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When I Got Married, I Had To Pay For My Wife In Cows

Her culture dictated I pay her dowry, even though we live in contemporary Australia.

02/05/2017 10:29 AM AEST | Updated 02/05/2017 10:29 AM AEST
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"So... how many cows should I expect to pay, and what's the current exchange rate to Aussie Dollars?"

When South African-born Sheron, a few months into our relationship, told me rather jokingly, "You know, if we were to get married, you'd have to pay for me in cows," my initial reaction was a sightly perplexed "Really?"

I, a middle-class Austrian man, brought up within Western liberalism, was put on the spot. Not by my future wife, who did not insist or expect me to pay a bride price, but by my own conscience. This felt like an uncomfortable seesaw between politically correct cultural acceptance and questions around the commodification of women and patriarchal dominance.

Until she explained lobola in more detail.

Seen by many in the West as an antiquated tradition, most Sub-Saharan societies still practice a version of this wealth transfer from the groom to the bride's family and in Southern Africa, especially in Zulu culture, it forms the centrepiece of a customary marriage.

Payment of the agreed lobola demonstrates the groom's financial stability and affirms how highly valued the bride is in the eyes of everyone involved.

Without the involvement of the bride or the groom, representatives of both families meet and discuss the amount of livestock to be paid. The origins of this custom need to be understood in the context of an agrarian society where a woman was rarely able to earn an income and was therefore reliant on her husband for economic support.

Payment of the agreed lobola demonstrates the groom's financial stability and affirms how highly valued the bride is in the eyes of everyone involved.

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Sheron and Nick.

In traditionally large families, the cows received can assist the bride's brothers when it is their turn to get married, resulting in a (re)distribution of wealth within the community.

This process and the spiritual aspects of the lobola ceremony deepen the bond between the two families and ensure ongoing support for the young couple.

"Well, that sounds a lot better, honey," I conceded with a sigh of relief. "But today, a lot of people take advantage of this tradition, exploiting it in fact."

Sheron continued, to my dismay. In the contemporary context, with two thirds of South Africans living in urban areas, livestock has largely given way to cash as the preferred form of payment.

These negotiated cash amounts can be rather large, depending on the (perceived) wealth of the groom's family and the 'qualities' of the bride -- whether she has children from a previous marriage, is well educated and so on.

There's even a 'lobola app' for those tech-savvy traditionalists.

"That sounds terrible," I admitted to her.

"So... how many cows should I expect to pay, and what's the current exchange rate to Aussie Dollars?"

A family friend, who I had met on our first visit to South Africa, negotiated on my behalf and it turned out that a moderate payment was sufficient to show Sheron's family that her husband-to-be respected her ancestral traditions.

There were still two actual cows at our lobola ceremony in South Africa (we did not attend): one was slaughtered in honour of Sheron's ancestors and fed to the guests, and the other, according to custom, was supposed to console the bride's mother for losing a daughter ('the cow that dries her eyes').

As Sheron's mum lives in Sydney's Sutherland Shire, I'm not sure how that worked out but when we saw her last weekend, she seemed fine (her mum, not the cow).

To Sheron and me, going through the lobola process represented first and foremost our respect to her family.

Let's remember that all customs and traditions were created at some point in history (usually by old men with beards) because they seemed like a good idea at the time.

But are they the best we can come up with today?

The debate around the commercialisation and relevance of lobola is a hot topic in Southern Africa and receives a fair amount of media coverage. To Sheron and me, going through the lobola process represented first and foremost our respect to her family. Our Christian wedding ceremony, attended by both our families, represented my side.

For a person with a strongly traditional heritage like Sheron's, life at times can feel like a series of negotiations -- which parts of my culture do I hold on to, which do I reject? What defines my cultural identity as I embrace the contemporary culture of my chosen homeland?

We agree that our (as yet unborn) children will learn about both our backgrounds but will not be expected to consider lobola. We are fortunate to live in an environment where we can freely scrutinise different viewpoints, make our own decisions and, as a consequence, create our own traditions.

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Nick and Sheron are both guests on tonight's episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which explores dowry and 'bride price' customs in contemporary Australia.


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