Views from Fiona: Lobola... Ready to be Sold?

Views from Fiona: Lobola... Ready to be Sold?


Let's face it. Families nowadays are greedy and try to suck the groom-to-be dry by imposing a hefty lobola.

By Fiona Abaasa
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First published: May 1, 2007


Lobola or mahadi in Sesotho translates into bride price. Bride price transactions are a very, very old occurrence throughout Africa. This practice is still extensive in contemporary African society and has attracted both critical and supportive voices. Among the peoples of western Uganda, dowry or bride price is known as 'enjuugano' and was very much practiced (still is) just like lobola in southern Africa.


Traditionally and universally, for Africans who practice this custom, the payment is usually in the form of cattle since cattle were the primary source of wealth in African society. However, with modern trends setting in, people have switched to cash payments. The process of paying lobola or enjuugano can be quite long and complex. It involves many members of both the bride and groom's extended families. The amounts asked are usually discussed and negotiated upon before they the two families reach a consensus.

For many a modern girl, the idea of being sold off doesn't augur well. Dowry or lobola therefore comes with unintended negative effects sometimes. Just think about this:How would you feel if you told your parents that your boy friend has proposed and all they ask about is how much he is going to pay them for you. It happens to very independent girls too. Christine (not real name) says she was horrified when her man told her the amount of cows and cash he was asked to bring. She says on top of ten heads of cattle, he was asked for an assortment of items and 2 million Uganda shillings in cash. This she says, felt like being sold and she still believes her parents were out to squeeze as much wealth as they could from her fiancée.

Deborah and Derrick thought they had learnt to live with their financial status quo until her dad went for the big one, asking an exorbitant sum for his daughter. Kent was chilled to the marrow when his uncle, the head of his negotiating delegation, let him down. You see, the leader of the groom's negotiating team must have good bargaining skills to negotiate the lobola downwards. But alas! When the bride's family asked for twenty heads of cattle, the uncle readily agreed. Just this alone brought disagreement within his own camp. The idea is to have a negotiator who is knowledgeable about these matters; otherwise the team will blunder and often times the bride's relatives drive a really hard bargain.

The nature of dowry transactions and cultural values has been commercialized and misinterpreted which has given women's movements a reason to fight bride price or dowry customs in Africa. Initially this custom was observed as a way of appreciating the bride's family for raising a good woman but the question now is who appreciates the efforts taken in raising the groom? Isn't it double standards to appreciate only one family rather than two? The more commercialized the custom became, the more young men believed they were purchasing property in an open market and so the more violence that erupted from such marriages. To my understanding, dowry given, for example in the Banyankole culture was often used by the bride's family to buy their daughter presents/gifts to start her family. But let's face it. Families nowadays are greedy and try to suck the groom-to-be dry by imposing a hefty lobola.

Traditionally, the payment of lobola secured the position of the woman within the marriage and her family. It also granted her certain rights, claims and guarantees. She could not just be 'expelled' or arbitrarily divorced by the husband without an elaborate process involving both families. Therefore, the implications of lobola for women depend on the social meaning of the practice. It entitles a husband the right to claim the children in the event of a divorce, whereas he cannot do so if no such payments were made.

In addition, 'lobola' has to be returned in the event of a divorce. This causes a lot of difficulties for the woman as she is often forced to stay in a marriage just because her kin are unable to return the lobola, or for fear of being castigated by her family. The inability of the woman's family to pay back the lobola or dowry always held women captive in abusive and dead end marriages.

In as much as the custom was indeed good in fostering a relationship between the two families, for being abused, the source of greed and other social implications associated with the lobola, these days dowry traditions have lost some of their earlier credence. These days it is practiced by those who wish to do so but in other cases (especially where the girl feels uneasy with the practice) it is totally ignored. Women whose dowry was never paid feel they were not bought and have no obligation to payback should the marriage go awry.

By Fiona Abaasa
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First published: May 1, 2007
Fiona Abaasa is a visitor of UGPulse.com.

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