Ndebele Marriage Practices
Marriage in Ndebele Culture in Zimbabwe
As in other African societies, the Ndebele people consider marriage to be a necessity for the continued existence of their tribe and the continuation and preservation of their societal and cultural values. For this very reason, not providing offspring within a certain period was deemed reason enough to dissolve a marriage. In the traditional sense, therefore, and as demonstrated in the ensuing discussion, the reason for paying the bride price in the Ndebele culture was to have offspring from the marriage. This reason is slightly different from other African traditions where the bride price is paid for the bride. However, this has evolved as social demographics have shifted due to various factors, including cross-cultural marriages and broader cultural paradigm shifts.
Customary Law Marriage
Lobola is the Ndebele Customary Law marriage between a man and a woman. This form of marriage has been the foundation of traditional African marriage for many generations. However, couples perform this ceremony in modern times, but some complement it by having Western-style church or judicial marriage ceremonies.
What is Lobola?
Lobola is the Bride Price or Dowry a man pays to enter into traditional marriage; a man is therefore not considered married until he has fully paid lobola. The price is paid using cattle or the cash equivalent (though the latter is a relatively new/modern development). Note here that the two families will agree on a price for each cow, which will then be calculated against the number of cows charged by the bride’s negotiating team (family). The overall process of lobola can take several months, and negotiations also include paying other monetary amounts and the presentation of gifts to the bride’s family before the marriage is finalized.
Besides the material transactions, lobola is considered an act of thanks (a sense of gratitude and appreciation) from the groom and his family to the bride’s family for raising their daughter to such a point as she is worthy of marrying into her prospective husband’s family. Some families choose to summarize the final price by establishing their daughter’s accomplishments—for example, her level of education, her employment status, whether she is a virgin or not, has a child, or was previously married. These factors become significant in determining the amount to be paid by the groom. For example, a virgin (usually checked and confirmed by older women) will be worth a higher bride price than a lady who had a child before marriage.
The critical thing to note is that no two lobola ceremonies are the same—family traditions and societal standing are considered when setting the price.
Why is it necessary?
Lobola, before Western-style marriages, was and is necessary to formalize the union between a man and a woman. It brings families together, measures accountability, and provides recourse if problems arise in a marriage. The process was broken into small, deliberate processes and procedures to build a gradual relationship and ultimately trust between the two families.
For example, in the past, as a measure of accountability, when a woman could not conceive, lobola was and is still used as a tool to return her to her family. The same applies to infidelity or other issues that arise in the union. The bride’s family can physically return cows and money to the groom’s family upon dissolution of the marriage. As discussed earlier, Ndebele lobola is paid for the kids born into a marriage and not for the bride.
Who is involved?
- The negotiator – Idombo
- Bride and Groom’s Uncles and aunts – Obabomdala, Obabomncane, Omalume, Omamabadala, Omamabancane
- The groom’s chief negotiator – Idombo(can be an uncle or friend but never the father or a woman)
- Bride to be and Groom to be’s parents – ubaba (Ubabazal), umama (Umamazala)
- Other extended family members – Izihlobo
- The bride-to-be – Umakoti/Umlobokazi (not allowed to participate in actual negotiations)
- The groom-to-be –Umkhwenyana/Umyeni (not allowed to participate in actual negotiations)
Declaration of Intentions – Before the Lobola process takes place, the bride and groom exchange gifts in the form of engagement, they then approach their respective aunt or uncle to present the case that they want to get married. Note here that either party informs their uncle/aunt in the absence of the other.
The groom’s family asks for a date for a meeting with the bride’s family. Usually, a trusted person (Idombo) is sent. It’s called ukucelaumlilo. It means you are seeking a relationship. The bride’s family would then bring all the girls in the family so that the messenger would identify the right girl from whom he is seeking a hand in marriage. All other girls are dismissed, and the girl has to produce something that the young man exchanged with her to prove that they know each other and that he promised to marry her. Common gifts exchanged include a tie or a small amount of money.
Once they have proven that their daughter is really in a relationship with the groom-to-be, the date and time are agreed upon for the first of a series of meetings.
In some families, the man’s representative, Idombo, meets with the bride’s representatives—usually ubabakazi or uncles to review the preliminary list of demands. The list will include how many cows or cash (approximately) is needed for the bride price, the complete list of gifts for the mother, father, and so on, based on precedence. This initial meeting is necessary to accommodate each family and save costs of going back and forth. However, negotiations can still be done on the day of lobola.
The Negotiations –Ukulobola
Traditionally, lobola negotiations represent several processes and procedures preceding the eventual payment of the lobola price, which in itself represents the official marriage ceremony where the bride will finally leave her paternal parents’ home to join the groom’s family. The following processes or steps are generally observed in the Ndebele culture:
- The Arrival –Ukungenaekhaya
The groom’s family is given a specific time to arrive, and they must be on time, or else fines can be imposed as a sign of disrespect. It is important to note here that punctuality by the groom’s party is taken as a symbol of their commitment to marrying their daughter and the value (respect) they attach to the bride’s family. On the day of lobola, the groom’s party comes and stands outside the homestead until they pay the price or gift to allow them to come in, known as Ukungenaekhaya.
The groom’s family should not be seen or heard and cannot just arrive at the residence and knock on the door. Even if they are expected, they can be kept waiting for hours before being entertained. This action is not to make life difficult for them but rather to test their resolve and seriousness and show them the value attached to the bride’s family for grooming a daughter worthy of marriage. They have to sweat for the pearl they are seeking for their son. They must demonstrate patience.
On the other hand, some families will allow the guests to stand close to the main gate and shout out their clan name, who they are, and why they are showing up at the residence. They may be required to do this only once unless the bride’s family decides they did not hear them loudly enough. Announcing themselves more than once or too loudly can be deemed disrespectful, and they can be fined before entering the home. This action is a symbol of modesty on their part and of respect for the bride’s family.
The groom’s family will finally be allowed to enter the bride’s home after a reasonable time frame. However, they are only allowed entry into the homestead, not necessarily permission to start the negotiations. They have to pass the first hurdle for the negotiations to begin; to open the mouths of the bride’s negotiating team!
- The Mouth Opener – IsiVulamlomo
In the past, upon arrival and before being allowed to proceed to the homestead, the family would offer a cow or pay a once-off cash fee to allow the bride’s family to literally open their mouths to acknowledge and speak to the groom’s family. This practice is prevalent among Bantu communities, and it is meant to stamp further the importance of the negotiations about to start. Isivulamlomo carries the symbolism of respect, integrity, and modesty attached to the bride’s family. It is also a symbol of commitment by the groom’s family (negotiating team).
In modern times, this fee is sometimes broken up into bits and pieces. It is paid separately until the groom’s family settles in and sits down in the main negotiating room. For example, to see the bride’s father is a fee; to be allowed to sit down is a fee; to bring the bride in is a fee. The breakdown of the fees varies from family to family.
- The Introduction-Ukangaziwe
After paying IsiVulamlomo, the groom’s spokesman (Idombo) is asked why they have come to the home, at which point he declares the groom has sent him to request to marry their daughter. He must articulate which female in the homestead he is referring to. The ceremony can only begin after the bride has acknowledged the groom’s name and shows the gathering a gift from him (given to her during the declaration of intentions to marry).
In the past, more than one woman would come with a veil or disguise, and the groom had to point out his wife to be—failing which he would be fined. Note that in this instance, where the groom is present to identify the bride to be, his role in the meeting was purely to identify his wife-to-be and then excuse himself from the ensuing negotiations. Part of the role of the Indombo would be to update him on what was agreed in terms of the number of cows and other charges agreed upon.
At this point, the family is now open to a relationship; therefore, before introducing themselves (kangaziwe), they are expected to pay a token in cash or livestock.
Livestock – Traditionally, there are mandated cattle that have to be accounted for in the Lobola ceremony:
- Inkomoyohlanga– Mother’s Cow – Given to the mother as appreciation for raising the bride. This cow had to be a female cow, and it is counted together with the number of cows charged as lobola/ bride’s price. For example, if the groom is charged eight cows, one cow from those eight must be the mother’s cow and is non-negotiable. This cow has to be “walking.” BECAUSE OF ITS SYMBOLISM, one CANNOT translate it to a cash equivalent in the strict sense of the Ndebele traditions. Many families are lenient on this rule nowadays because of logistics and are willing to bend because not everyone can receive or give live cattle.
Other Items – Series of items that the groom must bring for the ceremony
- Ijazilikababa– A jacket for the bride’s father
- Ingubokamama– A blanket for the bride’s mother. Complete outfit shoes dress and a headpiece iqhiye or hat.
- Groceries – This is not a traditional Ndebele practice, nor is it expected. It is at the discretion of the Grooms family. It will either bring them favor or displeasure as it will be seen as if they think they do not have enough to eat.
Ukucolwa: Once part of that is paid, then the groom can come in and be formally introduced to the bride’s family. He is now a recognized son-in-law, umkhwenyana. The bride is also properly introduced and handed over to her in-laws.
Lastly, a party is thrown to celebrate the union of the two families. (Umthimba). If they want to have a white wedding, then they can do so anytime after this. Otherwise, the two are recognized as husband and wife once part of the lobola is paid.
At this point, the bride lives with her husband even though part or all of the lobola has not been paid. Once a child is born, the bride’s family can pressure the groom to fulfill his promise. In the Ndebele culture, they believe “kulotshwalaabantwana” which means lobola is paid for the offspring from the union of the two parties.
The Lobola process is usually concluded when the first child is born.