Jul 2, 2011


Recently I had the illuminating experience of participating in a lobola negotiation for my host sister. Lobola is a word for bride price—money the groom's family must pay in order to proceed with a marriage.  Traditionally the payment was in animals, usually cattle, but as those are increasingly expensive often people just use cash, or mostly cash, these days.  Now, technically someone like me would not be allowed to sit on the negotiation panel, because only those who are already married are supposed to participate. However, they decided that because I'm a visitor the rules could be stretched a bit.

The process is governed by a set of rules whose origins are somewhat mysterious. For example: the groom's family must go to the bride's family's house in the middle of the night—we started at about 2 in the morning. All the negotiations must be finished—the lobola agreed to and paid, the groom's family fed by the women of the bride's family—before the sun rises. When the groom's family arrives, they must greet everyone on the panel before sitting. The panel must not say anything until the groom's family lays down a bit of cash, in this case 100 rand, after which the negotiations can start. At a certain point the groom's family must choose the prospective bride from a lineup of several women. No one could explain to me exactly where all these rules came from, but since any mistakes redounded to the benefit of the other party, everything was strictly observed.

The actual negotiations took place in rapid Setswana, so I didn't catch all the details, but it seemed fairly straightforward. Each member of the groom's family, after a bit of preliminary discussion, laid down an offering of some cash, and in some cases an animal or two. Then the panel would have a quick discussion to determine if the amount was enough—usually they would ask for a bit more. Once both sides had agreed on an amount, they would move on to the next person in the groom's family. The bulk of the money, some R10,000, came from the groom himself. All together it was just short of R12,000 and two sheep. (The sheep were tied into feed sacks with fencing wire, which definitely won't win any humane animal transport awards.)

It was a little unsettling to hear what the discussions tended to turn on. Since my host sister is nearly fifty, there was a lot of talk on the groom's side about how she won't be having any children and so forth, which seemed to deduct a few thousand rand; but also about how she has a steady job as a teacher, which seemed to add a few thousand.  A bit odd for an American, but it's how things are done around here.  Take note in case you want to marry a South African someday.


  1. Hi im a south african about to debate the merit of this practise. I ,having read this account, wonder whether you felt as if lobola amounts to purchasing the perspective bride? If not did you see any deeper meaning as a foreigner.

  2. I didn't really get that feeling, though there was a definite financial undercurrent. Rather it seemed to me like an attempt to keep hold of a tradition with deep links to the past in the teeth of Western commercialization of everything sandblasting the old ways.