Pricing the priceless: My lobola story

“But tete, why are they charging so much?”

“Because we value you.”

It should be a simple answer, but it wasn’t. The 3rd wave, pan- African, liberal, mixed bag feminist wheels in my head, heart and stomach all turned at once as my sisters from all manner of mothers looked at me wide eyed because they knew I need specifics. For starters, my parents always told me I was priceless.

This is my personal story of lobola or pfuma (meaning wealth), as we call it in my family.

I understand lobola in two ways.

The first is what I know it is: a union. A happy place where as an adult you decide this is the life you want to live and you decide to go about it in a manner fitting of your culture.

Jabu Ngomane 1The second is how it ends up. The uncomfortable reality that actually there is more to it than just happiness. The technicalities, if you will. Which in my case I did not fully understand. If you ask my husband he will readily tell you that I lack rural background. I will not deny it, because, well, city living, choices, different outlooks on life. He also thinks I am priceless, just by the way.

Value is a very personal and relative word in the land of humans. I am human and I don’t understand how others work out values. My calulations dwell more in the realm of emotion rather than money. People are not slaves and are therefore not for sale, because they are priceless. Not so long ago I went through the rite of passage of becoming someone’s wife through the process of lobola. Please, before we get carried away, let me get a few things straight. I love my different cultures. I like what they have taught me and I have never claimed that any is better than any other. All cultures have wonderful gems to offer. I knew of the importance of pfuma and therefore I had a choice to either go through it or not (we thank the universe of semi-freedoms and mixed-culture families). The ultimate decision I made was to go through with it completely and enjoy it. Sure, I didn’t think the actual process through, I thought more about how both my wonderful families would finally meet and we would be merry, as I said – feeler. Mistake one.

Is pfuma primitive or just misunderstood?: The time old process
Fellow contributor Ottilia wrote on lobola not so long ago and some of the comments on social media were about how ‘primitive’ the practice of lobola is. Usually I don’t pay much attention to people who use such strong words to describe something that is different for everyone who goes through it. This time was different. I found it quite hurtful and pretty impulsive and under-researched for someone to say that a practice that has been undertaken for generations and generations before was something so negative.black-case-with-money

This is how I understand roora:

Two people want to spend their lives together. Said two people bring their families together in an organized/ formal manner in order for them to meet and get to know each other. Conversations take place (which in my family I learnt are banter-ridden) where tokens of appreciation are thrown back and forth using the art of negotiation. Here the two families figure out each other’s’ limits and mannerisms – conversational, economic, character, everything. Through these negotiations questions are asked of one another. Where do you come from? What are your people’s totems? What is your background? Where are the members of your family? How long have you known each other? And not just of the family arriving, but also of the daughter who is getting married.

I remember full well being asked whether I knew these people and knowing I had to accept money if I did. My best friend who is my soul mate and I knelt proudly to accept small amounts of money to say we knew this family, we knew them well and we were particularly happy that they made the effort to come and say they knew us too. Up to this point I am sure it all sounds very happy and quite romantic. Well-thought out and systematic even. The truth is, it is. It can be an amazing experience. If you believe wholeheartedly in the movement that is roora. The experience starts out with a lot of excitement. Children leaning around their mothers trying to get a glimpse of their older cousin/ sibling all dolled up and getting married. Such a grown up thing to do. There is a lot of blushing. Many hopes are high. There is some tension that everyone hopes will be broken at some point – my family usually does this by drinking openly and not asking straightforward questions, jokes galore and jovial, boisterous voices. This is exactly how my experience began.

Turning points

When the negotiations begin, a certain amount of money is asked of the approaching family. Because if you are serious, you will pay and say why you are here. This is out of respect really. It is a token to say you are indeed serious, you are not coming to play. It is more to make sure that everyone knows that this union is being taken seriously by both families.

This was never a problem.

We use cash now because we live in a world where few will be able to make significant use of a hoe or a goat… Money talks. So, we use the language that everyone understands. But it is this where my whole issue lies. How did we decide that the value of our daughters could be shown in large sums of money?

Slave_Ad-1835I was flabbergasted as the negotiations took place. Wondering how we got to this point. Again, I am from two different cultures so my ceremony was a little of a spectacle – gods of technology be praised. As my mothers sister made her way through the crowd taking pictures, I was on the phone with my now-husband keeping him updated, all the while communicating with my father-in-law one building down.

When it all got too much, I walked out of the house to be welcomed by a friend of mine who said he knew this would happen and offered me a beer. I contemplated as I sat drinking that beer. I thought about how much investment could be made by the crazy amounts my family was demanding. I thought abut how petty I felt, to be valued in an American currency. The tears welled up in my eyes and I wondered why I had decided to go this way in the first place. I thought about my place in the world and how this would afffect my life going further. I thought about all the little amounts which were adding up inside while I imbibed in my family yard. It was a great learning experience, but one I would much rather have learnt in a good book. I had always been proud of my Zimbabwean culture, my heritage, my way of life, until the second I felt like I was actually being monetarily valued.

Now, knowing other peoples stories, I know that what my husband’s family paid in appreciation of me was not unheard of. I know there are many others who have been in my position and have been happy that their parents valued them so highly. My problem still lies therein. How do we decide my value? I went to good schools, I travelled, I know my culture (well enough), I am not dumb, I am somewhat of a resource for my family, though they are far from giving up a breadwinner… How did they decide that this was my value? How was this particular amount the sum total of what I am worth?

I grew up being told I was priceless!

To tell you the truth I will probably never have an answer for that. There have been various suggestions ranging from, ‘it is the family standard,’ to ‘it is just how much cows are worth.’ As far as I am concerned, they probably did a head count and multiplied by a hundred or more. To my knowledge there is still no specific formula, and I am OK with this. What I am not OK with is the: ‘It’s how we value you.’ If you valued me you would know that monetary shows of power are not how I operate. You would know that this was all about the happiness of meeting and greeting. You would know that a new addition to the family is a priceless thing. I am priceless and the best way to value me was to not try at all.hand-in-hand-with-the-sun

I am sure, again, there are many out there who had the time of their lives. I did in the end too. After I got over the pricing and the questioning and it was a done deal. I won’t take this experience back, but I do hope that if we have a daughter, should she make the choice to go through with this, that we will handle it differently as her parents. My husband has a cultural leg to stand on as a result of his family acting accordingly, and I respect that, but it shall be different for my daughter, because she will be truly priceless.

Shau Mudekunye

Shau Mudekunye
Shau Mudekunye
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