It is traditional custom in southern Africa for a prospective husband to honor his future wife’s family with a gift of cows. The practice is called lobola. The cows themselves and the process leading to the exchange are designed to bring the bridal couple’s families closer together, so that as a unit they will be supportive of the newlyweds, and later of their offspring.
|Indigenous African nduni cow|
The process itself is akin to what happens in a corporate merger or acquisition. The bridegroom-to-be’s family appoints negotiating representatives, often the father and uncles, who approach the family of the bride-to-be to negotiate a fair price. From what I understand, these negotiations can often take several sessions and involve a haggling over the value of the cattle themselves, as well as the attributes of the young lady.
As Owethu Kheli wrote recently in the Mail&Guardian Online (http://mg.co.za/article/2012-02-17-tricky-art-of-negotiating-lobola) (I’ve omitted a few paragraphs):
|Indigenous African nduni cow|
I drove my team to her parents' house. It took three meetings for the two families to finally sign the deal. The first meeting, according to the briefing my "lawyers" gave me afterwards, was a good one. "It's a smooth process," said my dad's cousin. Okay, tell me more, I said.
Her family had accepted our merger of equals proposition. But? They had not done due diligence and could not put cattle or a monetary value on the daughter.
But they played hard to get over those three meetings, according to my team. At some stage I thought that I would go to the house next door to find a wife. Or I would marry a white woman, whose dad would have the pain of funding a lavish wedding, all without lobola.
Finally, after three meetings, my deal was sealed in the most welcome and fulfilling of ways.
I sneaked into the final meeting. My lawyers are rebels -- they break tradition, generally. They said I should walk in with them this time round to experience the process for myself. The other parties probed skillfully as though they did not know.
One of them asked of my legal team: "Gentlemen, how come there are four of you, when in the past meetings there were only three?" My dad's cousin, knowing we would all be fined for this transgression, introduced me as their driver.
However, as you would expect, traditions like this are under pressure.
First, there are logistical pressures. It is hard to imagine an urban couple driving a small herd of cattle through the streets of Johannesburg or Cape Town from one family to another, let alone keeping the cattle on an apartment’s veranda or a house’s small garden. This inconvenience has been addressed by exchanging the cash value of the cattle - hence the need for the negotiators to reach agreement on the cows’ values. This can cost the bridegroom a lot of money – which means that the couple can start life together with a large hole in their bank balance.
Third, many proponents of lobola argue that the divorce rates amongst groups that seal a union with lobola are lower than typical western rates. However, more and more young men now say that the price to pay, in cattle or money, is too great. More than half of young men today believe that lobola discourages marriage. And guess what? Single mothers and absentee fathers are becoming the norm. And the likely ones to suffer are the children.
Michael and I are fortunate that our Detective Kubu’s father, Wilmon, was an astute negotiator. The lobola Kubu paid for Joy was fair, and the two are a couple of equals. Sort of.
Stan - Thursday