Tumbuka Marriage Practices

Dramatization of the Tumbuka traditional Wedding 

Source: Mzuzu International Academy Facebook Page

What is Kulobola?

Kulobola (pronounced kulowola) often referred to as lobola, is a custom widely practiced by the Tumbuka people as part of the marriage process. It involves a man paying a bride price to his woman’s family for her hand in marriage. The bride price is often in the form of cattle, money, and other gifts for the girl’s family.


Its main purpose is to compensate the parents for the loss of services they will suffer when their daughter leaves home to dwell with her husband and his family where she will be assisting her mother-in-law. It is also a token of appreciation for raising and taking care of their daughter up to the point of marriage.


Kulobola is usually an event that takes a few hours depending on how fast the negotiations can be done. However the main highlight is the payment of the bride price which is normally in the form of cattle or can be converted into the cash equivalent of the cattle price. 


The Kulobola ceremonies may differ depending on region, education levels, family wealth, area where the family settled, family dynamics, whether it is an intermarriage or not etc. There is no standard or fixed lobola fee since the practice is not a business deal, but rather a way to show appreciation as well as to compensate for their daughter being taken away from the family. 


Perhaps a very important factor to note is that the bride, the groom and the parents of both the groom and bride are not to be present during the lobola negotiations. They simply send representatives to the ceremony. The parents are told about the proceedings by their representatives. 


Without lobola, the man and woman are not  traditionally married in the Tumbuka culture and their marriage is not recognized traditionally. Suffice it to say that, cohabitation is not a recognized practice and  is discouraged in the Tumbuka culture. The Tumbuka culture highly values marriage and family, such that it encourages couples to follow the stipulated cultural practices. 

What is Involved?

  • Cattle
  • Money
  • Gifts e.g. Chilundu (wrapper), blanket, beverages etc.

Who is Involved?

  • Thenga (man and woman’s thenga)
  • Family of the bride
  • Family of the groom

Key Roles Explained:


The Thenga is chosen by both the bride and the groom’s families to act as a marriage negotiator on their behalf during the whole marriage process. The bride’s Thenga proposes all payments to be made by the groom’s family upon consultation with the family. The groom’s Thenga negotiates the number of cattle or their cash equivalent to be given to the bride’s family as the bride price. Thenga’s other roles include; easing tension should a disagreement arise, clarifying where misunderstandings arise and ensuring that cultural protocols are adhered to. The family member chosen for this role has to be one that is responsible, has a good temperament and is mature enough to handle marriage related issues. 


The Thenga can be the groom and the bride’s brother, male cousin, or sibweni (uncle) from the father’s side of the family. In other circumstances, the father’s sister can also take up the role. 


The Thenga’s responsibilities, however, do not end at the lobola stage. They continue even when the couple is married. The Thenga acts as an intermediary during the period of the marriage. Should a disagreement or any issues arise between the couple, it is the duty of the Thenga to help the couple settle them. 

What is the Process? 

Pre- Lobola

A man and a woman make the decision to get married. As part of their commitment to each other they exchange token gifts which are called Chikhole, Temwanani or Chithembiso depending on which Tumbuka area (district) one is from. In the past, the gift would be in the form of a small amount of money. In the present day, some simply agree to wed without any Chikole. In more modern settings i.e. towns or cities, Chikhole takes the form of an engagement ring, which the boy puts on the girl’s finger as a sign of committing to her. Just like the Westerners, the man basically plans an event or activity where he will propose and put the ring on the woman’s finger. However, this is a foreign tradition and it is optional, such that a lot of couples skip this part.


The woman/ bride informs her ankhazi (aunt), who is usually her father’s sister or female cousin (depending on who is available), of the man who has shown intent to marry her. The man in turn informs his ankhazi of his intentions to get married. The ankhazi of both the man and the woman each deliver the message of their intentions to marry to both their parents on their behalf respectively. When parents are told, both families separately call for a family meeting and share the message with the other family members. Both families take their time to investigate and dig deep to find out about each other before they can consent to marriage. 


The woman’s parents then request to meet the man. The woman is responsible for informing her husband to be, about the day and time of the meeting. The intention is to get to  meet the man that wants to marry their daughter before they can agree to the marriage. As per tradition, when a visitor comes to one’s home, they are offered food or beverages. The man is also offered the same. The same invitation is extended to the woman by the man’s parents. The woman is expected to dress modestly, preferably in clothes that pass the knees. Pants and trousers are discouraged since these are considered foreign clothing. The woman may help out with any household chores if required. During both meetings, the parents may ask why they wish to marry either their daughter or son.


Once both families are satisfied and approve, each family holds small meetings and picks a representative who is called the Thenga, who will act as the marriage negotiator throughout the process. The man’s family then sends the Thenga and a few other family members to go to the woman’s family to start the marriage negotiations. 

Kufumbira Nthengwa/ Chifumbira (Kwizira Kubaya)

Kufumbira Nthengwa or Chifumbira is a pre-lobola activity where the Thenga and a few chosen family members go to the woman’s family’s home to formally ask for her hand in marriage. It is during this occasion that the woman gets to be formally asked, in the presence of her potential in-laws, for her approval for the marriage proceedings to carry on. However, the woman may be asked to leave once she gives her consent to continue the proceedings. Both parents are not around as such the discussion only happens between the family representatives (the Thenga and other family members).

Chijura Mulomo

During Kufumbira Nthengwa, the man’s Thenga starts by paying Chijura Mulomo. The Chijura Mulomo is the initial payment made by the man’s family to the woman’s family. As the name suggests, this payment is to open the mouth of the woman’s family. The payment is made before anything else, even before the woman is asked for consent. Apart from the money, some add gifts such as a bale of sugar etc.


Once the payment is done the marriage negotiations  begin. The man’s Thenga expresses their interest to marry into the family and asks them about their lobola expectations. The woman’s Thenga responds by stating their lobola expectations in the form of cattle or cash value. The charges include: 

  • Mukhuzi wa nyina

Mukhuzi wa nyina is the cash paid to the bride’s mother. It is paid as a token of appreciation to the mother for carrying the bride nine months in her womb. The name itself translates to covering for the belly or womb. The mother is at liberty to name her price through the Thenga.


  • Malobolo

Malobolo is the highlight of the lobola proceedings. In fact it is the lobola. The amount to be charged depends on the groom’s family’s wealth and ability. 

The Lobola Day

The Thenga and a few other family members go to the woman’s parents home on the date that was proposed during the ‘Kufumbira Nthengwa’ ceremony. Upon arrival the man’s Thenga and other family members stop several feet outside the woman’s parents house. The man’s Thenga then proceeds alone and stands close enough to the house and announces their arrival. The woman’s Thenga gives them permission to come into the house. The man’s Thenga then goes back to call the other family members and they go into the house. They wait to be told and shown where to sit. The woman’s Thenga greets them and allows them to state the purpose of their visit. The man’s Thenga states the purpose of their visit and presents the gifts they brought for the woman’s family. It can be a crate of soft drinks, chilundu/ chitenje (wrapper) for the mother etc. As per custom they also bring Blankets for the mother and father (blangete la wa nyina na la wa dada). Instead of the blankets, they can also give the girl’s family the cash value. If the man’s family have any negotiations to make concerning the lobola that was proposed during the ‘Chifumbira’, they start negotiations. After reaching an agreement, they present lobola which are cattle or money for Mukhuzi, and Malobolo‘. It should be noted that if the lobola is in the form of cattle, it is not presented right away, rather, the man’s brothers bring them after the negotiations, however if it is in the form of money, it can be presented right away or paid in installments.


Since the ceremony only takes a few hours, the only food offered to the man’s family is the one that the woman’s family has prepared for them. The food is given to them because in the Tumbuka culture, a visitor is supposed to be served refreshments. It is also a symbol of being welcomed into the family.

After Marriage Customs


The next function after the lobola ceremony is the Chimanyano. As the name suggests, chimanyano literally means ‘knowing each other’. It is a small gathering where both families meet and get to know each other. It gives the families room for them to bond since they are now one family. The function is not open to outsiders and it takes a few hours. 


It involves greeting each other. Each family member present at the function introduces themselves to everyone present. In their introduction, the family members are asked to explain how they are related to either the man or woman.


Food and beverages may be served during the function. The food is usually prepared and served by the women from the two families at the agreed upon venue (usually the man’s parent’s home). 


The man and the woman’s family get to know each other since they are now family.


Chithula, is the process of sending the woman to the groom’s home, to her new family. This is done after the Kulobola ceremony and the night before the white wedding.


To officially take the bride to her new family.

How is Chithula Done?

Chithula happens after Kulobola and Chimanyano. The clan, led by the leader of the procession (Ndyidi), set out to the man’s house in the evening. The women carry ‘Mthimba’ (uncooked food, flour, fruits, traditional beer or drinks, cooking utensils etc.) in baskets, basins or wrappers on their head and make their way to the man’s home. Depending on available options, they can go there on foot or by car. If they go by car, they put the ‘Mthimba’ baskets on their head upon arrival and just outside the man’s house. 


Once they arrive, they start singing Tumbuka wedding songs whilst dancing. They are welcomed by the groom’s clan head. The groom’s family members are required to give the woman’s family a certain amount of money for them to agree to offload the load from their heads. Once satisfied with the amount they allow to be assisted on offloading the ‘Mthimba’ and the singing continues.


Meanwhile, the bride’s ankhazi (aunt) together with other women take the woman and two of her friends and cover them with a chilundu (wrapper) into the house. The bride and her friends are made to sit on the floor while still covered in the wrappers. One spokesperson is chosen from the male’s side of the family to act as the master of ceremonies during the event. He or she starts by introducing himself or herself and other family members. He allows the bride’s family to also introduce themselves. In order for the bride and her friends to unveil themselves, Bevu is required. This means, the people in attendance are required to put some money on a small plate. Once someone from the groom’s family offers to put money in the plate, the bride’s two friends unveil themselves. In order for the bride to finally unveil herself, another amount of money is to be put on the plate. Once the bride’s family members are satisfied they ask the bride to unveil herself. The groom is present as all this happens. 


The rest of the function involves the members present welcoming the bride. They are allowed to say whatever they think is necessary as a welcoming remark, however, for one to talk like “take a look at my brother, he is handsome and was well taken care of at home, please ensure he keeps looking this good”. The women from the man’s clan could prepare food which they could eat together with the bride’s family when they go to drop her off.


Traditionally, before major changes, both clans would make their way to the cow/bull pen (kraal) where the lobola cattle were being kept while singing wedding songs and chanting incantations. This is where the Chithula process would start from before making their way to the man’s house. At the cow/bull pen (kraal), the leader of the woman’s procession (Ndyidi) would present the leader of the man’s procession (Ndyidi) clan with traditional snaff (Fuko). The man’s Ndyidi would have a taste and give it to the other clan members for them to also have a taste. After this brief exchange, the ankhazi would then take the bride and her friends covered in the wrapper and continue the function as outlined above. Some people from the village still follow these steps when doing Chithula. 


On the morning after Chithula, the bride is taken outside of the house where she slept for other clan members to see her. She is then told to sit on the mat outside where she is given marriage advice/ counseling by a council of elders. This is a closed activity, only selected elders are allowed to participate. During this activity, Bevu is also done. Whoever wants to give advice has to first place a small amount of money on a plate placed in front of the bride.


If the couple decides to have a white wedding, it is done after the Chithula. The couple is taken to different places to rest for the night soon after Chithula. The bride lodges at a chosen house with her bridesmaids and the groom lodges somewhere else with his groomsmen. The couple is given marriage advice/ counseling after the white wedding by a council of elders.

Other Types of Marriages

Kusomphola/ Sompola/ Sompholiwa (Elopement)

Elopement is another form of marriage in the Tumbuka culture. It can happen when the girl runs away to the boyfriend’s homestead with or without his knowledge. When this happens, a message is sent to the girl’s family then later on the man’s Thenga goes to the woman’s family to normalize things. It is not uncommon for parents to be enraged, but other adults help in calming them down. Eventually the family accepts and later on marriage negotiations are done.


Elopement also occurs when ‘Kuchimwisana’ (a mistake which has led to pregnancy) occurs. The girl can run away to go and live with the man and later on marriage negotiations can be done and damages can also be paid. However, if the man sends his Thenga to the girl’s family to normalize things without her having to run away it is not considered elopement but accepted as normal marriage. The difference with the other marriage is that the man is charged a penalty called ‘mbenjere kuno’ for damages because the man ‘wawanjizyira vikhoso’ (has brought bad winds to the family). Other processes may also be skipped if marriage occurs in this way.