The impossibility of abolishing lobola: Part 3

Miriam Tose Majome

guest column: Miriam Tose Majome

THIS is the conclusion of a three-part series which discussed the feasibility of doing away with roora or making it optional in customary marriages.

The position taken has been that it is impossible to alter it because of its religious/spiritual centrality in the African context.

The entire customary marriage process hinges on roora and its numerous variations.

Those with even the most basic knowledge of Shona customs know that traditionally, there are more ways than one by which a man can fulfil his roora obligations to his in-laws.

Many of the lesser practised ways have fallen into disuse with the passage of time, but the plurality of ways to pay it shows its the central importance to the African people.

Besides, it is also an aspect of life that is impossible for the government to regulate.

It is only people who do not understand the complexity of the custom or have a superficial knowledge of it, including Africans themselves, who equate and perceive it with Eurocentric spectacles.

Roora has now come to be deemed as the ultimate cause of the suppression of married women in African societies, hence the never-ending conversations and calls to abolish it.

It is not debatable that African women suffer much oppression at the hands of men.

However, it is over-simplistic and reductionist to say the abolishment of roora will end the abuse and relegation of African women to minority status.

There are many complex factors which need to be addressed and many cultural reforms to be undertaken in the continuing quest towards a more equitable and just society.

In the African context, it is not enough to sign a marriage register and neither should it be enough.

There is no argument that it is entirely possible to dispense with roora in a civil marriage, but it is impossible, if not absurd, in a customary marriage.

There is no legal requirement to pay roora before contracting a civil marriage under the Marriage Act Chapter 5:11, but even then, how many dare do so? Almost none.

It can be declared with certainty that all Africans who ever got married under civil law in this country from the time it was called Chapter 37, all had contracted customary marriages.

It is difficult for people who are not within the culture to understand that even though they may have a valid marriage certificate, Africans are not regarded as married if roora was not paid.

The marriage certificate is recognised for all official and legal purposes, but is the lack of endorsement and recognition of a marriage certificate without customary formalities by Africans any less valid?

Africans themselves understand well the importance of endorsement and recognition of their marriages as validated by their own people using their own standards.
For this reason, Africans will continue to go through the complex customary rites of marriage even where there is no legal obligation to do so.

There is a social, spiritual and cultural compulsion, even where there is no legal one.

It is difficult for those not in the culture to understand this compulsion and they wonder why they bother at all and why they just don’t dispense with it.

A customary marriage certificate on its own cannot conceivably be accepted as a marriage which fulfilled African customary requirements.

The certificate may well prove that a marriage took place in court, but whatever marriage it was, it will certainly not be a customary marriage, merely because of the issuance of a certificate.

A marriage is not a piece of paper and never is this truer than in African custom.

A customary marriage is solemnised only by fulfilling the known and accepted rites of a customary marriage the most important of which is to pay roora.

Despite holding a civil or customary marriage certificate, unless roora or some form of it has been paid, nobody in the African context will regard it as a valid marriage. The couple will be deemed to be cohabiting.

Lastly, the proposal to make roora optional, apart from its lack of practicability, has serious implications on inheritance.

Given that the majority of marriages in Zimbabwe are unregistered customary unions, the Master of the High Court, when winding down estates, is guided by the submissions of the surviving relatives to confer surviving spouse status and all the obligations attendant to it.

The only test that determines whether the deceased was married or not and to whom is the payment of roora or some recognisable aspect of it, whatever was tendered has to be understood and deemed as roora by the woman’s family.

The payment of roora is the only qualification that certifies and solemnises a customary marriage.

This is also true for pension contributions.

Pensions do not go into a person’s estate because they are meant exclusively for the contributor’s beneficiaries.

Pension officers have to be satisfied that pension benefits are awarded to deserving beneficiaries.

People in unregistered customary unions have to prove that there was a valid marriage and it is only relatives who can testify this and they are usually called upon to do so.

In the absence of a marriage certificate and in the absence of testimony that roora was paid, a pension cannot be claimed by the person claiming to be the surviving spouse.

This can negatively affect families who may be left without sustenance after the breadwinner has died

Although this three-part series has sounded like an argument for roora, it is not.

It was simply to highlight why proposals to amend the Customary Marriage Act will fail.

If by chance the proposals are implemented, they will completely overturn the African marriage culture and replace it with an unknown entity and this cannot be the intention.

Africans have a duty to properly understand their own customs and take charge of the narrative about their own customs.

Where reforms are needed, they must be undertaken with a proper understanding and application of African norms.

Repressive and oppressive African cultural practices can only be reformed with self-analysis and without substituting them with foreign precepts that do not fit well.

Proposals to ban or limit roora are well meaning, but are not realistic.

The discussion needs a deeper and more inclusive national discussion with cultural leaders, reformists, academics and legal experts.


  1. I may have missed the first part of the series. However, even without it, I think I now understand what the argument was all about, ie HOW POSSIBLE IS IT TO ABOLISH LOBOLA.
    IT IS IMPOSSIBLE. The reason being that Lobola has a deep rooted tradition in the African Culture. Instead of the writer’s argument supporting the abolishment of Lobola, the facts have come out in support of the traditional practice.
    Who in the first place was advocating for its abolishment- suppressed married women??
    Lobola does not suppress anyone. It is the partner. What came first in a relationship, their love or Lobola? Lobola is the ceremony to unite the two into marriage. Lobola did not come first before the two fell in love. Even after payment of Lobola, if a marriage does not work out, one of the spouses is not obliged to stay in that relationship. One is free to take steps to end it. I have not heard of incidents where one was forced to stay in a dead relationship because Lobola was paid.
    Lobola is complex and it is the culmination of a relationship of courtship involving families etc etc. Like any other practice, there are people who abuse it in terms of the bridal price. This should not be one of the reasons to call for its abolishment. Maybe some form of regulation in this area may help the starting up families from hardships caused by unreasonable high bridal price. Food, good as it may be for one’s body if abused, will cause health problems. Alcohol is good for other people but if abused by others, will cause social problems. Are there calls for their abolishment. Instead, there are health tips and regulation to deal with these issues.
    The writer still needs to give us examples in our Shona tradition, where Lobola ceremonies have been religious and spiritual. I don’t believe so. It seems its an attempt to tar Lobola with spiritual connotations so that it is condemned by those who were converted to Christianity. Even today, most Christian denominations try to relegate customary marriages as if they are not proper marriages when in fact, THEY ARE THE MARRIAGES. They conduct full white wedding ceremonies, ending up with the two being married again.
    The present laws have their origin from the colonialists, who were bent to subjugate Africans by condemning their traditional practices, even when they did not understand them. The mantra that customary marriages encourage polygamy has no basis. A piece of paper does not stop extra-marital affairs. The so called ‘small houses’ are a product of infidelity, even where the couples are married under Chapter 5.11. Statistically, how many polygamous marriages exist because the couples were marriage under customary law?
    African traditional marriages are more stable than European marriages. European marriages and relationships appear to be regulated more by law than society and its traditions and hence they are more disfunctional.
    Rather than calling for the abolishment of certain traditional practices, identify their weak areas and involve all stakeholders to improve them.

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