“Take away from a people their culture, you wipe their identity. Convince them that their way of life is backwards, you’ll rule their thoughts. But teach a people to believe that development only comes from the adoption of a version of their so-called backward traditions that have not only been modernized, but altered and strapped with different connotations, you own them” – This is a saying that flits through one’s mind and washes one with a gloomy feeling, a feeling of fore-boarding.
It has become apparent; South Africa, like the rest of Africa is faced with an eminent threat. A threat that will possibly be the most damaging, the most degrading, of all onslaughts she has ever faced; the erosion of its people’s sacred traditions. Possibly one of the traditions mostly at risk is the notation of marriage as seen through the African lens. In the African traditions marriage has many facets, which highlights the important role this seemingly little ritual plays in our day to day lives.
To fully understand what role or rather roles marriage has in our lives, our society and Africa at large, let us first define what marriage is. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines marriage as, “the ceremony in which two people become husband and wife”, or “a legal relationship between a husband and wife”. This definition in itself is problematic. The African life is a communal one by nature, and centred on the idea of family, not individualism. The definition above describes a marriage of a people who are neither communal nor do they see family as an integral, if not crucial, part of one’s life.
This definition cannot be applied to the African concept of marriage. Marriage is a sacred connection, not only between two people but between families, between communities. Now Lobola, or Magadi, as we call it cannot be likened to a union that favours individualism. To fully understand this concept, let us define Magadi as a process that only has a beginning and no end.
A young man sees a young woman he wants to make his wife. This is the start of the process. He then makes his intentions known to his elders who arrange a meeting with the young woman’s family. Upon the agreement of a set date, the two families meet. The approaching family, which is the young man’s family, makes sure that they do not come empty handed. Not to prove their ability to afford, but as a token of appreciation to the young woman’s family for having granted the meeting. This is when the terms of the marriage will be discussed. This is not merchandizing of goods, but rather a discussion centred on the young people’s readiness for such a commitment, and an agreement is struck, to ensure that the connection between the two families does not end only with the young couple. The families create bonds, the men find common grounds, and so do the women. The process of Magadi has started and tokens of appreciation and gifts as a show of willingness to forge a path together are prepared. Upon a set date they all meet again at the young woman’s home. Depending on cultures, the groom can accompany his elders to go fetch his wife. Again this is not purchasing and picking your goods off a shelf. This is rather a linkage of totems, a sharing of names rather than an exchange. The ceremony starts off with the groom’s family appreciating the opportunity given again to present their wishes, with gifts. The bride is called to come confirm her knowledge of the groom and his family and once she does, the process is in full swing.
Gifts to first thank the parents, and family at large for having raised a well mannered young woman who would bring happiness to their son and add to the growth of their family, are presented. These gifts do not end. They originally did not have a set price. A token of ‘patla le jase’ (a staff and jacket) literally meant that; a cloak to cover the shoulders of the honoured elders who raised the young woman, and a staff to ensure the comfort of the man of the house. ‘Dikgomo’, (cattle) which are traditionally what is used to pay for Magadi, has many significant connotations.
Cattle are traditionally the tokens of appreciation given during the ceremony of Magadi. One important thing to note here is that the cow is given live, and it is often a female. This has significance. A gift of livestock is a symbol of good wishes. It signifies the family of the groom’s wish to see their newly linked family grow and continue to be full of life. Livestock is a token of prayer of well wishes for the newlyweds too. This one female will multiply herself and soon a kraal will be full. In the olden days the wealth of the African people was measured in cattle, and from cattle they got everything from food to clothes. The significance in giving livestock is the groom’s family’s wish for the bride’s family to never lack, to be provided for. A young girl’s position in her family is very crucial. By taking her to her husband’s home, the groom leaves an empty space that needs to be filled. Contrary to popular believe the girl child in an African family has always been important, and by taking her, the husband had to ensure her absence is not felt.
In the modern Africa, Magadi has been altered to suit the fast and monetary oriented society; it has lost its essence. Magadi is now loosely translated as ‘bride price’. Unconsciously we are strapping the concept of ‘price’ to our sacred union between two families that had nothing to do with monetary gain. A price is “the amount of money that you have to pay for something; or the unpleasant things that you must do or experience in order to achieve something”, (Oxford Learner’s Advanced Dictionary); another disturbing definition. This definition points to the process of an exchange. When you buy something you exchange one thing for another and as soon as the transaction is completed you never think of where you got it or how you got it, unless problems arise; then you need to return it or get it fixed. That is not Magadi. Magadi is not a price you pay in exchange of a woman, and then you forget her origins, only to bring her back to be fixed when you face problems. A transaction is the exchange of objects that are of benefit to the other person and not necessarily the original owner. That is not Magadi. A young woman is valuable to her family, just as cattle are valuable to the groom and his family. Through the process of Magadi they are sharing their most valuable and treasured, and trusting the other to do well by them. Because Magadi is a process, the two families are bound to see each other, and the bonds reinforced. Often when a young man has been given a number of cattle to furnish, a number that would put the hearts of the parents of the young woman at rest, knowing that he values their daughter enough to trust them with his cattle, he will be given a lifetime to furnish them. Although he strives to furnish them on time, the young woman’s family prefers it this way because it means he will keep coming home with his wife to see them. It is continuous.
The African has adopted many ideologies, to the detriment of his own identity. Returning Magadi to its original sacred place is crucial to the structure of the African society. The foundations of family are built at the beginning of the process. Many have turned that phase into a negotiating and bartering scene that should be reserved for merchandisers. Instead of taking into consideration the readiness of the couple and forging a bond, they now sniff the crisp notes coming out of briefcases handed to them by the most loathsome human beings that even a goat would bray if they dared stand next to its kid.
Belief systems are another aspect of the African ways of life that have been affected by foreign ideologies. The concept of religion has contributed to the degrading of the tradition of Magadi. Many religious belief systems come with marriage concepts that are foreign to the African. It is through the adoption of these marriage rituals that the relevance of Magadi has been put to question. Because it has sadly become the norm that the African perform two marriage ceremonies, what they call traditional wedding and white wedding – many feel it has become expensive to do both. If you adopt a stray cat into your home and it keeps eating your chickens, you return the stray cat back to the wild or kill it; you don’t get rid of your chickens. But the African is convinced that for him to reduce the cost of marriage he has to get rid of his chickens.
It is lamentable that Magadi has been turned into a transaction, although it has all but lost its significance, but it is our duty to restore it to what it originally stood for. To fully return the African to his position of knowing ‘imvelaphi yakhe’, we have to take into account all that makes his identity what it is. It is still relevant to appreciate the bride’s family for their hard work in raising her. It is also important to instil in our people the reverence for the sacred union once more. Like any problem, there solution is to identify the root cause. As a result a lot of our social ills can be rectified, because our society is a connection of vibrations of energy. If one chain link is off the entire link falls off. The foundations of a family start with Magadi. A home with a strong foundation is capable of raising a generation that would not need foreign ideologies such as feminism, because the woman’s sacred position would be returned to her. Through this restoration there won’t be a need for ‘#AllManAreTrash’ syndromes because the man would respect his woman knowing the foundations that were laid and who laid them. Through this seemingly simple, yet sacred ritual, we can heal the parts of our society that are linked to the structure of the family, that have fallen ill. And through observation, I believe everything is linked to the family, and as such, all can be healed by rebuilding a strong family foundation.
*In referring to the African as ‘he’, I mean all Africans irrespective of gender.
References: Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
Oral knowledge from my elders, Jackie Tobejane,B. Motabele Monnya, Priscah Mtetwa, to
name a few
By Nancy Monnya