I have written before (here, here, and here) about discovering what it means to be a Zimbabwean—by becoming an honorary aunt and uncle to some Zimbabwean friends’ daughter and helping her announce her engagement, and then by becoming the uncle to a young Zimbabwean man who was coming to meet his prospective in-laws, also Zimbabwean friends of ours.
I am of course a White Zimbabwean. I speak a bit of Ndebele. (I have learned to say, “Ngiyazama ukufunda isiNdebele,” quite convincingly—“I am trying to learn Ndebele.”) I speak no Shona beyond a short greeting or saying “thank you”. I am a White Zimbabwean, with the faults and shortcomings of many who grew up in Zimbabwe, but did not discover the full wealth of our heritage in time. Now I’m making up for it.
The young man I brought to meet his prospective in-laws came back this past weekend with a male relative to enter into negotiations for what the Ndebele call lobola—in English, we might say “dowry”, but the word conveys little of the reality to Canadian ears. Another Zimbabwean friend, Joe, and I became the young man’s family, along with his relative, and we approached the young woman’s house for supper and then the ceremony.
The four of us sat huddled together eating an excellent supper. The relative said to the young man, “You’ll be all right. Clearly she can cook well!” After a delay caused by the late arrival of the young woman’s cousin, who was part of her negotiating party, we finally settled into the ceremony. There were 10 to 15 observers present to serve as witnesses of the ceremony, some from Zimbabwe, some from Zambia, a few Nigerians, and a Rwandan couple. (Africans come together at such times!) There was also a Canadian couple who are good friends of the bride-to-be’s family.
Everyone but the young man’s negotiating party sat in the basement, and then we entered—the three negotiators walking in clapping solemnly with a hollow clap of the hands, while the young man stayed outside. I never did master this clap. The hands are cupped so that the thumbs come together with the tips of the fingers also coming together. All I could get was flat clap, while the others got more volume. We performed this clap almost every time we said something, as a way of showing respect to the young woman’s family.
We sat down on the floor, and the proceedings began. There was a fee to begin speaking, and a fee to take a chair. They paid the fee for the chair, but remained on the floor. In view of my age, they encouraged me to sit on the chair. I had a vague sense of cheating, by accepting their invitation. There was a fee for loss of the young woman, who as a child enjoyed playing with her father’s beard. There was a fee for the mother, who had carried and raised the young woman. All these we paid, and then asked for a recess.
We went outside and held a quick caucus—which amounted to saying that we would now negotiate in earnest, since we would soon run out of money (which all came from the young man). The ceremony was emceed by an aunt of the young woman, who also served as a go-between, letting us know what we could do and couldn’t do.
Finally we returned, and had to pay a fine for “delay”. (A curious fine, since we had delayed for over an hour for the last member of the young woman’s family to arrive.) There were several more categories of fees, and then finally a three-part dowry: I forget the name of the first part, the second was the dowry proper, and the third was mombi, or cattle.
We recessed several more times to check resources and plot our strategy, Aided by the go-between in one of our recesses, we learned that they did not expect us to pay the full amount on any particular fee, but to put in a token amount and let the balance go on record as “owing”. I have no idea if this is common to all families in Zimbabwe, or has evolved in a few areas. In any case, we took full advantage of this provision to put all of the money that we had into the pot, and leaving the rest as “owing”.
The final two steps were two final fees. First the young woman, who had sat silent throughout the ceremony was given the choice of anything that had been put into the bowl of money. This money was to be hers alone, and the negotiating party would replace it whatever she took out. She took out a relatively modest amount—her aunt asking, “Are you sure you don’t want more?” When her family saw how much she took, they said laughing, “She has already gone!” (She is already left our family for his family.) The final fee was to close negotiations.
The whole process took about three hours. Rushing would have been inappropriate, even though the hour grew late. Two families were being bound together, and they needed the time to do things right.
Some reflections on the whole evening:
1. I was truly honoured to be included as a somewhat elderly (and clearly incompetent) Uncle. Some things you learn only by doing.
2. David Maranz says (in African Friends and Mopney Matters) that Africans are generous with money and stingy with information, while Westerners are stingy with money and generous with information. One consequence of this is that we learned nothing before we had to know it. That is common in Zimbabwe. Your elders tell you what you need to know when you need to know it, not before.
3. The whole process reveals things about the participants that you can’t learn any other way—what they value, how they respond to pressure, and so on. A major factor, I think, in this case is that the young man has become quite Canadian. His willingness to go through a difficult (and, to him, costly) process was also proof of his commitment to their common heritage as Zimbabweans.
4. The whole process is also clearly a man’s game. The men negotiated; the women listened (except for the aunt). The young woman in this case is trained as a lawyer; their home will be a typical family in which mutual respect will be necessary—not a home in which the man rules. But the culture they come from remains what it is. Their job is to negotiate their way through Canadian culture, honouring their heritage and their parents appropriately. I wish them well!
5. As with all cultural customs, the potential for abuse is there. Some Zimbabwean women have observed that men sometimes use the fact they have paid lobola as a club: “I paid for you. You must have as many children as I want!” Others use it as it was intended—to bind the families together. Again, the couple’s task is to negotiate their way through the process of cultural change, learning from what is best in their own culture as they live in Canada.
This potential for abuse is one reason I gave no amounts above. The amount of money given and received is the families’ business. The process of bringing two families together in this couple has begun. And I have had my worldview expanded a bit, becoming even more of a Zimbabwean, white skin and all.