I nervously paced trying to calm myself. I was sweating profusely in a strangers house in the middle of a quiet South African village. It was a still, hot summer day, earthquake weather according to Californians. The next few hours would determine the rest of my life, and I prayed for a good outcome. This was the day of my wedding. I was about to marry a Zulu princess – a South African from Kwa Zulu Natal named, Nomadlozi Victoria Dhlamini.
The name Nomadlozi means – “We honour the ancestors”. Her mother had given birth to Victoria in a car. They were on their way to the hospital while Victoria was forcing her way into the world – feet first. Victoria breathed her first breath in the back seat of that car. Victoria was her mothers’ fifth child, but her first child born breech. Instead of continuing on to the hospital they turned around and went back home. Exhausted from the delivery, Victoria’s mother nearly passed away at home. However, with time, she managed to fully recover. Victoria was a beautiful healthy baby girl, so they called her Nomadlozi – “we honour the ancestors”.
Victoria not only came into the world feet first, she seemed to come into my life feet first as well. For several years we only knew each other casually through work. We didn’t even work at the same place but our lives crossed paths because of our mutual work related to HIV patients. Victoria was volunteering at a local government clinic doing HIV health and prevention talks. This is where our paths crossed because I often brought HIV patients into the clinic for treatment.
Several years went by and my life fell apart, I was trying to pick up the pieces in a foreign country. Due to a divorce, I lost my job as an HIV home-based coordinator. Much of my support had vanished. With my self-confidence shattered, I wasn’t exactly a fun guy to be around. Victoria came in with her bubbly self-confidence and I was taken in by her quirky ways. Our friendship eventually turned to a more serious relationship which brought me to this hot day in January, in a strangers home, awaiting my fate. Would I be married that day or not?
You might ask yourself, “Why the question mark?” In many African cultures, marriage is a negotiated agreement between two families. A negotiation between her extended family and mine. Typically a negotiation involving uncles, cows and money. Since my family was half a world away, I asked my Xhosa pastor friend from Pretoria, Pastor Thando, to come and represent me. As I waited in that hot, neighbor’s living room, he was down the road in Victoria’s home, negotiating the ‘lobola’, or the bride price. I paced while waiting for a phone call telling me I could come and collect my bride. All of this probably sounds pretty strange, maybe even offensive. After all, how can you ‘pay’ for a bride in the twenty-first century.
I was also offended by the idea of paying a ‘bride price’. I’d heard of many horror stories; how some families tried to take advantage of ‘love’ for the sake of ‘money’; trying to make the negotiation process difficult only to extract as much money as possible out of the proposed grooms family. In more traditional days the dowry was paid strictly with cows. Cattle raising is an African tradition and most families raised cows. Cows naturally multiply with time and thus wealth is built. With enough time, a boy would become a man and their would be enough cows to negotiate his would-be bride. The exchange of cattle was an organic way of bringing and binding two families together through that exchange. This was a sacred act, with spiritual connections and ramifications. The ‘lobola’ process was the binding of two families together forever.
Since I am not a farmer and have no cows roaming around my back yard, I needed to go cow shopping. Victoria’s elder sister had mercy on me and graciously took me to a cattle farm near our village. In the African bush, with the farmer driving us around, I searched for the perfect cow. The farmer spotted a group grazing lazily and I thought to myself, “Great, this will be easy”. I didn’t realize that the cows needed to be two very specific cows. One a bull, who was not to big, and one a female, a virgin. Yikes, this was getting complicated. It was at that point I realized the cows represented us as a couple. The farmer took us to another location and finally there they were, little Randy cow (white) and little Victoria cow (brown with a reddish beautiful shinny coat). Victoria’s sister negotiated the final price and the deal was done with a hand-shake. I thought to myself, “This wasn’t so bad”.
Two weeks later, I showed up early in the morning at the agreed time to collect my cows, but no farmer was in sight, let alone the cows. The farmer forgot our appointment and never round up the two cows as he agreed. Was this going to blow my chances at marriage? What kind of a son-in-law would I make if I couldn’t even get the cows there on time? My stomach was in a knot, sitting in the sun, awaiting the farmers arrival.
Finally, he arrived with his team of farm hands. I thought they would just simply go get the two cows I purchased. I guess that makes me a city-slicker because it was a lot more complicated then that. They had to go round up ALL the cows, which took several hours. After that, more then a hundred cows passed through the shoot before we found our two small, young but not too young cows, Randy and Victoria. Finally, we had our two cows loaded into the trailer, but by now it was high-noon.
Upon arrival at Victoria’s family home, the two cows were brought to the gate, which sits on the edge of the bush in a small village. I couldn’t be seen, so I stood at a distance down the little dirt road. “Would they accept my cows or not,” I wondered? It was now the middle of the afternoon, the hottest part of the day. Word came back to me that they would only accept them at sunset, so we sat with the cows until the sun was nearly down. Finally, they were led into the yard with a welcoming song and tied to a tree for the night.
The next morning, I was suppose to arrive with my negotiating team by sunrise. As with the cows, my team didn’t come as expected. I ended up driving in the opposite direction, half way to Pretoria, and found them hitch-hiking by the side of the road. Transportation problems made them late. My car was now packed with gifts for my potential brides family, my negotiating team, and myself, but it was well past sunrise.
My team was punished at the gate and not allowed in the yard for being late. This was not a serious offense though and after 30 minutes of waiting they were welcomed inside. Once they gathered in the living room, my team laid down a small sum of money to “open the mouth” of Victoria’s family. They began to talk and introduce themselves. Victoria’s family asked many questions, “What kind of a person is Randy?” “Who are my family members?” “Who were my negotiators?” “Why should Victoria be given in marriage to me?” Finally, the cash price was settled on and the dowry paid on the spot. Meanwhile, I continued to sit unwittingly in the neighbors house not knowing what was happening or how things were progressing.
The family brought three girls into the living room where the negotiators were sitting. One of the girls being Victoria and the other two her sisters. With their heads covered, my team was suppose to identify the girl they had come for. My team selected Victoria’s sister by mistake. Aghhh, things were not going well for me. Fortunately, through prior back room negotiations, all matters were settled before I ever arrived. These proceedings were all part of a long tradition and were being played out like they had been for hundreds of years. After all the theatrics, I got the phone call from my team, “Come and meet your new extended family”. I was overjoyed and relieved.
I was escorted inside and welcomed with the distinctive cries of female ululation. It was a party atmosphere with all of Victoria’s family gathered around me, welcoming me home with hugs. The unique thing about this moment was not only that I was getting married, but it was also my first time to set foot into their house. I was about to meet Victoria’s father for the first time in my life.
When Victoria and I were dating, I had to leave Victoria at the corner and not allow myself to be seen by her family. It was not that we were sneaking around, it was out of respect for her family that I couldn’t be seen. I had waited for three years to meet her father and now the moment had finally arrived. I was led into the family sitting room which was packed with people. The ladies were seated down on the floor, the men in chairs, and I took center stage along with my gifts of blankets, coats, hats, and grass matts. They gathered around and I gave out my gifts one by one, each time receiving welcoming hugs, laughter, and shouts of joy. Finally, I came to the gift for her father, a winter coat, hat and walking stick. He jumped up out of his seat with a spring, laughter, and a smile as big as Victoria Falls. He embraced me as his son.
This moment was filled with anticipation because I never thought I would meet Victoria’s father. A year earlier he had been in a terrible car accident and had sustained a life threatening head injury. He was in a coma for several months. They considered pulling his life support at one point. When he came out of the coma, he couldn’t remember much, not even his own language. With time, he fully recovered his speech, coordination, and was now greeting me with open arms. I choked back tears of happiness to finally meet him.
I was now part of the Dhlamini family and Victoria was part of mine, joined together by a process of negotiations over two cows. I later realized, it wan’t the gifts, or the cows, or the money that made the union – it was the process that cemented us together as a family. The anticipation of knowing each other, of hearing stories about each other, of awaiting the day to finally meet each other; It somehow made the actual day one filled with great joy and excitement.
My mother-in-law has watched those two cows and cared for them like her own children. Typically the cows would be slaughtered, but Victoria’s mother is a vegetarian. A rather unusual thing for a Zulu who typically loves to eat meat. Later, Victoria and I gave birth to our first child, Peaceful Isabella. Those two cows formed their own union and gave birth to a calf a few weeks after Peaceful was born. Now Victoria’s mother is watching after three cows and we are looking after Peaceful. We are bound together by a journey, a process, a road that wasn’t easy, but has been well worth it all.