In Cultural Anthropology, one of the best books of its kind I have read, Garry Ferraro of the University of North Carolina, USA, identifies five categories of marriage: bride wealth, bride service, dowry, women exchange and reciprocal exchange.
We will dwell mostly on the first three because already they are better known and whose adherents usually find fault with each other. In most cases, it is those who belong to the bride service and the dowry who criticise the bride wealth system out of prejudice and ignorance. They would perhaps revise their opinions if they read Ferraro’s book, which is based on field research, not armchair theorising.
What has prompted me to write this article are misleading views about (bride wealth) which appeared in one of The Nation papers recently by a lecturer in sociology. The term she used was lobola.
Over a period of more than 50 years, I have come across more letters to the press than I can remember criticising lobola, but rarely have I come across such letters criticising the bride service (chikamwini) or dowry, except when defending lobola. Yet over this period, no society that practices lobola has opted for other systems. Ferraro writes: “In the 1970s, this author conducted a study of changing patterns of bride wealth among the Kikuyu of East Africa and found that the traditional practice of bride wealth had survived in the face of significant forces of change. Interestingly, neither educational levels nor longstanding urban residence seemed to reduce the likelihood or amount of bride wealth.”
The first to criticise lobola were Christian missionaries who equated it with wife buying. Indeed, at first they translated lobola as bride price because they assumed the bridegroom was buying his wife when he sent cattle to his prospective parents-in-law. No buying is involved. Ferraro correctly refers to what we call lobola (lowola) as compensation to the parents of the bride when their daughter who has been rendering filial services departs to dwell with her husband where she will be rendering service to her husband’s parents.
What Ferraro calls the bride service is the custom known in the Central and Southern regions of Malawi as chikamwini. Before the Ngoni settled in Mzimba, the Tumbuka used to practice a similar system which they called chimaro. It was the same system that the Hebrews practised during the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We read of Jacob going to work for his maternal uncle Laban as payment for his female cousins Leah and Rachel.
Both those who practise lobola and those who practise chikamwini feel that the parents of the bride should be compensated for what they did to bring up their daughter. In the lobola system, payment is in kind or wealth; hence, anthropologists translate lobola as bride wealth, while in chikamwini or chimaro, a son in-law goes to dwell with his wife’s parents where he renders them personal service.
Those who take lobola as payment for the bride do not penetrate the system to find out its real functions. Basically, as already said, lobola is compensation. But it is also a method of settling several other issues involved in marriage. Where does the couple make its home? Under the lobola custom, the husband decides where to live with his wife and it is invariably at his parents’ village. The lobola system is said to be patrilineal.
The system decides about the lineage of the offspring of the marriage. the lobola says children belong to the father’s family, clan and tribe. In royal families, sons (and sometimes daughters as well) succeed their fathers. Nephews or nieces are strangers in this system.
When a husband dies, he leaves all the wealth in the hands of his wife. All the gardens and cattle remain in the hands of the widow so long as she elects to remain at the village. No one chases her unless she misbehaves. If she wants to remarry, she may do so and go away, but she must leave the children and all the family property there. except what is exclusively hers. The practice of male relatives snatching the inheritance of the widow and orphans is very rare in this system.
Out of mere prejudice critics say a woman’s position in lobola marriage is inferior to that of the husband. Yes, but not more inferior than in other systems. Wives under the bride wealth custom are not slaves of their husbands. A boy’s father pays lobola for his son only if he has fallen in love with the girl and he is satisfied that she comes from a good family. Marriage in the lobola system, unlike in the dowry system, establishes special relationship between parents of the couple. They become asewere.
…To be continued