In some African countries, for example South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, D.R.Congo, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho, the tradition of paying lobola or a “bride price” is very common. There is an understanding that the custom surrounding the practice of paying lobola is to seal the relationship between the two people who plan to get married and their families or clans. The lobola demonstrates that the man getting married is capable of taking care of a family and also serves as a token of gratitude to the bride’s family for raising a wonderful woman.
The lobola ceremony is a formal process of negotiation between two families in order to come to a mutual agreement on the price.
According to tradition it was customary to pay the lobola with cattle. In present times, however, the payment can be made with money or cattle, depending on the families’ circumstances. For example, families living in a city might not have the physical capacity to receive cattle. The number of cattle or their actual value has to be determined prior to the ceremony and is dependent upon on the bride’s background, her education, and the social position of her family. The tradition has to be adhered to and accepted regardless of the educational background of the new couple and the financial situation of the family. The same custom of lobola applies even if the groom does not belong to the same tribe as the bride. He will have to follow the tradition as required by the culture of the bride so that the marriage will be recognised by [the] her family and community.
The lobola ceremony itself differs slightly from region to region and tribe to tribe, but in general the lobola ceremony is expected to follow strict regulations. Close relatives or representatives of the families such as the maternal uncles and paternal aunts become part of the negotiation procedures, but the father and/or the older men in the extended paternal family usually are the ones who negotiate. At the time of the introduction of the groom to the family of the bride-to-be, the lobola price has to have been determined by the family of the bridegroom, with the understanding that the lobola has to be delivered at the time of the lobola ceremony. The couple themselves are not involved in the actual process although they may have something to do behind the scenes. The bride or the bridegroom might influence the negotiations through their families without having direct contact with the negotiations. It is against the culture of the couple to have any sexual relationship prior to the day of the lobola ceremony, which is considered to be the day of the traditional wedding.
On the day of the ceremony everyone is dressed according to a specific dress code. In some tribes in Southern Africa, the women are expected to wear traditional dresses and have to be covered with a blanket and to wear a scarf around their heads. The men are required to dress formally, wearing jackets.
The two families initially meet separately. The family of the groom meet in the house of the groom’s parents. Once all members have gathered, they then move to some specific point where a member of the family of the bride greets them. Once the greetings are over they all enter the grounds of the bride’s parents although not the house of the bride. They are expected to wait until they are invited to start the negotiations. If the original agreement is not met, the negotiations will continue until a final agreement is reached. This could take up to two days.
Until that point no food or beverages other than water are served. When the final agreement has been reached and the bride’s family have accepted the offer, the official ceremony and feast will start. As part of the lobola ceremony the girl’s family slaughter a sheep or a goat. Just before the food is served the bride arrives and is handed over to her new family. As required by tradition she is covered with a blanket and the family of the groom now receives her. One of the elders then takes off her blanket and she formally becomes a member of the new family and greets everyone.
While this is happening the food is being served followed by tea and coffee. Then the groom’s family are called to meet the family of the bride and they greet each other and give thanks for the new family member. An official date is then set for a white or traditional wedding ceremony and the festivities end with a prayer. The family of the groom is at this point expected to leave while the groom himself is allowed to sleep over, which implies acceptance, and seals the marriage.
Although the tradition is widely respected by most men and women in the society, lobola comes with controversy (Wendo C., 2004
; Belinga-Eboutou M., 2001; UN report 2003
; Swartz L., 2001
). Many outsiders see the custom as a direct reason for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. The lobola tradition is also known as “the Customary Law of Marriage” (South Africa; Act 120 Justice Department 2000) which permits the husband to marry up to four wives. The latest example is the President of South Africa, who is currently married to three women, having paid lobola for all of them. Many see this as equal to multiple concurrent sexual partners (Fray P., 2008
). In the case of one of the partners contracting an infection everyone involved in this sexual network is at risk of infection (Duncan ME. Et al 1994
; Morrison CS et al 1997
; Leclerc-Madlala S 2009
; Asamoah-odei E. 1996
; Dunkle KL et al 2008
). Lobola also does not prevent the husband from having extramarital affairs. The social expectations towards him as a man may put him under pressure to which he might feel he has to respond (Walker L. 2005
; Hunter M. 2005
; Kongnyuy EJ et al 2007
; Ng’weshemi JZ, et al 1996
). In an effort to gain a better understanding of the custom and its effect on the potential spread of sexually transmitted infections including HIV, we conducted focus group sessions to examine the feasibility of a health promotion programme for heterosexual men in a South African Township. The results presented here represent the understanding of the tradition of lobola extrapolated from responses given by the participants during the focus group discussion.