Lobola can never be optional

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By Miriam Tose Majome

THE Marriages Amendment Bill was finally passed into law earlier this month after years of heated debate. The amendment to consolidate civil and customary marriages in alignment with the 2013 Constitution was triggered by the 2016 Mudzuru vs Minister of Justice Constitutional Court judgment which outlawed child marriages. Section 22 of the Marriages Act had permitted 16-year-old girls to be married while the Customary Marriages Act was silent on the marriage age and, therefore, was quietly permissive.

The news of the passing of the Bill immediately triggered a wave of excitable misleading contradictory and confusing headlines. Some headlines screamed that lobola was no longer compulsory and others said the exact opposite. The headlines were mischievously misleading as any such announcements about lobola are always going to generate public excitement.

We shall deal first with the one that said lobola was no longer compulsory. There was no reference to the type of marriage being talked about. However, under the Marriages Act [Chapter 5:11] lobola/roora was never compulsory from the onset. People elected out of their own free will to submit themselves to both civil and customary marriage rites. Lobola was never a requirement to getting a civil marriage. Among other requirements like consent of both parties, majority status, not being related in such a way that prohibits the marriage, having legal capacity  there was nothing else required except two witnesses to sign the marriage register. No lobola or parental  consent was required, so there really was nothing new that necessitated the excitable headlines.

The other headline was to the effect that lobola was now compulsory. This deliberately left the part that it referred to customary law and that again there was nothing new about this that warranted excitable headlines. Lobola was and has always been compulsory under customary law. Everyone who is  conversant with our culture knows that if lobola is not paid, then no marriage has taken place. The Customary Marriages Act had always required the marriage officer to ask the parties if lobola had been paid to the bride’s family and could only register the marriage if satisfied of this. The Amendent Bill had sought to remove that part to make it optional. However, it was met with resistance because making lobola optional automatically invalidates customary marriages. The debates were much ado about nothing because lobola could never be made optional in this country.

Calls to abolish the payment of lobola are as old as the feminist movement in Zimbabwe. Lobola has been singled out as a major contributor to gender-based abuse and persistent inequality between the sexes. Its eradication is viewed as a major step towards women’s emancipation. However, because of the structure and nature of African customary marriages, lobola can never be outlawed because to do so would be to outlaw customary marriages. Lobola is to customary marriage a hump is to a camel. If you remove a hump from a camel, it ceases to be a camel.

In the various African traditions of this country, the payment of lobola is not a mere cultural tradition but is a deeply symbolic, non-negotiable African spiritual ritual. An African customary marriage centres around the payment of roora. Without it there is no marriage. Even the language used by Shona people in reference to weddings and marriages is clear. There is a marriage then there is a wedding and the two are not the same thing. When roora has been paid and traditional rites have been performed, Shona people say the man married the woman — akaroora and that the woman got married (akaroorwa).  When a marriage is solemnised in a court or at church, they say vakachata — the couple wedded, but they do not say they got married.  The two concepts are never mixed or interchanged or ever confused. A traditional marriage ceremony is never called a wedding and a court or church wedding is never called a marriage. Never. In Shona custom, one can be wedded but not married. Shona people can be validly customarily married even if they never wedded or legally registered their marriage.

The African marriage ritual is a deeply spiritual act despite the participants’ personal religious beliefs. The spiritual symbolism of lobola is despite the participants’ knowledge or acknowledgement of the spiritual connotations of the associated ceremonies and rituals. Even African Christians despite their ardent rejection of African spiritualism insist on paying it and going through with the associated rituals. Some deny the African spiritualism connotations by equating it to Jewish marital cultural practices quoted in the Bible to try and minimise its Africanness.

The payment of lobola and the rituals associated with it are a conscious or unconscious form of communication with ancestors that there has been a merger of two different families. The groom’s family will be symbolically asking his ancestors to receive a stranger who will blend and dilute their lineage through offspring she may produce.  The bride’s family on the other hand will be symbolically notifying her ancestors — dead and present — that one of them is leaving them to join another family. It does not matter whether one subscribes to traditional African religion and spirituality or not but this is the spiritual symbolism of roora rituals in a Shona context.

The majority of people who perform and participate in African customary marriage rituals do not know their spiritual significance. Most people just do it because that is how marriage has always been conducted.  The rituals are sanitised by calling them tradition or culture. There is a reluctance and denial by Christians to acknowledge the spiritual significance of these rites. Very few people ever question why the lobola ritual remained when all other important cultural practices faded into oblivion or were discarded over time in preference to Western religions and practices. Despite its deep African spiritual and religious connotations, the lobola ceremony is even graced and glossed over with Christian prayers without a hint of irony. The tacit acknowledgement of roora rituals as much more than just a cultural practice is the reason virtually all Africans in this country even if they have renounced all association with traditional religious practices will still insist on two separate and distinct nuptials — a traditional marriage ceremony where roora is paid and a civil marriage at court or in church.

So sacred is the ritual held that certain components of lobola are still demanded and expected by the woman’s family even long after death or divorce.

Lobola debts remain and are never extinguished for eternity.  Many a time hapless family members are compelled to pay the roora debts of forefathers who lived generations long before them such as mombe yehumai (the obligatory cow given to the mother of the bride), rusambo (cash sum charged by the bride’s male relatives). Of course greed and materialism have crept in and caused distortion, but the spiritual significance never changes.

If the underlying importance of lobola was not acknowledged, the majority of Africans by now would have long discarded it given its extremely tedious and lengthy rituals and the expenses associated with it. African men and women do not insist on the tradition simply because they love their culture but because it is important for them personally to be deemed properly customarily married ahead of any other marriage.