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How colonialism bastardised ancient rituals

- Beth Amato

Traditional rituals and practices such as lobola and initiation are often misunderstood in democratic societies where they are viewed through a western lens.

Lobola and traditional weddings © Lombe K | Curiosity 17: #Democracy ©

In 1850, the colonialist and so-called ‘Administrator of Native Affairs’, Theophilus Shepstone ruled that only 11 cattle could be exchanged in the marriage practice of ilobolo, because he regarded it as an exploitative business transaction. Before then, there was no limit to how many cattle could be given to a bride’s family. Ilobolo or lobola, an ancient and noble African ritual relating to marriage, was thus tarnished and reduced to a mere financial exchange.

Today, in our modern, democratic society, cultural practices such as lobola and other rituals are often dismissed as inappropriate, patriarchal relics.

Female flexibility

The tragic narrowing of lobola’s meaning and significance denies its roots in kinship and a reciprocal relationship between families, explains Associate Professor Hlonipha Mokoena, a South African historian in the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER). “The colonial perspective sees lobola as the buying and selling of women, when in fact it was about creating a bond between two families,” she says.

Mokoena explains that cattle are ‘latecomers’ in the practice of lobola. About 300 years ago, people exchanged brass rings, which were devalued when the Portuguese introduced counterfeit brass in exchange for products like ivory.

Moreover, women could decide their lobola, particularly if they came from a powerful family. Indeed, a woman could refuse to be married. “The archives are full of stories of how flexible lobola was,” says Mokoena.

Uniting families

Dr Sinethemba Makanya, a traditional healer with a PhD in Medical Humanities and a Lecturer in the Department of Family Medicine and Primary Care says that colonialism and apartheid bastardised lobola and other initiatory practices.

Lobola is not divorced from African cosmology and metaphysics. It can’t be spoken about without bringing in the importance of ancestral spirits and natural ecology. When a woman is married, she belongs to the whole, and the husband’s ancestors will embrace her too,” says Makanya.

Lobola is a complex practice involving intricate rituals, explains Makanya, only some of which are well known. In fact, marriage rites also include umembeso, when the husband’s family dresses the wife. Blankets, coats, and traditional attire are examples of clothing given. Sometimes, the wife is given a new name to help her journey to becoming part of the husband’s family.

“The wife’s family does the same for the husband as a way of bringing the families together and teaching one another about each family’s values and conventions,” says Makanya. The wife’s family also hopes to entrust their daughter to a man who can prove his maturity and an ability to care for others.

“When cattle are given, each of the cows means something. For example, many cows belong to the bride's mother, and some to the grandmother and ancestors. The cows are tokens of appreciation to those who helped raise the bride,” explains Makanya.

After the wedding ceremony, there is umabo. The two families have a final ‘dressing’, and the wife is dropped off at the husband’s home where she should stay to show her care for her new husband’s family.

Initiation as celebration

The diminishing of the meaning of lobola also applies to other traditional practices. When boys are initiated into becoming men, circumcision camps are often referenced. “Of course, this has been called into question, but the practice is about maturing into a fuller human being. It is a celebration and a call to take responsibility,” says Mokoena.

When a young woman undergoes puberty, she can no longer follow her father around. In addition, sleeping arrangements change; people can only sleep in the same room as those who are of similar age.

Mokoena says, “At first glance, this can seem strict or even patriarchal, but there is a wise logic to these rules. They encourage independence and peer relationships. They allow your parents to acknowledge that they’ve done their job raising you.”

Western weddings and conspicuous consumption

Both Mokoena and Makanya lament how lobola, in particular, has changed an ancient kinship practice. “Marriage seems to reflect the capitalist society in which we live. The expensive and elaborate wedding dress seems more important than affirming an important part of African culture,” says Mokoena.

Meanwhile, many people believe that marriage is an unattainable goal because they can’t afford the lobola. “It’s about keeping up with the Joneses, and if you can’t have a huge wedding, both traditional and ‘western’, then you have failed,” she adds. Marriage is, therefore, aspirational and a victim of the wider economic and social order.

“Rituals should be about developing rather than destroying people’s lives. You don’t want people to feel like outsiders. I don’t think our ancestors ever intended lobola, for example, to be exclusionary.” 

Lobola is a way to imagine all the ways in which love can be applied. “It is asking what it takes to create love and a bond between families,” says Mokoena.

  • Beth Amato is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 17th issue, themed: #Democracy, we turn to our academics and professional staff for their research, perspectives and commentary on both the progress and shortcomings in our democracy, and democracies elsewhere.