The issue of lobola (bride price) often generates contentious discourse and it, for sure, will remain so for a long time.
When a Ugandan court ruled in July that the bride price should not be returned to the groom’s family in the event of divorce, there was a cacophony of voices on both sides of the debate.
The ruling provided a totally new point of departure from which some critical minds viewed lobola even in Malawi.
Proponents consistently argue that lobola is pertinent more so in this day and age because it serves the purpose of binding the couple, their families and even extended ones together, ensuring commitment from the groom and letting him demonstrate that he has the capacity to look after the bride.
In all this, cattle become the most eminent mode of payment, though a monetary payment equivalent to the cattle demanded is sometimes accepted.
Sheryl Kamlongera, a mother of four from Kaluluma in Kasungu, argues that the practice has outlived its significance and is no longer relevant in modern society, let alone God’s teaching.
“Lobola greatly subverts Biblical foundations and principles of marriage. It reduces the woman to a commodity because the idea is that the woman has been bought and can be discarded any time. This encourages spousal abuse as the woman is tied to an abusive marriage simply because her family cannot pay back the Lobola as is demanded by tradition,” Kamlongera says.
She argues that such an arrangement lacks Biblical foundations.
“What’s written in Genesis about Jacob working for so many years is not bride price, but it’s a matter of avarice; Jacob wanted to accede to Laban’s avaricious demands,” she says.
The 44-year-old Kamlongera finds it disgusting that the practice, which she say was initially intended for virgin girls only, has been taken out of its cultural context.
“How many, for instance among the girls in Kasungu, are still virgins on their wedding day? This should be scrapped off because, seriously, it’s an insult to the ancestors who introduced the practice.
“Last year I congratulated a man in our neighbourhood who refused to set a bride price for his niece because she had aborted three times before meeting her fiancé. That is what should be done, other than ripping off the groom.
“Besides, I also feel Lobola creates a financial barrier for young men wishing to get married,” she states.
But Charles Govati, historian and Impi of Inkosi Gomani of Ntcheu, recognises lobola as the official stamp of authority on marriage union.
“In fact, the groom benefits more from this if you consider the care, help and companionship he gets out of the woman. But, categorically, lobola is gesture by the groom’s family of appreciation for raising a well-mannered woman. However, this doesn’t mean that the woman is considered an item, but it helps her to adhere to the sanctity of the institution of marriage. The man also tries his best to safeguard the wife knowing that he spent a fortune on her,” he says.
Govati further observes that marriages built around lobola rarely break up because the practice instils a sense of discipline and maturity.
“This explains why divorce rates are very low in areas where lobola is practiced. Before a woman is married off, elderly women sit down with her to examine whether or not her virginity is still intact. And whatever the family decides as the bride price, she has no say. This is the first test of discipline and at the same, this is a measure that the man will really take good care of the bride and this brings joy to her. Ngonis believe that when somebody wants to keep something they have to demonstrate their ability of keeping it and this is what lobola tries to achieve among others,” says Govati.n