I hope the reader has noticed how the writer has chosen to shy away from the use of the word ‘pay’, instead choosing to use ‘offer’. This is to emphasise the fact that the bride is not a commodity that is being sold to the boy’s family. In fact some of those cows are slaughtered during the wedding celebrations and the two families with their relatives and friends feast together. Now those were the days.

But it is with great sadness to announce that those days are no more. The greed that would seldom betray its carrier and come out has overcome its shyness. Lobola has become a lottery ticket out of poverty. Before a young man could talk about marrying his bride, the services of private investigators are enlisted to survey ‘just how deep are the pockets of this boy’. Should the private investigators return with bad news, the young man is to forget about his dream makoti (wife). Oh! Africa what has become of you? If he owns a mansion in Sandton or Bishop’s Court, and he drives the most expensive luxury cars from Germany or Italy; it does not matter how he accumulated his wealth; automatically umangqoba (he is the chosen one). Fathers and uncles can be found these days in shebeens or bars soliciting their daughters and nieces to men who are believed to have strings of zeros in their bank accounts. We have become accomplice in the burial of culture and tradition. It is a sad sight to witness.

In a recent interview with the national newspaper, Sunday Times the former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki made a keen and troubling observation about the South Africa he left in 1962 for exile and the South Africa he returned to in 1990. This is what he had to say:’ What was most striking in this regard was how much the value system in the country had changed for the worse. We got an indication of this even before we returned from exile. Accordingly, when we returned, we could not avoid noticing how much the personal acquisition of material wealth had become entrenched as an important social value. This included the ostentatious display of this personal wealth, regardless of how it was acquired, through the wearing of designer clothes, driving expensive cars, owning sumptuous houses, organising costly parties, and so on.
It seemed clear that the personal acquisition of material wealth had become the accepted standard in terms of which one would be judged by society as a successful citizen, and therefore a role model.’

It is evident in his words that the former statesman was more disappointed than impressed when he returned to find that the mass accumulation of materials was equivalent to prosperity among his countrymen. After spending 28 years in exile, albeit under harsh conditions he had expected his people to have matured with time. Even if the writer is troubled by a specific issue in his homeland, he shares the shame, disappointment and sadness that is very much prevalent among their people with his leader.

As much as the writer touched briefly on other issues, the aim was to correct an error; lobola is not a lottery ticket but a symbol of gratitude; a paving of a challenging and fruitful road that lies ahead. It is with great hope that this piece has clarified matters for the reader, particularly those who did not know or were previously misled. Kgotsong!

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