ILOBOLO : Its Meaning and Process


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Rational behind Lobola?

The first critical question is Why Lobola? Lobola is not the way we are taking it today and it was never meant to be what we are thinking of today.

Firstly: When Umnumzane and Umama gets children, they always wish to get a boy as a first born, for the continuation of the family name. Secondly, getting a girl, on the other side does not guarantee the continuation of the family name instead it symbolizes the wealth (ukungena kwezinkomo) ekhaya and also an outside extended relationship.

Thirdly, umnumzane for him to see that Umsamo is alive (uyaphila) and his ancestors are strong and present, he would see that by having many cattle (Umhlambi wezinkomo) and all his children get married. But no one wanted his/her child to get married to the family which is poor and not really well doing. That is why in the olden days most abamnumzane wanted their daughters to be taken by families with many cattle so that he can get more, and also as a guarantee that his daughter won’t starve emzini. So during those days people use to charge whatever number of cattle for ilobolo. There was no fixed number of cattle.

This process of paying lobolo with no fixed number of cattle, was revisited by Sir Theophilus Shepstone known as USomtsewu ka Sonzica, who actually so this tradition as an exploitation and he then fixed the number of cattle to Eleven (11), hence today we have lobolo as eleven cattle.


Ilobolo is cattle (regardless of number) paid by umkhwenyana for his umakoti. It is various cattle with their specific names and functions paid to the father and also to the mother of their daughter.

These cattle are a sign of pride and showing that ‘your daughter will never starve when she joins the family.’ It is ubumnumzane of the umkhwenyane’s father, that we are not that poor. Secondly, it is a token to the Amathongo (ancestors) that isibaya is growing, and as it grows it will create strong umuzi for them (amathongo). That is why these cows have various names and meaning. They are as follows:

  • Ubikibiki – This cow is given to the mother by umkhwenyana.
  • Ubhaqa – The cow given to the umakoti’s father in order to light the way
  • Umqholiso/Ingquthu – The cow given to the mother of umakoti.
  • Umumba – Cow also given to the Makoti’s mother, but part of the ilobolo
  • Imvulamlomo/Ingqaqhamazinyo – cow given to the father in order for him to talk to the abakhongi (people sent to pay lobola)
  • Imvula – is the cow that gets mentioned first before even paying the ilobolo.
  • Unozungeza – Part of ilobolo
  • Inhlabisamthimba – the cow that gets slaughtered on the wedding day
  • Isibhoma – cow that also get slaughtered on the wedding day.
  • Ibheka – additional cow.

(Remember that these cows in some other areas are all collectively called AMABHEKA)

The other two cattle just accompany these cows; hence we say (Umakoti akaqedwa). That is why people do not pay all the ilobolo, because of the belief that one day umkhwenyana will be of help to the family (umkhwernyana isiphuzi sokuhquzula)


All the time when we talk of ilobolo, we always confuse it with Izibizo. Izibizo is just what the mother wants from umkhwenyana, and it has no prescription, but the mother uses her own discretion. It is the conversion of the inkomo called Ubikibiki. Today most people call these izibizo ubikibiki, which is the main cause of confusion. Once umkhnwnyana has paid these cows, he can request for the date for the wedding. We must therefore never confuse ilobolo, which is cows and izibizo.

Ilobolo is not a gift or thanking to the parents of the daughter for raising her up.


Ilobolo is a two way process. It is the process governed by the amathongo, as the belief is that to have people coming and initiate ilobolo is a gift from the ancestors. Umakoti is a gift to umkhwenyana and his family to such an extent that the belief is that umakoti is not yours as umkhwenyana but is for your father. Also on the side of umkhwenyana, you are unmkhwenyana of the izalukazi zase mzini.

As umkhwenyana pays these cows, there are also cows which get given to umakoti by his father on the day she leaves her family.

These cows are:

  • Umbeka – the cow that get given to umakoti to slaughter it when arriving at emzini.
  • Imbeleko – the cow also given to umakoti, saying that it will be slaughtered for her children once she is there.
  • Umthothongo – the cow that gets given by the father to umakoti, on behalf of the ancestors to always look after her at emzini.
  • Isiqodo – the cow that is paid by the umakoti family for slaughtering on the wedding day.

Besides these there are cattle which also get slaughtered on the wedding day paid by both umakoti and umkhwenyana:

They are:

  • Ibhoma
  • Ishoba/Inhlabisamthimba

Ilobolo is an issue between the two families. The first person who happens to know that there will be abakhongi (representatives from the umkhwenyana) coming, is the mother of the daughter. The father is always kept in the dark all the time. He will see people sweeping the yard, doing all the cleaning, but he will never ask.

On that selected day, abakhongi will arrive early in the morning and shout at the gate by saying ‘sizocela isihlobo esihle’. It will be then where the father will know for the first time. But, even though, he will never attend to those people alone, but will call his brothers, and the neighbours to come and listen. When abakhongi are shouting they will be mentioning these cows, by their size, their gender and their colors. When inside the house they will be asked to repeat what they have been saying.

The first cow that will be requested will be iMvulamlomo for the father. It is only then when the father will start talking. The father will call all his daughters and ask the abakhongi to point at the woman, once that is done, and then negotiations will start.

The elders will carry this work until up to the end. The two: umakoti and umkhwenyana have no say what so ever in the whole negotiation process. We must remember that, it is only the elders that can represent the Amathongo and not the youngsters.

Where Twala says the elders communicate with the ancestors when lobolo is paid does not happen at the beginning, but that is a different process which happens during the acceptance time and also during the wedding time.


It is mentioned in the article that some people say they do not need paying lobolo because they have been together for a long period. Also other people do not want to pay lobolo because of the fear that their marriage will not last long. What makes those marriages not to last it’s because of certain slaughtering which were never fulfilled. We must understand that, the marriage between two people in an African Culture, is not marriage unless is blessed by the amathongo. Such blessings are done through various rituals, where either a goat is slaughtered or a cow for the inyongo to be used for either umakoti or umkhwenyana.

These are the goats which get slaughtered during the ilobolo process:

  • Ilongwe – slaughtered after accepting the cattle
  • Ukucola abakhwenyana – slaughtered for abakhongi as sign of acceptance
  • Imvuma – slaughtered to accept umkhnwenyana

It must be understood that these processes differ today from place to place. But even though, it is these goats’ inyongo which connects umkhnwenyana and amathongo, also umakoti and amathongo.

During the wedding other cows gets slaughtered where their izinyongo are used as symbol of connection.

Those who say their marriage will never last, it won’t last if these processes were never done.


Lobolo is a problem in our era because we do not have people who have a clear know how of what it is, and why was it or is it still being practiced. Lobolo, has more value that just a mere practice. We must always put it into a context whenever we talk about lobolo, and not just discuss it in isolation.

Today we are confusing ilobolo, which are cattle and izibizo which is just goods – , and something else. It is these izibizo where people start doing their gambling, which is conducted very badly.

Customarily Zulus consider marriage as an opportunity through which new bonds are formed between two families in the main, that of the bride and the bridegroom. The process of ukulobola, to pay the bride price in brief, is a critical stage in which the symbolic and material gestures of the coming together of these two families is realised. Often, a great deal of pomp, ceremony and robust negotiations accompany this custom. Although historically the lobolo ritual predates colonialism, ‘the Europeans who codified Zulu law and the missionaries, regarded lobolo as being in the nature of a business transactio in which a fixed price had to be arrived at,’ so argues social anthropologist Absalom Vilakazi in his celebrated book on aspects of Zulu culture and tradtions, Zulu Transformations. It is in the context of this particular historical moment in Natal that saw then governor Sir Theophilus Shepstone uSomtsewu as Zulus called him, impose a figure of 11 cattle as a standard for ilobolo.

By doing so, Shepstone was deliberately distorting an otherwise noble practice as part of a bigger and nefarious agenda of depleting the cattle herds of Zulu men who otherwise saw no need to pay various demeaning taxes nor submit to the needs for cheap labour at the time. To refer to Vilakazi again: ‘By Zulu customary law, the very essence of lobolo was its indeterminate character, for it was part of the gifts that pass to and fro between the contracting families as long as the marriage persists. The izibizo are part of this general pattern.’

To return to the matter at hand, the following points are worth considering :

  1. Assuming that a woman is getting married for the first time, her lobolo rites often comprise sending a delegation from the future bridegroom’s party who start a process towards paying all 11 cattle to the future bride’s family.
  2. Izibizo zikamama or her mother’s customary dues are paid as part of the lobolo process.
  3. Before she is allowed to join her new family, a special cow called udondolo is offered.
  4. She is then anointed with sacrificial bile to mark her new family status, more so that she is now no more a member of her original family.
  5. Should she divorce or her husband die, for her second marriage lobolo is not required.
  6. Instead, a token is given to her outgoing in-laws.
  7. Since traditionally Zulu and other African societies frowned the idea of a divorce, the widow or a divorced woman can be paid whatever that can be negotiated by the two parties without the involvement of her direct parents as she no longer belongs there.
  8. Thereafter either a goat or a cow is slaughtered to mark her new family status.
  9. As is the case in many cultures, in the final analysis, the failure or success of any marriage mainly depends on the two people who have entered matrimony.
  10. In conclusion, although various pressures and influences of modernity and socio-economic conditions have brought both distortions and innovation to the lobolo custom, in general, the practice still constitutes the most preferred, revered and recognized gesture of cementing the marital bond and calling upon the ancestors and God to bless it.


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