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Hey Rev!

Will a man pay lobola for a woman after they spent years staying together?

- Lerato

Dear Lerato:

Not so long ago, as I was leafing through my 9-year-old son’s copy of “The Way Things Work,” I came across an entry about the irrigation device known as the shadoof. Already 2,000 years old when Jesus was born, the shadoof continues to be used in parts of the world today. With four millennia and counting of active service, it is a remarkably enduring tool.

I think of the shadoof every time that I pass a billboard in downtown Spokane which reads, “two years is too long to wait for a new phone.”

We live, Lerato, in a time of staggering technological change. Some of that change is problematic and maybe even immoral, so that a phone can go from prized possession to e-waste in fewer than 24 months. Some of it is exciting, so that parents of developmentally atypical children can share resources and inspiration with one another across enormous distances. And some of it is mixed, so that ideas, fashions, cultural conventions, and so on can cross borders almost without effort and, in doing so, can contribute to reshaping long-established practices in a big way.

Today, few practices are been reshaped more dramatically than marriage. For better or for worse, lots of the world has new ideas about who may get married, about how to get married, and about whether or not getting married even matters.

And that, Lerato, brings us back to lobola.

Now, before I go any further, full disclosure: absolutely everything that I know about lobola I found out by looking it up on Wikipedia after I got your letter. I am, in other words, woefully underequipped to speak to its cultural context or to the question of whether or not a man already living with a woman will choose to participate in it. Here’s the best that I can do:

My educated guess is that the symbols, traditions, and ritual actions around marriage which will survive are those that, in some way, nurture relationships. To draw on the example that I know best, lots of couples still want to get married in a church. Most of the couples whom we marry at St. John’s Cathedral, however, already live together. These couples have rejected the notion that marriage is a transaction, that it is a permission slip from the church and/or from the state which allows them to stay in the same home or to be sexually active. Rather, they are drawn to publicly marking their marriage in a church because it celebrates their union before God and before community, because it invites the people whom they love to witness that union, to support it, and to be strengthened by it.

Lobola will survive and, indeed, it will thrive if it serves a similar function. In other words, the man of whom you speak will probably not pay lobola in order to obtain anyone’s permission continue to stay with his partner. But he might well pay it in order to be drawn closer to her family, in order to create an outward and visible sign of the love that binds them all together.

Many things are changing, Lerato. But love — between two people, between their families, between their wider community — remains as vital as it ever has been. And the practices which are able to name that love with authority, well, they will outlast even the shadoof.

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Martin Elfert

Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which the Divine was at work in the world. Shortly thereafter, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination.

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