Photo by Teresa Rafidi

Photo by Teresa Rafidi

Sunday, October 23, 2011

One Wedding, a Lobola, and a Funeral

The Price of a South African Bride (Article by Robin and Woody)

In South Africa, the word Lobola means bride price and it is the traditional Southern African dowry custom whereby the man pays the family of his fiancé for her hand in marriage. The custom is aimed at bringing the two families together, fostering mutual respect, and indicating that the man is capable of supporting his wife both financially and emotionally. It is a gesture of goodwill in the formation of new family lineage.

KFC South Africa offers to pay your lobola.
Traditionally the Shangaan people were pastorial and their wealth was determined by the number of cows they owned. Therefore, the traditional lobola payment was made in cattle as cattle were the primary source of wealth in African society. However, most modern couples today have now switched to using cash or part cash and part cattle as is now typical in rural areas. The process of lobola negotiations can be long and complex, and involves many members from both the bride's and the groom's extended families. In our area, from what we have seen, the lobola prices range from as low as R5,000 to more than R50,000 plus cattle. The lobola is typically paid over time to the bride's parents or family representatives and the couple is not officially married until final payment is made.

Recently we were invited by a friend to attend her lobola negotiations. For our friend, the price was negotiated to R15,000 (approx $2,000 USD) plus two cows. During the lobola negotiations, the bride-to-be and and her close female relatives (sisters and cousins) are not to be seen by the groom’s family. So, the bride-to-be stays hidden away while her parents or family representatives meet with the groom's family. Woody and I stayed hidden with our friend in her bedroom. This gave us a chance to talk to her about how the lobola proceedings work.

On a prearranged day, the groom's family comes to the bride's house and announces to the bride's parents or family representatives that they are coming to pay lobola. The two sides of the family have discussions for a while. Although the price is negotiated previously, they still have to come to an agreement on what the partial payment amounts will be. After they come to an agreement on the price, the groom's parents come and bring partial lobola (maybe half or two-thirds) of the total. The custom is that the groom's family should make at least two payments. It's in poor taste to pay the total amount all at once, as it would imply that the bride's family has negotiated such a low price for their daughter that the groom's family can easily pay the total at once. Eventually the bride-to-be is called out to the room where the negotiations are taking place. The bride's family then offers the bride-to-be along with another single female from the same family and asks the groom's family which girl they are there to pay lobola for. The family then chooses the bride-to-be. It's the last confirmation that the groom's family is there to pay lobola for their daughter and not someone else. Once the negotiations are complete, the two families sign a contract and the money is handed over to the bride's family. Then there is a big party with lots of food. Because the cost of the lobola and the cost of a wedding can be so high and take so long to save up for, most couples who are “engaged” often start having kids before they are even married and typically even before they are engaged. Some people wait up to 20 years or more before they have a wedding ceremony.

Paying lobola is not only tied to the right to marry, but also tied to other aspects of traditional life. For example, if the groom has not completed paying lobola and the bride-to-be suddenly dies, then the bride's family can put a hold on the funeral and burial until the groom's family comes up with the remaining money. He is still required to pay the full amount of the lobola before they can bury the bride. Another area where lobola has influence is in divorce. A wife asking for divorce is typically not granted divorce unless her family can repay the full amount of her lobola back to the groom's family. This is seen as an incentive for both the wife's and husband's families to intervene in case of a dispute between spouses to attempt to reconcile their differences before reaching the point of divorce.

In addition to being invited to our friend's lobola negotiations, we were also invited to attend a wedding ceremony of our Deputy Principal and his wife (who is also a teacher at the school). When it comes to weddings, they can be a bit elaborate and very expensive. Our Deputy Principal and his wife have actually been married traditionally for 20 years and have already had 8 children. But they hadn't yet been able to have a “white wedding” ceremony until now. So they had a combined wedding and 20th anniversary celebration. Most weddings take place outdoors under a huge tent because the number of people in attendance doesn't allow for enough space inside a church. Another huge cost to the wedding is the food. They have to be able to provide enough food to feed the several hundred people in attendance. Generally that means the slaughtering of a few cows and several chickens.

The wedding itself, like many public functions, is a highly structured event with items like a formal opening and prayer by the officiating minister, a number of guest speakers representing family, friends, employers and co-workers, neighbors, and church group affiliations. At this most recent wedding, even the couple's two oldest children had a chance to speak about their parents. The whole event, much like a typical wedding in the US, is split into two parts, the wedding and the reception. Normally the wedding is held in the morning, starting at around 9 or 10am and running until 12 or 1pm. At that point, lunch is served, and the guests have a chance to mingle, relax, and step out of the tent, which, if it's a summer wedding, can become quite hot and suffocating by that point in the day. The reception then starts around 3 or 4pm, and can run as late as 10pm or midnight. The biggest difference that we've seen is that the reception is just as structured as the wedding, with time for more guest speakers interspersed with selected traditional or religious songs and dances, and finally the cutting of the wedding cake.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: One's Final Hour Has Come. . . (Article by Robin)

Last month we also attended a memorial service and funeral for a staff member of our high school who also happened to be the wife of a teacher at one of our primary schools. If a staff member of a school dies, usually the school where the person worked along with several nearby schools will close early so that teachers and staff can attend the memorial service and visit the family. Here in the village, funerals generally take place on Saturdays. Since they are all-day affairs, Saturdays are best because people are not working and it allows time for relatives and friends to travel in to attend the funeral. The services start very early in the morning at around 6 AM and go on until 12 or 1 PM. Funerals are very expensive and elaborate events with tributes given by just about everyone from family members, aunts, grannies, siblings, friends, neighbors, colleagues, the school Principal, union representatives, Department of Education representatives, members of the church and so on... There is also a lot of singing going on. Almost between every speech and the next, they sing a hymn or at least a few verses.  Surprisingly there is also very little crying going on during a funeral. 

Throughout the world there are also various traditions about visiting grave sites and memorials. Some people burn incense and candles while others may leave flowers on the grave. In the Jewish tradition, you leave a rock on the top of the gravestone to mark your visit and show that you were there. In the Islamic tradition, people often pour water on the grave to mark their visit. Here among the Shangaan people, some mark their visit by leaving behind traditional beer and snuff at the grave site.

The sad part is that death is very common here. More so then in the US, people die from everything from cancer, to HIV/AIDs, to various other health problems, to car accidents, drowning accidents, and so on. The death rate in South Africa is 17 deaths out of every 1,000 people per year (July 2011 est.). It's the third highest death rate in the world, as of 2011 only Angola and Afghanistan are higher. The average life expectancy here is about 49 years. Compared with the US, who's death rate is only 8.38 deaths out of every 1,000 people per year and the average life expectancy is 78 years.

Just recently a friend of ours living in a neighboring village had to pull a dead boy from a shallow pond after he had drowned and been under for about 2 hours. In another neighboring village, a boy died after falling from a Tintoma (Jackalberry) tree. We've also heard rumors of kids being attacked by crocs while crossing the river in our village. Also many people here do not know how to swim and therefore there is a high rate of drowning deaths. Lots of people also die from car accidents here as almost no one wears a seatbelt, many cars are not in good running condition, and many drivers do not follow reasonable safety precautions like keeping a safe following distance, signaling, and care in passing other vehicles. People also fall ill and die from typically treatable diseases including cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and other diet, stress, and lifestyle related illnesses. Our host mother seems to attend at least one funeral every month.

Circuit Workshop (Article by Woody)

Among the things we inherited at our schools from the previous volunteers at site, one of the most asked about has been the spreadsheets, known here are Progression Schedules, used to record learner results and determine when a learner can progress from one grade to the next. Earlier this year, word apparently spread around to the other neighboring schools in our circuit and a couple of neighboring circuits that the 3 schools we are working in have been using electronic versions of the paper forms the rest of them have been relying on. For them the paper forms often resulted in mistakes in calculation and meant resubmitting much paperwork or, even worse, meant a learner was not given a final result at odds with their actual test results. So we got a few visits from principals and administrative staff from these schools asking how they could use the same electronic forms at their schools. Because of the time involved in presenting these tools and their use to the school staff, I finally decided to turn it into a one-day circuit-wide training, inviting all 22 primary and high schools to send representatives to our local circuit office for a workshop near the end of September, just a few days before school closed for the 3rd quarter.

With about 35 people attending – principals, administrative staff, and a few educators – we were able to get the material presented in just under 6 hours, a hectic pace even by my standards. At the end of the day most of the schools indicated they were going to start using it immediately, some were going to wait until the following quarter to use it for the final grades for the year, and just a few others were not able to use it without major redesign either because of complexities in the subjects they offered or because of the number of learners in a single class... (“You have over 200 kids in one classroom?! Seriously?!”) It was interesting to see the wide difference in computer skills between the staff of the different schools. Some knew exactly what we were talking about when describing different steps in copying the forms, renaming files, filling in the forms, etc... while others struggled to keep up and had to rely on their neighbors to coach them through the steps. Also interesting was the wide difference between the schools in what subjects they offered, and how they weighted those subjects when it came to determining if a learner had acquired enough knowledge to pass their current grade and progress to the next grade. Unfortunately it seems that despite national, provincial, and regional standardized tests, no national, provincial, or regional criteria for advancing learners has been communicated well enough to the schools to follow, or if it has been communicated, then the schools are choosing to disregard it in favor of their own criteria. Fortunately for us, the schools where we work came to a common agreement about these criteria and, despite occasional protest from some of the teachers, are still able to enforce it. Hopefully this workshop not only encouraged these neighboring schools to go electronic, but it also got them thinking about the criteria they use for grading and advancing learners.

Touring the Panorama (Article by Robin)

Once again we went on another school trip. This time it was the yearly school trip for our second primary school. On this trip, we got a change to see some of the sites along the Panorama route – seeing such tourist attractions like the Kahamai (Swadini) Reptile Park a.k.a. “Snake Park,” Echo Caves, the Three Rondavals, and Bourke's Luck Potholes. Our journey started at 7 am with a bus load of screaming kids. Only about 70 or so kids from the school were able to attend the trip. Before heading out on a long journey, it's customary for someone to stand up and say a prayer to ask God to keep us safe on our journey. After the prayer, soon we were on our way. . .

Park guide shows off a live python
Our first stop was the Kahamai Reptile Park. The main goal of this park is conservation and education about reptiles and amphibians. It is home to various types of snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles and more. Some are local species and others come from all over the world including some from Texas. We saw both a Texas cottonmouth and a rattlesnake. A few of the kids were even brave enough to pose with a huge python carried by one of the park caretakers. The Shangaan word for snake is Nyoka and people are very scared of snakes here. If they come across a snake they will automatically kill it – generally by wielding a big stick at it. Woody and I have had a few encounters with snakes since living here. Once there was what looked like a green mamba sleeping curled up inside of the school library, then another time Woody came across a huge 4-foot long gray snake on the school grounds – thankfully it was already dead, and most recently we had a small snake inside our house.

Kids at Echo Caves
Next on the list was Echo Caves in the Molopong Valley. These caves have sheltered humans since the Middle Stone ages. The cool cave air was a nice break from the impending heat. On our descent into the cave, we had to walk down some very steep stairwells. One of the girls was pretty scared to go down the stairs, so I took her by the hand and we went down together. Once in the cave, our guide told us about the tribes of people who once lived in the caves. The kids got to learn the difference between stalactites and stalagmites – it reminded me a bit of my college geology days.

Three Rondavals viewing point
The third stop was at the Three Rondavals viewing point. A Rondaval is a traditional house or round hut-like dwelling with a thatched roof. This mountain site has three giant peaks of quartzite and shale and they are called Rondavals because their shape so closely resembles that of the traditional huts. The peaks are also named after the three wives of Chief Maripi Mashile – which are Magabolle, Mogoladikwe and Maseroto.

Bourke's Luck Potholes
Our final destination was the Bourke's Luck Potholes. This is a natural water feature that marks the beginning of the Blyde River Canyon. Due to countless years of swirling whirlpools which occur as the Treur River intersects with the Blyde River causing waterborne sand and rock to grind huge, cylindrical potholes into the bedrock of the river. The Potholes were also named after a gold prospector, Tom Burke, who staked a claim nearby. 



Anonymous said...

What an awesome field trip! - Suzanne

Unknown said...

Please do it again