Thursday, November 20, 2014

Malawian Practice of "Lobola"--George's Post

At the Church's recent District Conference in Blantyre (November 16th), Elder Mdletshe, an Area Seventy in the Africa Southeast Area, who lives in South Africa, presided. Elder Mdletshe is an African by birth and has been a member of the Church for twenty plus years. As a young man, after his mission, he attended BYU and spent six years in the United States. While he had the opportunity of remaining in the United States after college, he felt his future (and, in a sense, his duty) was in Africa. He returned home to South Africa, married, established a family and has, since that time, held various Church callings. President and Sister Erickson were also in attendance, as well as President Chinyumba, the Blantyre District President, and his wife. Most of the meeting was handled by Elder Mdletshe, who, after sharing a few introductory remarks, used an question and answer format, to review with those in attendance the principles outlined in three general conference addresses given by Elders Bednar, Andersen and Dallin Oakes. Copies of those conference talks,together with the Church's statement on the family ("The Family: A Proclamation to the World"), had been distributed to the members for review prior to the meeting. As I have mentioned in prior posts, the Church is new to Malawi. Three years ago (in 2011), the Zambia Lusaka Mission was formed, and now has slightly over 100 full-time missionaries. Half of the missionaries are whites from the United States, and half are Africans. As a consequence, most of the Church members in Malawi are now with less than three years of experience in Church practices. Despite this, they are, we have already found, wise beyond their years. They focus more on the essential doctrines of the restored gospel than is frequently the case back home. Carole and I found their comments and questions to be fairly typical to what one might hear in a similar meeting in our home ward. At least, that was true with one major exception. Early in the second hour of the meeting, Elder Mdletshe touched upon the need to shed cultural traditions, however strongly engrained, that were not in line with gospel principles. He then referred to remarks by President Oaks condemning the century old practice of "lobola." Many countries in south eastern Africa have had historically the practice of requiring a prospective husband to make a payment to his beloved's family to secure consent to the marriage. Over decades, elaborate rituals have come to surround this custom. Sometimes, for example, negotiations over price and payment terms(which are frequently handled by the bride's uncle on behalf of the family) may extend over two days. In the past, payment was made in cattle (since it was one of the primary sources of wealth); but now cash is generally used as the mode of payment. This custom of bridal payments was intended to create a bond between the two new families, so that the new parents and new kin could unite in supporting the new couple. Furthermore, the bridal payment was occasionally used, at least in part, to help the new family set up their household. However, given the poverty in Africa, the practice has frequently been abused. Excess payments were exacted in order to secure consent, delaying for years the marriages, and the monies (or cattle) when paid were not applied toward the establishment of a new household, but instead retained by the bride's family. Another negative aspect of "lobola" is that it perpetuates the concept that "young girls" are seen as property: chattel to be sold by the parents for gain, and to be purchased by the prospective bridegroom. Such attitudes are unhealthy and not in line with what we consider to the ideal marriage arrangement: where both spouses are equal and work together, in a spirit of partnership, to set upa home and rear children. Prior to the meeting, I would have thought that lobola would be an arcane custom, no longer followed, not because of gospel principles, but because it is clearly out of line with Westerner notions of marriage and gender equality. No church member argued in favor of the merits of retaining the custom, but it was clear from a few of the comments made by several older members in the congregation, that the practice is still alive and well. We did not get a sense for how widespread it may be