Mixed Horizons: The Complexity of Marriage Formation and Bridewealth in Rural South Africa

Christie Sennott , Purdue University
Sangeetha Madhavan, University of Maryland, College Park
Youngeun Nam, Purdue University

The payment of bridewealth or lobola to formalize a union is a longstanding cultural practice in South Africa. Lobola has always been a complex and contested practice that both reinforces gender inequalities and provides status to women and legitimacy to marriages. This paper describes how rural South African women reconfigure lobola to fit within “modern” life course aspirations and trajectories. We analyze qualitative data from 43 women aged 18-55 in rural South Africa. Drawing on the theory of vital conjunctures, we show how lobola offers women mixed horizons. Although women value the economic security, status, and respectability lobola offers, they also lament how lobola curtails their freedom to pursue education and limits their autonomy. Our findings challenge the idea that modern aspirations are replacing traditional practices, and highlight how women draw on multiple, sometimes contradictory, scripts to navigate a challenging set of circumstances and expectations.

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 Presented in Session 66. Union Formation