I remember seeing a sign in a shop selling delicate glass ornaments that read: ‘Please ask for assistance.

If you BREAK it, we consider it SOLD to you.’

I was reminded of that whilst writing this week’s column, which deals with the generally accepted notion that lobola is not refundable.

Naturally this attitude was based on the assumption that marriage was supposed be true and forever and unbreakable.

Elderly advocates of Botswana culture have told me that lobola was meant to place a stamp of ownership on the woman who would become a man’s “child” as it were.

In turn the children born out of the union had a legitimate right to use the man’s name and totem.

In recent years our courts have been hectic with petitions from young men whose relationships have hit the rocks, demanding a refund of the lobola payment – especially when the marriage aborts before any children are born.

Many of them leave empty handed after being told that Lobola is never refunded.

But for stubborn Mpini that was not the case.

Mpini’s story

Mpini arrived in the company of his uncle.

Their unsteady stepsas the wobbled into the kgotla,were an obvious sign that their previous appointment had been with a bar.

Perhaps they had felt the need to fortify their resolve since the subject they wished to confront was not an easy one.

The uncle led the discussion with a preamble as rambling as his winding walk, and it was not long before Mpinihigh-jacked the conversation and rebuked his uncle for being polite about a matter which he described as ‘Daylight Robbery.’

Mpini seemed to forget that at the Kgotla, just like in church, an acceptable level of behaviour is expected.

He started ranting and raving, even jagging figures at the Court President, as if preparing for a bar room brawl.

In justification of his anger he reeled off a list of expenses he had incurred as a result of his union with his intended bride.

First their were damages of P8 000 for impregnating her, then because he intended to marry Modi he had paid an additional P10 000 for lobolaas well as P3000 for things needed in preparation for the baby.

Unfortunately the child died.

He followed this revelation in dramatic fashion as he fumbled in his jacket, eventually pulling out his cell phone like a court exhibit.

Scrolling to the offending communication he held out the phone and bellowed, his words coming out in a series of barks: “After all her family had benefitted from my hard worked money……..she has the nerve to cancel our marriage …… via an SMS!”

His poor uncle tried without luck to cool him down.

When Mpini’s eventually settled my response was based on the simplistic view held culturally that lobola was not refundable.

But this only added salt to Mpini’s bleeding wound.

With eyes bulging he stood up and fixed his resurgent anger on me, losing all traditional respect usually afforded the kgotla and said:  “Nxa the culture of non refundable lobola will stop with me.”

When the dust had settled I called Modi’s family who confirmed that indeed Mpini had paid them lobola and damages, but their daughter has announced to them that she was calling the marriage off.

The dilemma was that according to customary law Mpini and Modi were married and all they needed to do was to go through a customary law divorce.

But Mpini’s mind was set on only one thing.  He wanted his money back.

He conceded that his in-laws could keep the damage money, but as for the lobola, he was going to fight like a wounded rhino to get it back.

In the midst of all this trouble I took a closer look at the statement that culturally lobola cannot be refunded and listed the following questions.

  • Why did Modi allow her family to receive lobola only to break the engagement via an impersonal SMS.What happened to Raditsela (the go between)?
  • What is the basis for not returning lobola especially if the couple does not have children?
  • Couldn’t this practice open the door for abuse?
  • Should society “sugar quote” injustice and label it “Culture – Do not refund?”
  • Should preserving culture be at the expense of individual rights?
  • Shouldn’t cultural rights be accompanied by moral responsibility?
  • If an assumption is made that the couple were married should division of their property be entertained even if they never accumulated anything together?

I ended up calling the Chief of Modi’s village and shared my thoughts over Mpini’s demand for a refund on his lobola.

I was so relieved to find that the chief was prepared to consider theargument and did not dismiss it with a simple wave of his hand that maintained that lobola was just not refundable.

He ordered that the matter be referred to him since the lobola was paid under his jurisdiction.

Mpini won the argument because three months from the day he raised the dust at my kgotla – he got back his lobola.

The issue has become something of a legal precedent in the customary court and opens the doors to examine, if not confront, some cultural “Don’t Touch” labels in order to strike a balance of justice for all.

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