Story and photos by Loftus Viljoen
|Regal pose for a traditional Tsonga Wedding|
Malamulele is small township near Giyani in the far north of the Limpopo Province. It is 40 odd kilometres away from the Punda Maria gate of the Kruger National Park.
My partner, Naomi Myburgh, and I had the opportunity and privilege to cover a traditional Tsonga wedding ceremony at this village. We were approached by Masana Maluleke, a pharmacist from Brakpan in Gauteng where she works and resides, to photograph and document her wedding with Thabo Motsoai. The bride is a Tsonga and the groom is a Sotho.
In Africa it is an age-old tradition and custom that a traditional wedding is preceded by “lobola” negotiations. Lobola is said to be a system whereby a groom pays the father of the bride or her relatives a “bride’s price” of a certain number of cattle [or in modern times an amount of cash] and hence the misconception that the bride becomes the “property” of her husband. Traditionally cattle was a sign of wealth in Africa culture and by paying in the paying of cattle to the bride’s father meant or symbolizes that the groom was financially able to set up home and provide for his wife.
On the surface “lobola” seems to be a purchase and sale agreement but it is a far more complex and intricate process with many symbolic gestures. The custom is based on a process to bring the families of both the bride and the groom together. This process involves formal and strict protocols to be adhered to, for example two families could have stayed next to each other for years but when it comes to the “lobola” exchange they might not know each other on the seriousness and sanctity of marriage. The process and meetings with the families, especially the groom, is normally not done by the groom himself but it is done through the elders in the family and involves endless formalities. In traditional African weddings the bride and groom is also “marrying” into extended families and takes on an extra responsibility to support them as and when the need arise. The negotiations can be very tense and great ceremony and dignity is bestowed on these meetings and in some of these negotiations an opened bottle of brandy is placed on the table is a symbolic gesture of “the mouth opener” to break the tension and acceptance of the representatives. These negotiations can last a couple of days and can continue on the day of the ceremony. In the modern day cattle are symbolic and once the “lobola” or “bride’s price” is established the negotiations are formally over.
Traditionally the wedding ceremony can only take place after the lobola is paid. Lobola is also a sign of gratitude on the part of the groom’s family toward the family of the bride for the taking care and upbringing of her. There is no personal enrichment by the father of the bride in lobola as it is used in many cases to help the young bride to set up house. It is like trousseau or dowry in the European countries.
There are strict rules to be followed until the wedding ceremony, for instance the couple are forbidden to meet each other before the ceremony.
The purpose of the meetings between the families is to create a bond between the families of mutual trust and understanding and a feeling that they “belong” to each other. When the dignitaries speak of “She is marrying you, but belong to us…or she is our property” they are talking symbolic to say that they value the bride very high and that she is now part of a bigger harmonious family union.
Lobola is still very popular as a custom because the essence is that it promotes dignity and support of each other and the family community.
A traditional wedding differs from a formal “white wedding” – a white wedding meaning a Western- or European type of wedding, with a white wedding dress, as there are much more formalities to be concluded and the ceremonial proceedings as described below. African couples often opt after two years or so to enter into a “white wedding”.
Having done our research and trying to understand the customs we arrived at the wedding on Saturday the 2nd March 2013 at 12:00. A huge white tented marquee was set up on the lawn of the bride’s parent’s house decorated with the “combined” celebration colours of the two families involved – yellow/orange from the bride’s side and earthy brown from the groom’s side. The celebration colours of the bride’s family consisted mainly of yellow and blue and the celebration colours of the groom was mainly white/beige and earthy brown. On our arrival we found the two families beautifully dressed in ceremonial attire separated – the groom’s family to the left and the bride’s family to the right. As we entered the groom’s side was singing praise songs about the groom and his family.
The bride arrived at her parent’s house three days earlier while the groom arrived at his families’ house with his entourage only on the morning of the wedding.
The custom and tradition is that the bride dresses in the wedding gown in her family colours and then she is introduced to the groom and his family [and the guests at the wedding] by her family and entourage with song and dance. Naomi rushed to photograph the nervous bride [just like any bride] during the process of getting dressed and prepared.
In the meantime a solemn, serious and dignified meeting was taking place between the representatives of both families in the lounge for the formal conclusion of the lobola negotiations. We were only allowed to photograph them after the conclusion.
In the meantime the caterers were busy preparing feast meals at the back of the property as there were about 200 guests attending. The food included traditional foods like pap, spinach, meats, stew, afval and even the traditional mopane worms [high in protein]. In the backyard the goat “the-be-slaughtered” was waiting.
At last the bride and her entourage appeared singing and dancing and was met in the “isle” by a serious and nervous looking, but proud groom. A stage was set on an ethnic pattern cover with two majestic white leather chairs facing the audience. As the couple took their seats they looked regal, dignified and proud as they knew the families’ representatives have successfully concluded the lobola negotiations.
The ceremony was officially opened after a prayer by Pastor Maakane by one of the family representatives followed by song. After script reading and further prayers more song and dance followed.
Then it was time for the first of the traditional dancers and drummers to perform where-after it was the bride’s father to address the guests and made the public declaration the groom’s lo bola was paid in full. This announcement was greeted enthusiastically by the bride’s family and friends who started a circle dance around the couple singing and clapping hands followed by the groom’s family and friends.
After another sermon by the Pastor the exchange of the rings took place and the couple was toasted by friends and more song and dance followed. No sooner or later it was time for the guests to indulge themselves into the meal. It was halfway through lunch and dinner so it is difficult to describe it as a lunch or a dinner.
The ceremony was long from over as more traditional dances followed and then it was time for the bride to change into the clothes and colours of the groom’s family. This process involved the new couple to appear “as husband and wife” as they moved into the streets of the village dancing and singing. They were followed by friends and combined families all joining in song and dance. The bride [despite being so hot] wore the traditional blanket around her shoulders symbolizing the warmth and comfort of her new family.
I have seen many traditional dance performances before and the Tsonga traditional dances seems to be an infusion of local with Zulu dances, but what was unique for me was a move where the dancers kicks with both legs to the skies and then fall on their backs – there is some great skills involved as the dancers uses their arms and hands to break their fall and prevent injury.
As the couple and dignitaries prepared for the usual formal photo shoot the youngsters, the elders and other all gathered in small circled groups to discuss various matters – men one the one side and the women somewhere else.
By 18:00 it was time for us to leave after a long and interesting day and by this time the goat was still happily alive in the backyard as someone forgot the slaughter it.
As the last rays of the sun was casting long shadows over the village the party was still continuing, but we were on our way to our lodge behind the Soutpansberg with the lasting memory that old African customs and traditions is still a reminder of the preservation of human rights.©2013 Loftus Viljoen