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Lobola: Who’s Paying the Real Price for Bride Price?

Opinion

Lobola: Who’s Paying the Real Price for Bride Price?

Even if we Ndebele say lobola is for the children she will bear, what of infertile women? Doesn’t it end up discriminating them, making them a disappointment for a condition they never asked for?

I’m intelligent, funny, multi-talented, creative, unconventional, gorgeous, outspoken and a vaaarb. Cattle won’t do justice for my lobola (dowry/bride price)–I deserve a pride of lions, an elephant and three leopards for my lobola. In fact, I deserve all of Hwange Wildlife Park. Yes, this queen’s lobola must be as high as her IQ. But is lobola problematic? Does it contribute to women’s objectification, male entitlement by assigning her a price, and fuel unrealistic expectations for both genders?

Must we just abolish it?

Last week, a high court declared that husbands can reclaim their lobola if their wives cheat. Men will cheat left, right, centre; treat their wives like slaves, then one entanglement and he is crying by a window with rain pouring down likes he’s in a 90s R’n’B music video, singing, “oh baby, I want my lobola back.” But what do we tell wives who are cheated on? “Men are like that. It’s part of marriage.” No mention of compensation. Cheating is never okay, but an instance of infidelity doesn’t negate lobola requirements that your wife met for you and your marriage, including basically being your lifetime slave. Just sue her for infidelity.

When a wife doesn’t behave how her husband wants, he threatens to to return her to her family and reclaim his lobola. Sounds a lot like when you buy a product but find it defective so you return it to the shop and demand a refund. Here you start seeing the female commodification lobola revolves around.

Lobola promotes gender expectations because it upholds the idea of men as providers and women as caretakers. Lobola is a test to prove he will afford to take care of his wife, and the woman doing chores at the celebration proves she can do household chores. I’m a 20-year-old with the back of a 60-year-old so if my in-laws leave me a room of dirty dishes I will laugh and go to sleep. When men aren’t ATM machines which can afford lobola, they’re deemed not “real men” and truly, many men want to pay lobola to prove they are real men. But if a man really wants to thank her family with commodities, it must be a gift with no strings attached.

Lobola negotiations have misogynistic customs. Firstly, only men negotiate, because men are believed to be rational and better negotiators. Secondly, men sit on chairs while women sit on the floor as a sign of respect, denoting that men are superior. If you don’t give me a chair, sorry but one of the men will have to get on all fours and I’ll use their back as a stool. Thirdly, the bride, a grown ass woman, isn’t even involved in the negotiations over her own marriage. Only her fiancé has a voice in the process.

Why must male relatives negotiate a marriage that’s not theirs, and gain money from it without contributing to my upbringing? Often my brothers comment that with my academic excellence, they can’t wait for my lobola. Hayi, I’m not Black Friday. In life I need the audacity of straight white men and the confidence of the Twitter queen who took her lobola money and left.

Truth is, men build relationships with other men while using the bride as a stock exchange. If this were untrue, women who raised the bride would play a huge role in negotiations but their role is ululating on the floor like alarm clocks in the sidelines with a false sense of power–like when you give your little sibling a disconnected game control while playing FIFA to make them think they’re playing. They’re Disney princess animal sidekicks.

Women would never be allowed to pay lobola because it would mean men’s loss of power, because money is power. Which is why men who don’t pay lobola are often told they have no right to speak and are not given respect, but once they pay, they get power and authority to exercise over the wife as the household’s head. Women paying lobola would mean they’d be heads over their husbands. He pays for her surname to change to his, erasing her lineage; birthing ten children even when she’s tired; being his maid. In Ndebele culture, women are even considered part of the husband’s children. I am not a bundle of joy, I am a woman.

Some women say they want lobola because it shows they’re valuable and their assets are precious. Girl, imagine your worth being an animal that eats grass and goes moo. A cow. Your intelligence, your awesome personality, for an animal that becomes a beef burger. It’s insulting.

Critics say but why are only women lotsholwad for their upbringing but not men? Arguably, it’s fair discrimination because being born female is being crucified to your XX chromosomes; we’re tired of twerking to the sound of our oppression: femicide, disproportionate GBV, misogyny etc which complicate our upbringing. In a way, it’s compensation for patriarchy’s inconveniences men never have to endure. But again, the woman doesn’t get the lobola anyway so this falls flat.

Arguably, lobola is like paid maternity leave, in valuing the fact that childbirth is a feat, instead of taking for granted women’s child-bearing abilities. However, this argument falls upon remembering the woman doesn’t receive a cent of the lobola. Her body is objectified to the benefit of men who cash in on her uterus.

Even if we Ndebele say lobola is for the children she will bear, what of infertile women? Doesn’t it end up discriminating them, making them a disappointment for a condition they never asked for? It ends up upholding patriarchal hierarchies of women determined by sexist standards; in this case, our worth being determined by childbearing potential. And in the absence of fertility tests, it’s never the man suspected of infertility, it’s always the woman.

The bride gets nothing, while her family objectifies her child-giving potential, getting money for the child SHE will carry, SHE will give birth to, SHE will raise. Making her a pawn for financial gain, after which her family tosses her into the hardships of marriage.

Arguably, lobola is no different to prostitution, except the husband pays one price for a lifetime of sexual duties and servitude. A sex worker is paid for every sexual favour while the husband pays once, making wives the lowest paid prostitutes in humanity. Except the wife gets “dignified” societal privileges but a prostitute gets disdain.

It’s no different to slave auctioning, except the slave here is a willing participant, because the price makes the bride his family’s slave henceforth–in-laws leaving a room full of dirty dishes for the wife to wash all alone. During the lobola celebrations, instead of peacefully enjoying her future marriage, she must do chores.

In honesty, my husband must be domesticated because I’m too busy fixing the world to wash dishes.

This idea encourages marital rape and domestic about because the husband believes he “paid for” sex from his wife whenever he wants it; hitting wives because they’re not behaving like the property men paid for. When he abuses her and she runs home, her family tells her to go back and work it out because her husband paid for her; and because they don’t want to lose the money they got from lobola. It also encourages child marriage because poor families marry off their daughters to older men to alleviate their poverty through lobola. Thus almost 1 in 3 Zimbabwean girls are child brides.

Maybe the tradition has become too tarnished to keep.

My final thoughts? Lobola must be reformed. The bride must be there to negotiate the terms of her own marriage because it’s a sort of contract, in the same way couples negotiate over things like whether to marry in community of property or have prenuptials. They decide TOGETHER on the terms. Female relatives must be part of the negotiation and give them chairs for heaven’s sake. Also, let’s decommercialize it and make it more about kinship. People say lobola brings families together, but why unite over auctioning a woman? Families can come together during get togethers, going out to braai, exchanging gifts.

Maybe the harms of lobola outweigh the benefits; as long as lobola exists society will never stop seeing women as husbands’ properties and men’s inferiors, because lobola is a transaction for power.

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When I'm not smashing the patriarchy, I debate, paint, and work on my YA African feminist fantasy novel on Wattpad--which I guess is also smashing the patriarchy. Currently stu(dying) BA Law at University of Pretoria. I may or may not be a mermaid masquerading as a human. Pro-LGBTQ+. I'm just out here not hearing problematic people over the volume of my Afro.

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