Some refer to it as an age-old practice which deserves no place in modern society, while others feel it is an extremist tradition which degrades women.
Notwithstanding these opinions, some cultures still see Lobola as a valuable African custom.
Lobola is an isiZulu word used to describe the bride price paid to a wife’s family by the husband prior to their nuptials.
This practice is a mainstay throughout Southern Africa, with the groom’s family typically giving a gift in the form of cattle or money to the family whose daughter would be joining their household.
Known by different names, like ofuto in Oshiwambo, ovituni in OtjiHerero and apagomas in Khoe-Khoegowab, the tradition is widespread in Namibia too, where lobola negotiations are similarly steered by the bride’s family, who often remind their prospective son-in-law that it took time and money to raise the woman he intends to marry.
Other tribes in the Sadc region like the Shona people from Zimbabwe call it roora, while BaSwazi of Swaziland, the Xhosa people of South Africa and the Ndebele-speaking people from South Africa and some parts of Zimbabwe still call it lobolo. It is also known as mahadi in Sesotho.
The practice involves a complex formal process of negotiations between the families of the bride and groom. The negotiations are meant to arrive at a consensus on the price that the groom must pay the bride’s family.
In the Otjiherero tradition in eastern Namibia, a groom’s family would have been required to pay between two to three cows, or produce about N$2500 cash a decade ago.
Today, a bride’s family in that community can request up to five herds of cattle and up to N$ 15 000 cash, in addition to other expenses.
The price is set according to the level of education and the personal wealth of the bride. Whether she has children or not will also factor into the price the groom’s family will be expected to pay.
If she is old and uneducated or has a lot of children from a previous marriage, she will be considered as a ‘burden’ to the man, and the groom’s family will not pay the full amount in exchange for her hand in marriage.
The Damara/Nama tradition does not charge anything for their daughters, but would expect the groom’s family to host the wedding at both homesteads, and to take care of the bride’s family, which is supposed to be a choice.
In the Zambezi region, the bridal price popularly known as molobolo in the Subia language is said to be the highest in the country, where a groom is expected to part with between 10 and 20 cows, in addition to thousands of Namibian dollars.
While in rural areas many women still support lobola as a custom, in the urban areas very few women value the importance of a price tag, and only see ‘love’ as the primary requirement for marriage.
In terms of family life, the role of women has changed drastically in Namibia in modern times. Polygyny (more than one wife) - once the ideal in many ethnic groups - is now officially forbidden. Purity before marriage or abstinence from sexual activities until after marriage had been the norm for women in most ethnic groups, to the extent that women could even be banished for violating this custom.
With the passing of time, however, the sustainability of this custom has proved difficult as in the late 1990s, a third of all girls aged between 12 and 18 had given birth to at least one child, even though the average age for women at marriage is 25.
A related trend is the increase in households run by women, many of whom are single parents, notwithstanding the fact that Namibian women have legal access to birth control as well as rights to demand child support for their children.
Despite the advancements made in granting women choices in reproduction over this period, their right to family property, particularly those married in the traditional set-up, are still not guaranteed. Furthermore, in most Namibian cultures, when a man dies, his parents and siblings often inherit and take ownership of his property at the expense of the widow and her children.
Perhaps the reason why the custom has survived this long is because most traditional elders believe it has a good way of maintaining respect for women.
Some believe that the custom will also encourage young people to stay away from premarital sex.