guest column: Miriam Tose Majome
Calls to abolish the payment of lobola/roora are associated with some feminist perspective, which decries it as the major cause of inequalities between the sexes. Arguments against it are well established and the intention here is not to argue for or against it, but to simply examine the feasibility of such an abolishment.
It is also necessary to have conversations around the issue in light of proposals to amend the Customary Marriages Act, which suggests making roora payment optional. This discussion also seeks to explain the real significance of roora to people who are not familiar with the tradition, including the myriads of African people who practice it daily.
We explore why the notion of abolishing the payment of roora or making it optional is likely to never happen.
Roora, in the various Shona traditions, which I am a bit more familiar with than other African traditions, is not a mere cultural tradition as is erroneously believed. It is a deeply symbolic non-negotiable African religious rite performed by most people of African origin.
The principal intention of African marriage rituals, which centre around the payment of roora and its associated rituals, is to communicate with foregone ancestors. This is regardless of whether the participants believe in the spiritual symbolism or not and whether or not they actually know what they will be doing when they perform the marriage
The intention is to communicate with their ancestors, whether they do this consciously or unconsciously. The communication is to notify them of the merger of the two different families and the blending of lineages. The groom will be symbolically asking his ancestors to receive a new person into their fold, who will blend and dilute their lineage through the offspring they may produce.
The bride’s family, on the other hand, will be informing her ancestors, including great grandfathers mothers, aunts and uncles that one of their own is leaving the nest to join another family and form a new lineage. This is the symbolism and significance of the payment of roora and its associated rituals, whether one subscribes to traditional
African religions or not.
In fact, the majority of people who perform and participate in marriage rituals do not know their real meaning and spiritual significance. They just do it anyway because that is how things have always been done. All they know is that it is how people in these parts get married and they don’t give it a second thought. At best, the payment of roora is sanitised by saying it is the norm and culture. The rituals are dismissed as the mere joining of two families and no one bothers to dig deeper into their real significance.
Noone asks why roora was the one dominant cultural practice, which remained after all other important cultural practices faded into oblivion over time. African traditional religious rituals are even graced and glossed over with Christian prayers and without even a hint of irony.
The spiritual significance of roora is the reason it remains one of the very few Shona non-negotiable traditional religious practices that Christianity and modernisation failed to stamp out.
The tradition had persisted unabated and to make it convenient and comfortable to most people, especially Christians, the rituals have been downgraded to a mere cultural practice that people do for the sake of it.
So sacred is the ritual that roora is still demanded and expected by the woman’s family even long after the two parties involved in the marriage have died or been long divorced.
The debt remains unpaid and is never extinguished for eternity even though it may be forgotten with the passage of time. Many a time hapless family members are compelled to pay the Roora debts of forefathers they never even knew who lived generations before them.
This acknowledgement of the spiritual significance of roora as much more than just a cultural practice is the reason virtually all Africans, even if they regard themselves as ardent Christians and have publicly renounced all associations with traditional religious practices, will still have two separate and distinct nuptials — one traditional where roora is paid and a civil marriage at court or in church where a marriage certificate is given.
Even the expressions used around the concept of weddings and marriage is explicitly revealing in the Shona language. There is marriage, then there is a wedding and they are not the same thing and the emphasis on the difference is very strong. When roora has been paid and traditional rites performed, Shona people say the man married the woman — akaroora and that the woman got married — akaroorwa.
When the marriage is solemnised in a court or church, they say vakachata — the couple wedded, but did not get married. The two concepts are never mixed or interchanged or confused.
A traditional marriage ceremony is never called a wedding and a court marriage or church wedding is never called a marriage. Never. Therefore, in a Shona society you can be wedded, but not married. But you can be validly married and never be wedded and this is different from simply signing a marriage register at court and not having a wedding afterwards.
Whereas, if the couple had a wedding but did not perform traditional marriage, among others, roora rites will never be referred to as being married even if they obtain a valid marriage certificate.
One of the few curious cases where a couple wedded without being married is late former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Elizabeth Macheka. They held a mock wedding in 2012 as no civil marriage could be contracted after they were denied a marriage licence because of Tsvangirai’s erstwhile customary marriage to Leocardia Karimatsenga. The court verdict was set to dash the lavish wedding feast which had already been set up at the posh Raintree Lodge.
However, what saved the day is that Roora had been paid so they were deemed by all to be validly married regardless and the wedding feast went on to the delight of the couple and invited guests who had already dressed up for the party. This just serves to show the weight and importance that is attached to the payment of Roora and that it cannot simply be relinquished.
If it wasn’t so spiritually significant most Africans would have long discarded the practice and simply have court marriages and church weddings and not bother with the extremely tedious and lengthy traditional rituals, which can go on for a lifetime. This is not to mention the hefty financial costs paid for the actual Roora. What is interesting is that people certainly can actually contract perfectly valid marriages even if they do not pay Roora.
Any adult can simply contract a civil marriage under Chapter 5.11 or a registered customary marriage under Chapter 3:07, but they will not as no one in their family and society will take it seriously. Africans do not insist on the Roora/ Lobola tradition simply because they love their culture but because they do not know the religious significance of traditional marriage rituals. The vast majority don’t know or care why they do it but do it anyway because that is what is done.
The attempt to equate traditional African customary marriages to civil marriage is flawed because the two types of marriage are not and cannot be solemnised in the same manner by mere certification. Customary marriages cannot be solemnised and proved only by court certification because it only is the payment of Roora that solemnises and proves a customary marriage and confers matrimony status customarily.
If the couple opts out of paying Roora, it is unclear how exactly they will get customarily married because a mere certificate will not do.
This discussion is motivated by the pending amendments to the Marriage Act in the wake of the 2014 Constitutional Court judgement Mudzudzu & Another vs The Minister of
Justice 2014 which outlawed child marriages. The key amendment proposal is to make Roora payment optional and the proposal will be reproduced and examined closely next week.