Can Bride Price in Zimbabwe be feminist?7 minute read

I was born in Zaka, a small rural farming district in the South East of Zimbabwe seven years after Independence. When I was three, I moved to the capital – Harare to live with my paternal grandparents and my cousins. During every other weekend and holiday, I would visit my maternal grandparents back in Zaka. The contrast between the two couldn’t have been any bigger. In the city, I lived in a mansion on three acres of land with its own private orchard, with maids, cooks, and drivers. In the village, our home was simple. We had no electricity or running water so we made lengthy trips to the well and our only toilet was a “long drop” which I often feared I would fall into.

Growing up I often felt restless and confused because of the constant back and forth. Physically and emotionally I was always missing one home and the people there. This uneasy feeling also stemmed from the fact that unlike most children (at the time) I was born to unwed parents. I started questioning why I was stuck in limbo and most importantly why I did not live with my mother.

My cousin Alex, my mom, me and my aunt Virginia in Zaka at my maternal grandparents’ house

This quest propelled my lifelong fascination with social norms, customs, and gossip. Different family members would lean in and tell me their perspective on how and why events unfolded this way. After hearing different versions of the truth I was able to piece together the following. My mother, a young girl from the village and the first in her family to attend university, found herself in a complicated situation; she got pregnant during her final year. Her boyfriend also in his last year was the son of a Harvard trained lawyer, a founding member of the ruling party ZANU-PF and a prominent member of Zimbabwe’s first cabinet.

When a woman gets pregnant outside of wedlock an important custom has been skipped. According to Shona customary law, a father is the principal guardian and his consent is required when his daughter is to be married. Consent is usually given only after roora [bride price] has been negotiated1. In my parent’s case, there was no consensus for marriage and so to rectify the situation my paternal grandparents paid kupwanya ruzhowa [seduction damages]. My maternal grandfather received kupwanya ruzhowa and he made sure it was a hefty sum because if people were going to talk, he wanted them to also talk about that.

When I turned three my paternal grandfather spoke to my maternal grandparents about the benefits of me moving in with them. And so it was decided (without consulting my mother) that this was in my best interest as I would learn to speak English just like varungu [white people].

Still not at ease, I kept investigating. I consulted my mother and my paternal grandfather because whenever they looked at me I was convinced I was walking gold. Individually I asked them why I did not live with my mother. My grandfather known for his forthright manner simply said, “Because your mother can’t pay for your school fees”. While my mother told me, “your grandfather loves you so much he can’t imagine living without you. ” Quietly I decided the truth was somewhere in the middle and to console my mother I vowed, “when I grow up, I’m going to live with you forever!”

Me, my cousins Fungai & Nyasha and Sisi Rumbi at my paternal grandparents’ house in Harare

Fast forward to June 2016, I am living in The Netherlands and I have long since broken my promise to my mother. Working on my master’s thesis and ethnographic film, I examine how Shona girls navigate kinship systems and cope with patriarchy. Paying particular attention to kupwanya ruzhowa [seduction damages] and roora [bride price] because the personal is still political. As a feminist ethnographer using autoethnography as one of my research methods, I am having a hard time reconciling Shona cultural common sense with my personal beliefs. It’s hard for me not to judge them as tools that reinforce “the historic tradition of women’s oppression by the patriarchy2”, so it takes me months to craft a more nuanced conclusion namely: “Shona traditions and kinship rules tend to put women and girls in a less advantageous position with regard to autonomy and rules of marriage3.”

Now equating roora with bride price is not entirely accurate as the original intention of the practice is to unite families and to also “allocate children to the husband’s patrilineal unit4”. In my great grandparents time, roora served as a vetting process that allowed two different families to get to know each other while the groom worked for the bride’s family. Part of the problem with kupwanya ruzhowa and roora is the modern implementation. I would argue the spirit and intention of building bridges between families has shifted to the commodification of women and girls.

Before the British invited themselves to Zimbabwe, kupwanya ruzhowa used to be three cows and then after the monetization of the economy a more formalized procedure was established5a. You could document the process at the courts and ask for money which is why the terminology ‘damages’ is a part of our modern-day discourse5b. As for roora the amounts steadily increased since independence and then skyrocketed with hyperinflation5c.  

In 2013 Angela Davis said, Feminism involves so much more than gender equality and it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve consciousness of capitalism […] and racism and colonialism and post colonialities […].” Zimbabweans frequently and rightly lament over the horror, injustice, and legacy of colonization. However when it comes to examining how female agency is restricted by cultural practices some fail to see (and others gleefully celebrate) how women’s bodies and voices are colonies taxed by male sovereignty.

At the start of my research, my father and I were on opposing sides. I informed him I would want my roora to be donated to charity and through laughter he responded it was not mine to give away. I told him I did not want to be sold and he told me that was a very primitive way of looking at it. He argued that even if the custom may seem to be oppressive and paternalistic, all cultures have aspects that are. Eventually, my father finally said what I wanted and needed to hear, that I could have a say.

Nevertheless, I still find myself conflicted and confused. And I still question if I really have a say.

Mentally I go back and forth about roora, am I really for or against it? When my Dutch boyfriend questions it, I feel compelled to scowl and defend it because rejecting roora feels like forsaking my family and culture. I remind him (and myself) that in Shona culture marriage is not just between two individuals it unites families and roora is meant to celebrate that. For me, when it comes to roora it is not as simple as just saying no. I guess it’s like what my paternal grandfather concluded, “[s]ome of these practices have become so much a part of our lives that, law or no law, they bind us so rigidly that they can be said to have attained the force of law6”.


1 Stead, W . H. (1946) ‘The clan organization and kinship system of some Shona Tribes’ African Studies 5-1: 1

2 Keshavarzi, Y. (2016) ‘That’s just the way it is: the gendered traditions that are holding us back’ accessed January 10, 2017

3 Zvobgo, J. C. (2017) ‘What it feels like, for a girl: A feminist analysis of how Shona girls navigate kinship systems and cope with patriarchy’ (MA thesis., Leiden University, 2017), 1. 

4 Roalkvam, S. (2005) ‘The Children Left to Stand Alone’ African Journal Of AIDS Research 4-3: 2174 

5a,b,c Zvobgo, J.C. (2017) ‘What it feels like, for a girl: A feminist analysis of how Shona girls navigate kinship systems and cope with patriarchy’ (MA thesis., Leiden University, 2017), 36-38 

6 Zvobgo, E.J.M. (1983) ‘Removing Laws That Opress Women’ Africa Report: New York Vol. 28. Iss. 2:46 

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Julia Chanda Zvobgo is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ‘Of Africa’. She was born in Zimbabwe and raised in The Netherlands. As an Afropean she is always looking for new and creative ways to “make the invisible, visible”. She is a co-founder and a member of 'ethnovision' a collective of visual anthropologists and filmmakers. Julia also volunteers as the Director of Communications & Development for Tariro House of Hope, an NGO that transforms the lives of children and their communities in Zimbabwe.