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A lobola ceremony in the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg

A lobola ceremony in the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg

What happens when a man from Pretoria, part Afrikaans and part English heritage, decides to marry a woman from Soweto with Pedi heritage?

Well, the first thing they decide is to go through a mahadi ceremony, where lobola is negotiated and agreed. They accept that this is an important process to honour. It brings the two families together in a way that builds resilience for their relationship as a married couple.

My view of this love story come from being a colleague with the groom, and how he was advised and his reflections on his life and his heritage and what it means to be living in South Africa today. I actually only met the bride a few days before the mahadi and got to learn that she grew up in Soweto and went to model C schools in the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg. Her parents also migrated to these suburbs. Following her schooling she went to Wits University to study medicine and specialise in anaesthetics. The groom went to an all-boys, English speaking high school in Pretoria, followed by studying B Com through Unisa and then did a Masters in refugee and internal displacement studies. This is how it happens.

They meet on Tinder. They fall in love on the streets, in the markets and galleries of Johannesburg.

The first thing the groom requires is a negotiator, so I suggest another colleague with lots of experience in cross-cultural marriage negotiations from Angola to Senegal, to help out. He has a deep understanding of the underlying principles of these negotiations. He was also in a cross-cultural marriage (he is Setswana and married an Australian) but they got divorced. He later married a Sesotho accountant who also became a traditional healer. It all adds to the wonderful cultural tapestry of this event.

The next person in the negotiating party is the boyfriend of the groom’s sister. He is from Venda. So in one family from Pretoria, both a son and a daughter have partners from an African culture – one Pedi, one Venda. The tapestry continues, the sister of the bride has a White South African partner with English heritage. So here we have two families where two kids from each family have fallen in love with people from another culture, another skin colour. I keep wondering what the parents are thinking about all of this. The third member of the negotiating party is the sister of the groom, and the fourth a colleague, a White, English-speaking atheist Jew.  Now that’s a negotiating team to be reckoned with.

The bride’s party decides to appoint a chief negotiator capable of handling a white family. So, along came a chap that they thought would be appreciated by the groom’s family. Little did they know that the grooms team was led by a highly experienced inter-cultural negotiator.

The bride’s negotiators play their cards too early. They make it known she has received lobola before, and that any agreement is really a gift to the ancestors. They just need to agree on the value of a cow. The groom’s negotiator tells me he was immediately aware that he could “check mate” the bride’s family. He is also painfully aware that they need to play the game, to make sure that the process provided for all the important principles to be achieved. He goes back to the groom’s family and explains that they should offer a gift to the ancestors and separate this from any other form of payment. An offer of two cows is made to the family as a gift to the ancestors to achieve appeasement. The bride’s family argued they should get more, but the groom’s negotiator tactfully reminds that this was not for them, and that the ancestors will appreciate two cows. The bride’s family argues that other payments are necessary. How, for example are the costs of the wedding to be handled? A little panic ensues as the two uncles do not agree. The groom’s father lets it be known that as two families, they would handle the costs together. That seals the social contract between the families. The negotiation is closed. Happiness.

The ceremony moves to the garden. First thing is the slaughtering of the sheep, performed by the Tswana negotiator (he has to take his iWatch off as it is not blood proof), the Venda brother-in-law and an uncle of the bride. The sheep is skinned and the nice juicy bits offered to the family. The rest is put on a spit braai for the lunch.

I arrive soon after, when the two families are dancing ceremoniously around the swimming pool. The groom is given a Basotho blanket to wear over his shoulder, a straw hat and a small colourful stick. The hired dance group - essential for providing the necessary cultural flavour - is not Pedi, but Sotho. The ululating, the dancing, the smiles and clapping make for great photographs and videos. I keep wondering who was photographing who?

I also wonder what the white neighbours of this affluent suburb were thinking about all this restless native activity. My post-modern fantasy is brought to a sudden halt when I am told that the neighbours are most likely black families.

Then comes the gift-giving ceremony. First is the groom’s father. He makes a wonderful speech to the bride’s family and expresses his gratitude for being welcomed into their house. I am thinking he is so relieved that his eldest son is finally getting married. He presents three gifts to the father of the bride – a jacket from Khaliques, a walking stick and an axe.

Photographing the handing over of these highly symbolic objects, I realise just how important this moment was for the father. Then the groom's mother and aunt present a wrapped gift to the bride, flowers to the bride’s mother and a blanket that they each wrapped around them. The brother and sister of the groom presented a straw broom to the bride and the bride’s sister. Other gifts include whisky and more flowers. It is a beautiful, meaningful ceremony. The bride’s parents promise to provide gifts to the groom’s family at an appropriate time, highlighting that the process of bringing the families together is a long one, culminating in a “white wedding” and the signing of a legal marriage register. They also highlight just how significant this is in the context of South Africa, providing a valuable space for inter-cultural dialogue, understanding and friendship.

The eating and drinking launch with gusto, giving me the chance to speak with groom’s mother. I was told that in the build-up to the wedding she was having a bit of anxiety about all of this. She laments, to me, that so much of her culture is forgotten. But she also celebrates how amazing it is to be part of an old culture, one that is being passed on from generation to generation. She feels privileged.

A massive storm breaks, replete with thunder and lightning. We realise that it was the ancestors of the two families that have joined the celebration.

It was a rare privilege to witness two families working out how to relate to each other to support the couple and their future. In one moment, it spoke to the African story, to how social, political and economic lobola is being negotiated between groups all over the continent all the time to harness resilience of families, companies, states and communities. The need for deep integrity to manifest in the negotiation and gift-giving ceremony afterwards is essential for the collective. I realized then that with integrity, passion, love and commitment to a set of values, our generation can achieve amazing things.

Many thanks to Aidan Eyakuze for his motivation and editing.  The writer acknowledges that his observations are culturally biased and apologises for any misinterpretation of this age-old ceremony in a modern, cross-cultural context.

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Saturday, 25 March 2017

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