Cultural aspects of cattle: Part Two…lobola/dowry a universal practice


ALL too often, as indigenous African people, we are upbraided by the West, especially NGOs, who feel duty-bound to denigrate our cherished and long-standing customs of lobola/ roora.
Yet, bride price or ‘dower/dowry’ is not uncommon in many Western countries; in point of fact, a woman without some form of dowry (lobola/roora), was unlikely to marry.
In many instances, failure to provide the customary or agreed-upon dowry was cause for a potential marriage to be negated; this was highlighted in William Shakespeare’s well-known play King Lear.
In the play, a suitor of King Lear’s daughter refused to marry her on learning that the king did not intend to give her a dowry.
Likewise, in the play Measure for Measure, the fated couple’s prenuptial shenanigans were brought about by family wrangles over the betrothal’s dowry.
A dowry is variously described as an endowment, bequest, legacy, birthright or inheritance.
It is the giving of property to a daughter by living parents (inter vivos) on her marriage; rather than as inheritance upon death (mortis causa) and is part of a girl’s inalienable heritage.
Given that a family’s property was often earmarked to be divided equally between sons only, a dowry was the only way assets could be transferred to a daughter.
The custom of bride price arose mainly in pastoral societies where manual work was indispensable, such as in sub-Saharan Africa where land was abundant and manual work was essential for the clan’s survival; bride wealth occurred and dominated.
In many societies, a dowry constitutes a form of ‘conjugal fund’ to provide an element of financial security against a negligent husband or in cases of widowhood. It may also go to provide for her children; though the husband may use and profit from it during the marriage.
Western dowries included fine clothing, linen, jewelry (mainly gold jewelry as in India) and, frequently, immovable property.
At times, dowry helped towards the establishment of the connubial household and included furnishings such as bedding, linen and other furniture.
Today, dowry can also include electrical appliances, radios, television sets and other modern-day paraphernalia; including luxury vehicles which is not uncommon in Zimbabwe.
In Zimbabwe, this dowry is culturally accepted as ‘roora’ or ‘lobola’ by the two main indigenous groups.
It is traditionally given to the bride’s family as a purely symbolic gesture of acknowledgement rather than a form of ‘payment’.
Traditionally, cattle are given (or paid), not simply to the head of the girl’s family, but to the extended family group, in gratitude for her hand in marriage and as a gesture of recompense for the likely loss of her labour.
Under traditional customary law, the provision of roora/lobola is considered more than just bride price, but part of other rituals and ceremonies that make marriages possible, tangible and permanent, as well as enriching our culture.
A traditional marriage ceremony depends on the payment of roora/lobola to be valid, otherwise the marriage is not considered valid by the bride’s family.
The custom is necessary for several other reasons; for example, in the event of a woman’s death while living together, without the payment of roora/lobola, the man has no right to bury her.
Similarly, not until roora/lobola is settled is a man entitled to claim his children as his own.
In most sub-Saharan African societies, roora/lobola or bride price must first be paid in order for the couple to be given permission to marry; even in adopted Western civil ceremonies or church weddings.
Roora/lobola can vary from a token to a great sum; from a few to several herd of cattle, goats and a sum of money, depending on the family.
The cattle and goats constitute an integral part of the traditional marriage, for ceremonial purposes, during and after the original marriage ceremony.
The custom of dowry has a long history, practiced for millennia in most of Europe, Eurasia, South Asia, Africa and other societies.
This ancient custom was described in the Code of Hammurabi; the oldest available records in ancient Babylon, where both bride price and dowry are recorded as practiced for daughters who would not normally inherit from their father’s estate; they received a dowry instead, from her parents upon matrimony.
The endowment was intended to offer the bride as much security for her lifetime as her family could afford.
As is the practice with Zimbabwe’s tradition of mombe yehumai, which ensures the distribution of cattle, bride wealth ensures the distribution of property and women, which is typical in societies where property is limited.
Dowry is generally practiced in property-owning classes or landed pastoral peoples.
By giving a dowry, families not only ensure their daughter’s economic security, they also acquire the best possible husband for her and a son-in-law for themselves.
So much for lobola/roora/bride price!
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and post-colonial heritage studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practicing artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher. E-mail:


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