Zulu Marriage Practices 




To have an in depth understanding of the Zulu marriage process we highly recommend you:

  • Watch all the Zulu dramatization/videos produced by BeingAfrican to accompany this teaching
  • Go through the Zulu marriage FAQs 

There are 6 steps of the Zulu Marriage process

Step 1: Umemulo (of age ceremony for women)

Step 2: The letter

Step 3: Ilobola (Dowry Payment)

Step 4: Izibizo (bringing gifts for the bride’s mother and close family) 

Step 5: Umabo (Zulu traditional wedding)

Step 6: Umbodo (bride reciprocates by buying gifts for the groom’s family) 




The Zulu people are an Nguni ethnic group who live in Southern Africa. The Zulu people are the largest ethnic group in South Africa with an estimated 10–12 million people living mainly in the KwaZulu-Natal province. The Zulu people take pride in their ceremonies such as the Umhlanga, or Reed Dance, which is a celebration of Zulu culture. During the Umhlanga ceremony, girls from all over the country gather for traditional Zulu celebrations. As part of the celebrations, they encourage celibacy until marriage and teach the girls respect for their bodies.


Zulu people have a system called ilobolo. This term is particularly used by Zulu people when it comes to bride price. Traditionally, in the Zulu culture, ilobolo culminated in the groom taking cattle from his father’s herd to the bride’s family heard as a token of appreciation for his bride.


Step 1: Umemulo


Umemulo is a traditional Zulu coming of age ceremony for women. It is a ceremony conducted for a young girl to signify that she has transitioned into womanhood and is fit for marriage. A woman’s Umemulo ceremony signifies that she has preserved her virginity and is now ready for marriage. The rituals involve slaughtering a cow and the traditional Zulu dance Ukusina involving a spear. 


Step 2: The letter

There is an organized process that the Zulu marriage process follows. It begins with scheduling a meeting by the groom family with the bride’s family. The process is initiated by the groom’s family. In most cases an uncle delivers the letter to the bride-to-be’s home.  The letter is a formal request from the groom’s side of the family informing them of a beautiful flower from their home and their intention of acquiring that flower.  Similarly, a handwritten letter is sent back to the groom-to-be’s home informing them of a suitable date.

Since culture has evolved and technology is advanced, most families just make a call to make a meeting to meet face to face for the negotiations, but some like to keep their culture alive.

Step 3: Ilobola

Lobola is a way for the groom to show his appreciation for how the family has raised the woman he wants to marry. It is a practice that involves providing payment, either in cash and/or heads of cattle, from the prospective groom’s family to the parents of the prospective bride for customary marriage. 

There is no right amount for lobola. Amounts are determined by the bride’s family after intense negotiations. One is not expected to pay all the lobola in one day. It’s his (groom) way of saying thank you and it’s also compensation for the bride’s father. The groom acknowledges that he is taking her away from her family; some may say it’s an apology.

In its pure form, lobola is meant to benefit both families as the money obtained from lobola is also used by the bride when she has to buy gifts for the groom and his family. So there is reciprocity as far as money is concerned. Lobola does not mean ‘buying the bride’; it’s the husband showing how much he values his soon to be wife and the family that raised her.


It is considered disrespectful for a groom-to-be to introduce any western practices, i.e. engagement before sending his delegation to request lobola negotiations.  Some strict families will ask him to pay a fine.  Modern practices nowadays the man will send the letter to the woman’s family meanwhile he will take her out and propose to her on the same day before she is informed of receipt of the letter, so as to keep it romantic and still respect the rules by informing the elders first.

Step 4: Izibizo (bringing gifts for the bride’s mother and close family).  


Once lobola has been paid izibizo will follow, where gifts are given to the bride’s family. This process involves the groom offering gifts to the bride’s family, specifically her mother. This is done as a token of appreciation for raising his bride well. The Groom is usually given a list of gifts to buy a few family members, such as mats, blankets, pinafores and livestock etc. These celebrations are marked with song and dance and as two families celebrate becoming one family. A goat and food are prepared by the bride’s family as a way of welcoming the groom’s family to their home.

Step 5: Umabo

Umabo can be best described as a Zulu traditional wedding which can also take place after the white wedding. Umabo always takes place at the groom’s family residence. It may happen that some people only do the white wedding and have umabo many years after being married but it is believed that one is not fully married in accordance to the Zulu culture if they did not go through umabo. 


Before the wedding, even if there will only be a white wedding, the bride’s family should slaughter a goat for her and burn impepho (incense) to tell the ancestors that their daughter is going to be a member of another family and after the wedding, the groom’s family should welcome her with a goat.  

Umabo is a very important ritual; it brings together families, in the process the bride is also told what is expected of her, from her family and her in-laws. This tradition is the way that ancestors recognize the bride; it is believed that they bring good luck. For Umabo, the two families slaughter cows (one from each family) and exchange certain parts of the meat. 


Step 6: Umbodo (bride reciprocates by buying gifts for the groom’s family) 

Umbondo can and is often combined with Umabo instead of being a standalone event. Umbondo is a ceremony where the bride reciprocates gifts exchange done by the groom during Izibizo by buying groceries for the groom’s family.  

The bride brings with her some furniture and gifts for her new family. She wears traditional clothes, and to cover her head as well as her shoulders. The bride sits on the grass mat and is not supposed look at or talk to anyone, as a sign of respect. Her father-in-law welcomes her, before the ceremony starts.  Her father should also say a few words, indicating that he does approve of the union. Her bridesmaids and sisters then bring the gifts and furniture. She brings a kist, a bed with pillows and linen and brings grass mats, pillows and blankets for her in-laws (the groom’s family sends a list for when the day of umabo comes).  The bride knows who to give blankets to. Everybody (on the list provided) are given grass mats, pillows and blankets but the men are given beer pots with imbengo (grass lid for beer pot).  On top of that, she also brings brooms.


The names of the people on the list are called out, one by one; they start with the females (the older women and then the groom’s sisters). When an individual is called out, they are expected to lie/ lay on the grass mat, a family member from the bride’s side covers them with their blanket and they then get up, sing and do the Zulu dance in appreciation of the gifts. The groom is the last to be called. The bride then gets up, takes the bed and puts on the linen, she then goes around and looks for the groom. When she finds him, she must place grass mats for him to walk on, which lead to the bed, which is well prepared for him to lie on.  He first sits on the bed and the bride takes a basin with a towel and soap and acts as if she is washing his feet. She then opens the bed covers, he lies on it.  As part of the drama, the bridesmaids and/or the bride’s sisters hit him with small sticks, he gets up and runs away. 


In some cases a couple will prefer to have the white wedding before umabo one or vice-versa. It is also not unusual for both wedding to take place on the same day, with the white wedding happening in the morning followed thereafter by umabo.


Isithembu (polygamous marriage)


Isithembu in South Africa is still a fact of life for many.  It is not unusual for a man to have more than one wife.  While urban communities have found it difficult to uphold the arrangement, those in the rural communities have maintained the tradition, where each wife has their own hut within the same homestead in which she lives with her children and they all raise their children as one. Tradition requires that the first wife be consulted before a man decides to take a second wife, and it is only after her approval can the husband then start the isithembu process.  It is also not unusual for the wife to disapprove of her husband taking a second wife.


Why Isithembu?

In some instance if a wife could not conceive her family would have her younger sister join her as the second wife to bear kids for the husband.  Should she not have younger sisters or sisters who agree, he would look from elsewhere.  Having a male child is also one of the many reasons’ men decide to take a second wife should the first wife not be able to bear male children to continue the blood line.  Some men can simply use the excuse that culture allows them to, should all the other reasons be fulfilled.


However, nowadays a lot of factors come into play when deciding to take more than one wife, i.e., affordability, approval of the first wife, evolving of cultures, etc.