Bring Us Our Cows

And blankets, designer handbags, money… and everything else in-between.

Roora (Shona) or lobola (Ndebele, Zulu, Xhosa) as defined by my Papadukes is “a bride price which is normally paid by a man on marrying his wife to be.” It is a cultural practise in (Southern?) African culture that has stood the test of time. Can we just pause here and celebrate the fact that for once as Africans, we have maintained this practice in spite of our ever-diluting culture due to Western influences. I especially say this as a Zimbabwean. For some reason, ours seems to be a waning culture unlike other African cultures. A topic for another day.

Back to cows and lobola. You see, in its tenacity, lobola has proved a topical issue for many a modern day African when considering the prospect of marriage. This has been heightened by the recent development of a lobola calculator app that made the news and sparked great discussions about lobola as a result. Seeking to evaluate your own worth as a woman and the worth of that prospective wife you’ve been eyeing out. Even with its geniusly hilarious categories, the lobola calculator app does not illustrate the true essence of roora or the headaches and complexities that come with lobola negotiations and agreements. Below, I seek to highlight and discuss some of the key elements about roora as well as how the current state of this practice has evolved from its original state.

1) The Cost

For starters, the amounts indicated on the lobola calculator don’t necessarily ring true of the actual price that can be paid. This I say from a Zimbabwean perspective more specifically. My ‘worth’ was pegged at R86 000 when I did my calculations. That translates to about $6 700. In Zimbabwe, roora can easily range within the $8 000 and the $18 000 mark. So you can see, it is no cheap exercise. As a result, some people take out loans to pay for their lobola.

This presents a great deal of pressure on young couples as they enter into their new lives together with such debt or expenses incurred. Never mind the wedding and other investments necessary when starting a new life together.

2) The Significance

This is unfortunate seeing as it originated as a way to signify the coming together in marriage of a bachelor and a spinster. It also served as a statement to the community that this was a married couple and legitimised their union and future children.

In its current form, lobola often serves as a money making initiative for families. In an economically distressed country like Zimbabwe, you hear young bachelors complaining that their in-laws charged exorbitant amounts to start up or fund their businesses.

3) The Mode of Payment

In the past, the mode of payment was cattle and other domestic animals among the Ndebeles and Shonas in Zimbabwe. If a young bachelor and his family were financially constrained, they were not denied the prospect of marriage. They could give other prized animals and could work for their father-in-law for an agreed number of years.

In present day, roora can be paid in a combination of cash and in kind. That can translate to, in addition to cash, blankets for the mother of the bride, furniture, vehicles, designer clothing and other items as well. Though we do live in a modern world, this can often be abused and used to fund the desires of families that they had been holding out on, not realising that it can be crippling to a family.

4) The Time Period

I was intrigued to learn from my Father that after a certain portion is paid, the remainder of the lobola can be paid off over a number of years. I am told that it is frowned upon to pay the amount all at once and that a small amount ought to be left outstanding so that one’s in-laws can visit without feeling that their mukwasha (son-in-law) no longer owes them anything.

This is meant to aide in maintaining amicable relations between families as the marriage begins so that there is always an element of respect between the two parties. This is signified by a Shona proverb that says “Mukwasha muwonde, hawuperi kudyiwa” (a son-in-law is a fig tree, it does not stop being eaten of its fruits). This also seeks to discourage overcharging of vakwasha when they go for the roora negotiations. The aim of roora is to establish long-term relationships between two families.

5) The Biblical Roots

During my dialogue with my parents, I was fascinated when I realised the biblical principles underpinning this practice. I had always known of these stories, but never made the link. This is clearly illustrated when Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac and sends him off with many goods which he gives Rebekah and her family (Genesis 24). In addition, we know of how Jacob worked for his father-in-law in order to marry Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29).

I do not believe God would condone a barbaric or rip-off scheme for a union that he has crowned as sacred.

6) The Misrepresentation

For a long-time and for the unknowing man, roora/lobola may seem like selling off one’s daughter for profit and gain. Like a viable commercial exercise for families. This has undermined this cultural practice which has its roots in the Bible as I highlighted above. I will end off with a statement my Dad made in response to my question about how lobola has been misrepresented and its flaws in the present day:

“I think parents should not profiteer from their daughters. Culture and roora must be maintained but not abused – its what makes us who we are as Zimbabweans or Africans. We should not turn our daughters into objects of commerce and parents must remember that the newly married couple still has a life to build and must charge roora with this in mind.”

Special shout-out to Papa & Mama Dubes who provided me with a great deal of insight into the roora process and indulged my curiosity. They have been married for 30 years. 


Mama & Papa Dubes on their wedding day
Mama & Papa Dubes on their wedding day
Mama & Papa Dubes
Mama & Papa Dubes

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