Zulu weddings: traditional versus modern ceremonies


The traditional Zulu wedding is called umabo. When a Zulu girl informs her father that she’s ready to get married, her father  arranges a ceremony to inform the public about her availability.

Once the bride has found her prince, the negotiations for her cattle for lobola can begin.

Setting the wedding date

The wedding process starts off with ilobola, which is arguably the most important aspect of the wedding and marriage.

This is when the groom’s family and the bride’s family meet officially to discuss the groom’s intentions for his bride and how much he is willing to offer the family for their daughter.

Lobola is a way for the groom to show his appreciation for how the family has raised the woman he wants to marry.

It’s his way of saying thank you and it’s also compensation for the bride’s father. The groom acknowledges that he is taking her away from her family; some may say it’s an apology.

When done right, lobola is a great and effective way of uniting and solidifying the two families. 

It’s very unfortunate that, over the years, lobola negotiations have been associated with greed from families who pose exorbitant lobola prices.

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In its pure form, lobola is meant to benefit both families as the money obtained from lobola is also used by the bride when she has to buy gifts for the groom and his family. So there is reciprocity as far as money is concerned.

Lobola does not meaning ‘buying the bride’; it’s the husband showing how much he values his soon to be wife and the family that raised her.

After lobola has been finalised, the wedding date is set. This process is called ukubona izinkomo. Once a date which suits both families is set, the bride’s family begins to prepare for the ceremony. The cows from lobola are often used for umabo.

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Wedding preparations

The bride’s family will slaughter a goat after the ancestors have been told that she is getting married. The goat is used in a ceremony known as umncamo in order for the ancestors to protect the daughter.

The groom’s family will slaughter a goat to welcome the bride into the family. 

Bride family send off

The bride’s mother will give her daughter a blanket to cover herself as she leaves home. The bride is not allowed to look back as she heads towards the groom’s home.

The bride leaves early in the morning towards the groom’s residence.

Wedding dress

The bride prepares to hit the dance floor by placing bags of pebbles onto her ankles.

Her veil is made of beads. Her knees and elbows are tied with fringes of oxtail. She also wears a goat-haired necklace.  She also wears an isidwaba which is a leather skirt. She also wears isicwaya which covers her breasts.

Throughout the ceremony, the bride will carry a small knife to symbolise that she is a virgin.

The groom wears material that covers the following: hair, shoulders, buttocks, ankles, chest and wrists.

After the ceremony the bride is expected to stay with the groom’s family.

WATCH: The traditional Zulu wedding ceremony (contains nudity)


Lots of booze in the form of sorghum beer is made by the groom’s family for umabo. Traditional Zulu food is served.

Evolved traditional wedding ceremony

Nowadays, modernised Zulu brides have a ‘white wedding’ as well as umabo. What often happens is that the ‘white wedding’ will happen in the morning, while the traditional ceremony will occur later in the day, the next day, or whenever the couple is financially ready.

My mom says that in most cases people prefer to have the white wedding before the traditional one. A lot of people do wed traditionally first and later when they are financially ready, they then do the white wedding.

As long as there is a marriage certificate obtained either from Home Affairs or from the Priest of the Church, the marriage is valid. It depends on the circumstances.

Becoming Mrs... nah, just kidding. I'm keeping my surname

The bride and groom families will have a singing battle between the two families about who the bride belongs to. Umakhoti ngowethu is often sung by the groom’s family.

The song describes that the bride belongs to the groom’s family and that the bride will cook and clean for the family and that they welcome her to do so.

When the bride arrives at the groom’s family’s house, she has to walk around the house. This is for her to be introduced to the ancestors of the groom. This is done, preferably, in the bride’s white wedding  dress. 

The bride then changes into her traditional wedding attire. Gifts from the bride are given to the groom’s family according to a list drawn up by the groom’s family.

She will then give her groom his gift. Some bride’s have taken a spin on things by presenting the groom with a foot spa and washing his feet in front of the attendees.

What really goes down at a traditional Xhosa wedding

Traditionally the bride’s family was not allowed to attend umabo however this has now changed as the bride’s family is now expected to attend.

Modern bride’s now negotiate with the groom’s family on whether they are able to reduce the expected time to stay at the groom’s family’s house.

“Most brides do not have enough leave days to stay with the family for an entire month, so you hustle a compromise with the groom’s family,” chuckled a newly-wed Zulu girl.

The information for this article was supplied by the mother and grandmother of the writer of this piece. Tradition and customs vary between families.

The modern wedding is not easy because it depends a lot on the two families and their circumstances, financially and otherwise. So there is so much to say around it as it differs from one family to another.

Though in most cases, Zulus try very hard to stick to the traditional part such as ilobola (which is paid by the groom), umembheso (done by the groom's family to the bride's family including the bride according to the list) and umabo (by the bride's family to the groom's family including the groom) - they usually do not compromise on these.

They believe the exchange of gifts symbolises the new relationship between the two families.

The paying of lobola
is done for the man to show that he will be able to support the woman and it is not about making money or business.

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