BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Paddington Khumalo has been living with the mother of his 3-year-old daughter for five years but has not married her yet, because her family won’t allow it.
Like many other young men here, he hasn’t been able to afford the traditional bride price.
Bride prices vary greatly in Zimbabwe, but the requested amount in his case is six head of cattle or cash equal to about $3,000.
Unable to offer this immediately, Khumalo paid a portion of the traditional requirement through gifts of clothing, which allows him to live with his fiancée, but not to formally marry her. He still has an outstanding debt. The gifts so far include a coat and hat for the bride-to-be’s father, and a blanket and towel for her mother, he says. Until he gets the $3,000 or six head of cattle, he also may be obligated at any time to provide other requested items, such as a suit for her father, which would come with a tie and socks.
Paying bride prices, known as “amalobolo” in the Ndebele culture and “roora” in the Shona culture, has become difficult for young men like Khumalo who are either self-employed or unemployed due to the country’s economic situation. Unemployment estimates range wildly in Zimbabwe, from as little as 13 percent to as high as 96 percent. Late last year, the government converted all cash in banks to bond notes, making it harder for young men to access money to pay bride prices or to buy goods.
Khumalo says he is fortunate because his in-laws do not pressure him, since they understand the country’s economic hardships. Possibly due to the harsh economy, he says, other parents demand everything up front – the traditional clothing and the bride price – before they allow a man to live with their daughter.
“Some people have turned the payment of the bride price into a business,” Khumalo says. “They want to gain from the mere fact that you set your eyes on their daughter.”
Due to local economic challenges, the bride price has become a moneymaking venture for some families, distorting the original significance and importance of the tradition, says Sambulo Ndlovu, chairman of African languages and literature at Great Zimbabwe University in Masvingo.
Traditionally, the payment is given to the family of the bride in appreciation for nurturing her from infancy to maturity, Ndlovu says. It is often based on the bride’s family’s set rules and requirements and can also be measured according to her family’s wealth and social status.
Prices for educated brides tend to be much higher, he says. For instance, the bride price for a woman with a master’s degree or Ph.D. can range from $15,000 to $30,000 or 15 to 20 head of cattle. For a woman with a college degree, it can range from $8,000 to $12,000 or eight to 12 head of cattle.
In some African cultures, paying for the bride was a way to link the families of the bride and groom, and attaching a value to the woman was a way of according her status, with the price generally compensating her family for the loss of a productive daughter, meaning a woman who has income-earning capabilities, according to a research paper by Ndlovu and Tendai Mangena in the International Journal of Asian Social Science.
But things are changing.
Many women say they are against their partners paying a bride price for them, because they do not want to be viewed or treated as a commodity.
Sikhathele Matambo, director of Emthonjeni Women’s Forum, a nonprofit women’s advocacy organization, says the commercialization of the bride price has contributed to an increase in gender-based violence.
She says men at times say they are justified in beating their wives because they paid a certain amount of money for them, and hence they treat their wives as a commodity rather than a partner in the marriage.
“The woman may also feel that since she has been ‘bought,’ she has no say in the marriage,” Matambo says.
Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe
Sibusisiwe Sithole, a single mother, concurred that nowadays a girl is an investment that is expected to yield returns for the family when she is married.
Another unfortunate result, she says, is that increased bride prices can mean a couple begin their married life in debt, because grooms often must secure a loan to marry.
When a bride is financially stable, she may lend her future husband money for him to marry her, which in the African culture it is as good as paying your own bride price, a practice that is uncommon here. This also eventually can lead to power struggles within the home, Sithole says.
Themba Ndlovu, who is divorced, says that at one time paying a bride price was an act of appreciating your in-laws for raising a child and for agreeing to have her wed into another family.
Ndlovu says the bride price tradition has changed so much that he believes it should be regulated, and perhaps even taxed.
“While customarily it is perceived as a token of appreciation, it is now a paradoxical token whereby you are charged what you should give as [a] gift,” he says. “Therefore, it is not a gift, but a charge account.”
Despite its commercialization, Khumalo says, the bride price remains important to bring families together, and it should be paid, even though he cannot afford it.
Editor’s Note: No sources in the story are related.
Fortune Moyo, GPJ, translated some interviews from IsiNdebele.