In all my 23 years of being a young black woman in South Africa, this December was the first time that I attended and was a part of lobola negotiations and the celebrations thereafter.
I was, of course, not in the room when the bride price was negotiated, but I was there when members of my family were at the gate of the bride’s family home, singing and waiting to be let in.
Throughout the day and a half, I was involved as one of the several representing relatives from the groom’s side of the family, and I stood in as one of the backup singers for the songs they sang, regardless of the fact that I didn’t know many of them and had to jump in after three repetitions of each song.
With some of the songs they sang, I was incredibly amused and entertained, and they contributed to the excitement of the merging of two families into one.
But there is one that they sang that I just couldn’t bring myself to sing along to.
Several gifs of celebrities and TV characters pulling their best “I’m sorry, what?” expressions flashed in my head as they sang:
Umakoti ungowethu (siyavuma!) (The woman is now our bride, we agree)
Ungowethu ngempela (siyavuma!)(She really is ours, yes we accept this)
Uzosiwashela, asiphekele (siyavuma!)
(She’ll do our laundry and cook for us, we agree)
The song – a timeless wedding gem in the black community – basically paints a picture of the ideal wife as a domesticated and submissive helper to her husband and his family, and nothing much else beyond this.
It continues like that in a loop, and in some variations it goes on to say that the new makoti should not be found at taverns and should not at all drink alcohol.
I couldn’t, for the life of me, sing along because I then imagined my own wedding and my imaginary husband’s family singing that song for me.
I imagine hearing it and immediately making my way to my father’s car and asking him to drive away lest I am trapped in that life of domestic slavery.
I presume that when the lyrics to this song were conjured up, the definition of a wife was very rigid and straightforward: you were taken as a wife to be a helper to your beloved and his family. In one of the many honest conversations I’ve had with my dad, he told me that in truth.
A lot of men back then only took wives to have someone who’d cook and clean for them, and your success as a man was also considered by how well you picked a woman who was an incredible cook and a ‘well-behaved’ wife.
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Nowadays, sliding into a woman’s DMs and asking her to be your domesticated wife would be asking for trouble.
The lyrics to this wedding song do not apply to the majority of millennial women, who acquire skills in creating spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations before learning how to make idombolo; who are connoisseurs of champagne to red wine; and who invest their well-earned savings in a washing machine because hand-washing ruins a good manicure.
The definitions of what a wife is and what a wife does have changed – especially now that women are being given the opportunity to decide how they would like their lives to be lived, and yet the traditions themselves are still patriarchally the same.
But there are many lessons and recipes I treasured learning how to make.
At some point during the weekend, my aunt told me how to make mageu the way she made it for the guests that came for the festivities.
To my knowledge, this traditionally South African beverage is made with potatoes (don’t ask me for the details of this), but she said that that method is outdated to her, and she found a quicker and even tastier way to make the drink: with 2-minute maize meal, lemon juice and water; and it didn’t take her a whole day to prepare.
Now, if my aunt could find a better way to make mageu without having to use potatoes in a longer process for practicality’s sake, could we not, as millennials, adapt the traditional songs such as the one mentioned above to suit what marriage means to us?
As a woman who is gradually starting to warm up to the idea of getting married, I hope that no one will sing that song about me at my own wedding.
I am not against cooking and cleaning for my future family, but there is honestly so much that I bring to a matrimony aside from domestic skills, and so much more that I’d like to sing about when marrying the one man great enough to convince me to part with my current surname.
For this reason, instead of denouncing the traditions that appear outdated and regressive, we should learn them and find ways to transform them for the better.
It’s tremendously important that we learn from our elders what traditions and customs we need to pass down to coming generations, not only for the reason of keeping our identities as Africans intact, but also to know which traditions can and should be altered for the sake of growth and progression, and which can be done away with to make room for new ones.