For the past week, local news has been buzzing with the ‘bizarre’ things that Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has been doing in his personal life. It is alleged that in November 2011, Tsvangirai paid $US36 000 lobola/roora/bride price for one Locadia Karimatsenga and dumped her barely a week after. Tsvangirai denies marrying the woman and claims he only paid damages as he believed he had made her pregnant.
In Zimbabwean culture, when a man impregnates a woman he has three choices. First, he can marry the woman by paying the lobola, entering into what is known as an unregistered customary law union which he can then ‘upgrade’ into a registered customary marriage [Chapter 5:07], or a registered civil marriage [Chapter 5:11], popularly known as the Chapter 37 marriage. Secondly, a man can refuse to marry the woman, but acknowledge the wrong done and pay a token of shame and apology known as dhemeji (damages). However, in paying these damages,the elements that are observed in paying lobola are not observed. Hence, damages are not the equivalent of paying lobola. The third option is one that many men have chosen to the detriment of many women’s lives, that of refuting responsibility and running at the speed of a bullet away from the woman and the baby.
It is not clear which option Prime Minister Tsvangirai chose in his relationship with Locadia and now the High Court has been tasked to decide. The hullabaloo in the press has been precipitated by Tsvangirai’s marriage to his new belle, Elizabeth Macheka whom he married customarily, and now wants to tie the knot with in a civil marriage. Locadia, with whom Tsvangirai is either in an unregistered customary law union, or just paid damages for, has taken him to Court. She argues that he married her, that their unregistered customary law union is valid, and that they have not gone through the requisite customary rites of divorce, ordinarily observed through the payment of money/livestock known as gupuro.
Although the majority of comments have focused on either castigating Tsvangirai for being a double headed snake – tsukukuviri – in marrying one woman, divorcing her, and immediately marrying another, or on ridiculing Locadia for being desperate and refusing to accept that Tsvangirai does not want her for a wife, the importance of this saga lies in its exposure of the chaos that is Zimbabwe’s marriage regime.
A few months ago, prospective brides and grooms had their plans to begin enjoying marital bliss thwarted when the Registrar-General (R-G) suspended all marriages in order to implement a new marriage system. The R-G’s actions were inspired by his realisation that there were many men committing bigamy, the crime of being illegally married to two people.
The R-G’s efforts clearly did not change much. Zimbabwe still has 3 recognised marriages: the unregistered customary law union (where a man pays lobola to a woman’s family and from then on the two are considered married), the registered customary marriage (where a man and a woman do the lobola but are then married in court and the man is still legally permitted to have more than one wife), and the civil marriage (the one man-one woman type). As the Tsvangirai case proves, the fact that these different marriages are allowed remains a problem. That problem is worsened by the fact that these marriages do not have equal weight before the law; they do not give the partners equal rights within and outside the marriage. For instance, under the unregistered customary law union, a man can divorce his wife willy nilly by simply paying gupuro, and chasing her out of his house, while under the civil marriage, if he wants to divorce her, then he has to convince the court that their marriage has irretrievably broken down. In the two customary marriages, the man can have more than one wife leading to multiple partners, a dangerous factor in today’s HIV/AIDS ridden Zimbabwe.
This is the reality of Zimbabwe’s marriage laws and the impact they have. Locadia is laying a claim believing she is in a valid marriage with Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai married Elizabeth believing his arrangement with Locadia does not constitute a valid marriage. If we had one marriage regime these uncertainties would not exist. In the end should the two be enemies or are they both just victims of a chaotic system? The marriage system is a mess and needs cleaning up sooner rather than later.