Over the past few months, I have engaged in several conversations around culture, traditions and their abuse. I have also engaged on the topic of misconstruing culture and of labeling something that isn’t part of a society’s norms and mores as “culture” simply because of occasional practice or because it is perceived today as “backward”
One of the reemerging themes is that “our” culture (and by our I mean southern African culture) is inherently patriarchal and there’s an underlying current of abuse. Before I venture deeper into problematising this notion, I must clarify that “southern African culture” is a misnomer. For starters, southern Africa is not a homogenous mass of sameness and I won’t speak of it as such. While some practices are common amongst people who occupy similar spaces and whose geographical proximity contributes to shared experiences, such a culture, in my mind, simply does not exist. In fact, even within cordoned off spaces like the nationstate, a plethora of peoples exist and live under sometimes convergent, but often different norms and mores. The “culture” of a Karanga in Nemavuzhe, is unlike that of Zezuru in Buhera. Indeed, even within the “same” group there are differences… The Zulu in Matatiele and the Zulu in Hluhluwe are not one and the same. The reality is people like neat labels for neat boxes, so people and their cultures are clumped for convenience.
Whatever the real case may be, one thing remains quite clear to me, some of the shared customs are largely misunderstood and/or abused. We are told that ours is a patriarchal culture… yet when I look at the family structure within my paternal group of people (the southern karanga), I note that my late grandmother was a matriarch in every meaning of the word. I note that decisions on various issues related to *my* life can not be made without consulting the women who borne me (yes that’s plural… for my mothers and her sisters) and my father’s sisters (vana tete).
It is against this last point that I seek to explore the traditional custom of lobola/roora/paying of the bride “price.” A custom that has been abused to a point where its current manifestation deviates significantly from what was initially imagined. From my understanding, lobola, in and of itself, is not inherently problematic. The abuse of the tradition by greedy patriarchs is what makes it increasingly problematic in today’s world. Only today do you hear of exorbitant “fees” and talk of “Our child has a Masters” so she is “worth” 500 head of cattle. Only today. Back in the day, lobola was intended to bring two families together in celebration. You gave to your wife’s family a gift, which was agreed upon, that symbolised the coming together of her family with yours. It was not an expensive gift that was out of your family’s financial means. No. Auditors did not have to be called in to indeed show that your family could not afford what was asked of you. Your future wife was not livestock at market. As a groom you did not ponder how you would use your wife once “bought.” No. The beer was brewed, the cattle slaughtered, the drums heated. It was a negotiation in good faith and not an auction. If you intended to have a big wedding feast at a later date after the lobola then you contributed with cattle. The significant beast given as lobola was the childbearing cow (mombe yehu mai) because this was the, put simply, gift that would keep on giving.
Traditionally, as I have come to learn, one must not finish paying off lobola unless he intends to part ways with his wife. One continually “pays” the lobola to the wife’s family. A cow this year, a blanket next. Not big things, small gestures and tokens of appreciation throughout the marriage.
Lobola was never intended to be part of a “culture” that abuses and subverts women. Perhaps its time we rethink how our developing societies have destroyed good practices and made them into cultural monstrosities.
Veering off from lobola and into other aspects of culture, I must point out that there are some highly problematic aspects that are rooted in abusive patriarchal norms in which women are products and possessions. These, some contend, are an importation and not part of what the culture of our peoples was. Is. But it is our present reality. Where a woman calls her husband “baba/daddy” and lives in near servitude “for the sake of the children” she borne. It is in the exclusion of many women from discussions. It is in the physical and emotional abuse that is wrought on women and that they must put up with because “you are a woman.” In aunts telling female children that they are “broken” or “damaged goods” when they fall pregnant as if they had sex on their own… where female virginity defines the worth of a woman, but male virginity doesn’t. A man who impregnates is, after all, virile. But the fertility of a woman is only relevant when she bears the man the children his virility needs…
I am going off on a tangent now… as do thoughts when they come streaming in… so I’ll stop here for now.