There are those who think women suffer more violence from the husband under the lobola than underchikamwini or bride service. When challenged to produce facts these people do not do so. When years ago newspapers published a news items concerning a man in Dowa who had amputated the hands of his wife on alleged unfaithfulness, I challenged critics of lobola that time to propose to the government to set up a commission of inquiry on the extent of violence against women so as to find out if it is true that one marriage system is more conducive to domestic violence than another. My request was never taken up and I still pose it before critics of lobola.
Most anthropologists testify that in the rural setting, marriages under the lobola system tend to be more durable than under the bride service system. Pressure from parents of both the bride and the groom is stronger in order to maintain the marriage. Divorce is expensive in this system. If the husband is blamed for the breakup of the marriage he forfeits the bride wealth. In the past, invariably he lost custody of the children to his estranged wife. If the court finds the wife guilty, her parents are ordered to refund three quarters of the bride wealth they had received. A man who divorced his wife without sound reasons will have to fend for himself entirely when he wants to remarry. The lobola custom never compels a woman to remain with a husband who mistreats her. Traditional law and custom protect her.
There are people who say under lobola; parents try to enrich themselves by giving their daughters to the highest bidder. There are many versions of bride wealth. I hesitate to reject this observation out of hand. The truth is that the amount of bride wealth that a groom transfers to parents is determined by custom and level of wealth in that particular society.
Ferraro tells us that an indigent member of the Nandi tribe of Kenya can obtain a bride with no more than a promise to transfer one animal to the bride’s father. He goes on to say: “A suitor from the Jie tribe of Uganda… normally transfer 50 head of cattle and 100 head of small stock of sheep and goats.”
In Mzimba, the lobola system is derived from the Swazi and Zulu system and the term lobola is Zulu or Ngoni. Custom prescribes bride wealth of two cows, a heifer and a bullock. In this system, wealth moves in both directions.
Once the lobola is settled, it becomes the return of the bride’s family to transfer wealth to the bridegrooms family in the form of mngenisa khaya, facilitating the brides entry into her new home; Masondo following the daughters footprints; the Mqando, a bullock that the bride brings and presents to her father-in-law; Mbeleko, the cow or bull that is killed by the bride’s parents whose meat and hide are taken to the bride’s parents when she delivers her first baby.
The Mzimba, system is a two way traffic of wealth.
The dowry system involves a transfer of goods or money in the opposite direction from the bride family to the groom or the groom’s family, Ferraro tells us that the dowry system is confined to Eurasia (Europe and Asia).
Writers who belong to this practice are fond of pointing out the seamy side of the bride wealth custom. They forget that dowry has been used by wealthy parents to buy husbands for their unwanted daughters. This is the message you get in Shakespeare’s play Taming of the Shrew. Ferraro tells us that wealthy American industrialists offered their wealthy heiresses to European nobles in exchange for titles.
Which of the marriage systems is the most popular? In Malawi the lobola custom is practised by a fifth or so of the population and some people view it as an aberration. As I read the novels of Achebe, an Igbo of Nigeria and Ngugi, a Kikuyu of Kenya, I got the impression that at least half of the people of Africa practice either the bride wealth or the bride price system. Ferraro gives startling statistics. He writes: “According to Murdocks World Ethnographic Sample, approximately 46 percent of all societies give substantial bride wealth payment. Although bride wealth is practised in most regions of the world, it is most widely found in Africa where it is estimated that 82 percent of the societies require the payment of bride wealth. Most of the remaining 18 percent practise either token bride wealth or bride price (providing labour, rather than goods to the bride’s family.)
All marriage systems started with honest intentions. If some of them appear queer these days, it is because circumstances have changed. Changed circumstances necessitate modifications but not outright repudiation of a system.