Thursday, February 23, 2012

With this cow I do thee wed

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 ( (I’ve omitted a few paragraphs):
Indigenous African nduni cow
I was not allowed into the house where my fiancée's family and my "lawyers" discussed this "out-of-court settlement". Being present is like contempt of court.
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.
I wanted an easy deal: a reasonable lobola, then my family and I would pay for the wedding. Well, my lawyers claimed that they suggested that to her family. Either my darling's family was not too keen, or did not realise how sweet that deal would be for them.
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.
Everybody laughed.”
In this case, the negotiations went well.
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.
Second, the switch from cows to cash has caused some families to focus more on the money and less on the tradition underlying lobola.  Some women whose lobola has been paid in cash wonder what agreements were reached.  Some feel that their negotiators negotiated their lives away, giving the man the right to tell the woman what to do and where to live – that, in fact, lobola now symbolizes a purchase, not the joining of families.
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


  1. When I was in college, I got to know John G. Neihardt just in passing. He was an old man then. Neihardt's friend Black Elk used to tell a Native American tale about a young brave who could never collect enough horses to give to his love's family and win her hand. Finally he rode out and stole all the horses from the enemy and herded them all around the family's tepee. He won the woman's hand. The family said, It wasn't the horses that mattered to us. We need a brave who had the right stuff.

  2. Times change, and not always for the better. Your books-now that's a different story-they get better, and I am looking forward to the next.

  3. My knee-jerk reaction was to ask whether they took American Express because that seems to be the only question I'm asking these days as I prepare for my daughter's upcoming nuptials. But you've given me hope for a surprise, Stan. Any idea when I might be able to expect her groom to show up with the cows? Though knowing my daughter, they'll probably be beagles.

  4. Do they still give cows if they find out the groom has an udder woman?


  5. Don't apologize, Dan, I'm proud of ewe.

  6. Jeff, I titled my piece the way I did to pre-empt you! Anyway beagles are better than cows from a logistics perspective - depends where she lives. If it is NYC I'd opt for beagles.