Goin' to the chapel - and the goat dung bath, too

With a college degree, her own house in the suburbs, and a high-powered career as the program manager for a South African cable television music station, Dudu Mashianoke's family knew she was a good catch for any man.

So, when her boyfriend proposed, they refused to let her go for less than 11 cows.

Ms. Mashianoke and her parents considered skipping the tribal marriage custom of securing a lobola, or bride price. It seemed like an anachronism, but her grandmother insisted, and the traditional negotiations ensued.

For a growing number of urban professional South Africans like Ms. Mashianoke and her fiance, Xola Qubu, participation in traditional African wedding customs like the lobola exchange is becoming a trendy way of maintaining a cultural connection with the past. Suddenly, lobola and the goat dung bath are de rigeur. And last fall, new post-apartheid marriage laws went into effect, making customary marriages legally binding for the first time in generations.

On the day of the lobola negotiations, Mashianoke waited anxiously in a bedroom of her parents' house while representatives of the two families conducted the negotiations in the living room, finally settling on a price of 11 cows, paid today in cash at an exchange of $250 per cow.

"It was more than his family expected," says Ms. Mashianoke, referring to her fiance, an engineering student and businessman. "So I had to find him at the golf course and page him. He came running to the phone to say, 'Just pay!' because his uncle was trying to negotiate it down."

"People are getting away from the white wedding, the Westernized wedding and all that. They're now going back to the traditional ways," says Mashianoke, a slim, stylish woman whom colleagues call a powerhouse in the office. "It's become a trend. If you don't have a traditional wedding, you're not in."

Mashianoke says her parents, both well-educated professionals, initially hinted that they wouldn't go through the lobola negotiations, but the question became how to create a wedding reflecting their hybrid identities as Africans, urban professionals, and Christians.

The couple eventually decided to hold two separate wedding ceremonies. In December, they will have an African ceremony in traditional dress - and they will include the slaughter of a goat, the ceremonial bathing of the bride in goat's dung, and the renaming of the bride by the groom's family. Early next year, they will have a Western-style wedding in a Methodist church, complete with a white dress, diamond ring, and 300 guests.

While Ms. Mashianoke and Mr. Qubu are maintaining many of the traditional ways, in others they are entirely modern. Traditionally, lobola was paid in cows instead of money, marriages were arranged, and polygamy accepted. Qubu isn't planning on taking any other wives, and the bride's parents would have no place to keep cows in their Pretoria home.

"Now the lobola is paid in the form of money, and it's common for the woman to work. Also, your family doesn't choose your spouse," says Qubu. "But other than that, we still do the same things our great-great grandfathers did."

Catherine Burns, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Natal, says lobola and other traditional wedding practices were dying in urban areas during the 1950s and '60s, but began to be revived during the 1970s and '80s as part of the cultural revival that came with the anti-apartheid movement.

"A sexiness came back to the practice of lobola," says Dr. Burns. "The idea began to develop that you can still be modern and yet also be really Zulu by going though lobola."

Today, in the free, post-apartheid era, the revival of traditional marriage customs has become a way for many educated black South Africans to express their cultural uniqueness, much in the same way that former South African President Nelson Mandela traded western suits for colorfully patterned African-style shirts. The revival of traditional wedding customs has become so trendy that a mixed-race couple in a popular local television soap opera recently made headlines for their marriage, which, like that of Ms. Mashianoke and Qubu, consisted of two ceremonies.

"I think what is important to realize is that the apartheid period refused recognition to many traditional ways. One of the consequences of that was that it made people feel a connection to customs that were being downtrodden or made invisible," says Thandabantu Nhpolo, a professor of law and South Africa's deputy ambassador to the US. "It was a way of being different from the people who oppressed us."

Dr. Nhpolo, who headed a governmental commission to rewrite the laws concerning customary marriage, says that under apartheid law, only Western-style marriages were recognized, and large numbers of black South African couples were denied legal recognition for their families, their children were considered illegitimate, and their spouses were barred from receiving pension benefits.

As a result, in many areas of the country, a system of parallel Christian and traditional marriages developed. In the Eastern Cape, for example, it's customary for a traditional wedding to be held on Saturday and a church wedding on Sunday.

Under the new marriage laws that went into effect in November last year, however, customary marriages are recognized as legally binding. Dr. Nhpolo says this may lead to a decline in the number of couples choosing to hold dual wedding ceremonies, though couples like Ms. Mashianoke and Qubu say they want the western-style wedding as well.

"She wants the ring," says Mr. Qubu with a laugh, pointing to his finger.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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