Concept of Kinship in Africa

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Concept of Kinship in Africa

The subject of “traditional family patterns in Africa” is so broad that it cannot be adequately addressed by many scholars. The cultural and physical diversity added with the dramatic social changes of the last three decades on the continent makes the family pattern situation so variegated as to defy any sweeping generalizations. This difficulty in generalization bone of diversity was already apparent to many early scholars of the African traditional family.

This essay will briefly explore traditional African family patterns explaining the concept of kinship in Africa, the differences and similarities between patrilineal and matrilineal families systems. Kinship is the web of relationships woven by family and marriage. Traditional relations of kinship have affected the lives of African people and ethnic groups by determining what land they could farm, whom they could marry, and their status in their communities.

Although different cultures have recognized various kinds of kinship, traditional kinship generally means much more than blood ties of a family or household. It includes a network of responsibilities, privileges, and support in which individuals and families are expected to fill certain roles. In modern Africa social and economic changes have begun to loosen the ties of traditional kinship, especially in the cities. But these ties still play a large part in the everyday lives of many Africans (coser: 1974). The basis of kinship, in Africa as elsewhere, is descent from an ancestor.

The most widespread descent group is known as the clan, which can be either patrilineal or matrilineal. The members of the former type of clan comprise all those who are born from a single founding ancestor through the male line only; those of the latter comprise all those born from a single founding ancestor or ancestress through the female line only. Patriliny is far more common in Africa than matriliny, which is limited mainly to parts of Zambia and Malawi, in central Africa, and to Ghana and Ivory Coast, in western Africa.

Regardless of the means of descent, authority in the family and elsewhere is always formally held by men; therefore, men have domestic authority in both patrilineal and matrilineal families (formal matriarchy is unknown in Africa). Clans, which are rarely corporate units in Africa, are clusters of kin who claim a single common ancestry but can rarely, if ever, trace the actual links of descent. Usually clans are exogamous units and may recognize various ritual prohibitions, such as taboos on certain foods, which give them a sense of unity and of distinctiveness from others (Bell & Vogel: 1960).

According to stephens (1982) Clans are typically segmented into constituent groups, with each group recognizing a founding ancestor more recent than the clan founder; these are known in the literature as lineages, one of the criteria for a lineage being that its members—patrilineal or matrilineal—can trace actual kinship links between themselves. Lineages may themselves be segmented into smaller units, the smallest typically being the group around which a domestic family is established.

Such a family (if patrilineal) includes the husband and his children, all members of the small lineage, and his wife, who by the rule of exogamy must come from another clan Almost every African society has some form of descent group, however transitory, as the basis of its social organization. The recognition of these variations of ancestral descent is an effective way of constructing local groups that can last for several—often for many—generations and in which the close-knit ties of kinship provide powerful links through the notion of common “blood.

By claiming exclusive ancestry, such a group can claim exclusive rights to clan and lineage property. Marriages between their members, by the rule of exogamy, cement them into larger communities and societies, each possessing its own sense of common ethnic and cultural “belonging. ” Although these traditional forms of family and kinship are lessening in importance, with the continuing need for urban and industrialized labor and the consequent increase in labor migration, the strength of kin groups remains great.

They are well suited to traditional forms of production and exchange where these are found (which is still the case among the majority of African peoples), and they provide a sense of personal identity and security that is of high emotive value (Bell & Vogel: 1960). Kinship and marriage are closely linked in several ways. On one level, kinship rules may determine marriage partners. In this respect, North African and sub-Saharan societies differ widely.

North African peoples encourage marriage within a group, often a kinship group. Traditionally, the ideal marriage is between cousins, including the children of two brothers. Among the Bedouin, for example, a boy has the right to marry his father’s brother’s daughter. Although she can refuse the cousin’s proposal, she needs his permission to marry someone else (Barnes: 1951). Most lineage groups in sub-Saharan Africa, in contrast, favor marriage outside the group. As a result, kinship is not limited strictly to lineage.

An individual has important ties with two different kin groups, the mother’s and the father’s. Such ties often extend outside the village or community, offering certain advantages. If a community suffers from drought, war, disease, food shortages, or other disasters, for example, its members may go to live with kin in other areas. Marriage and kinship are also linked by customs governing the transfer of property between and within kin groups. The most common form of such transfer in Africa is called bridewealth.

This is a gift from the groom or his family to the bride’s family, often in livestock but sometimes in money or other forms of wealth. Some hunter-gatherer societies follow the custom of bride service, which involves the groom moving to the home of his wife’s family and hunting or working for his parents-in-law (Stephens:1982). Traditional African kinship is a cooperative relationship between household members and members of the larger lineage group. It involves a set of social obligations and expectations that ensures that no one faces tragedy alone.

In societies without welfare services provided by a central government, kinship provides a “safety net” for individuals—orphans, widows, the elderly, the disabled, and divorced women—who lack an immediate household to care for them. Although kinship relations have grown weaker—especially in the cities—they continue to serve this function. For example, African kinfolk may support women and children while their husbands are away, perhaps by helping paying school fees or other expenses. Extended ties of kinship remain a vital part of life in contemporary Africa.

Descent rules define socially recognized kin groups by tracing connections through chains of parent-child ties. A society may focus exclusively on connections traced through the male parent (patrilineal) or through the female parent (matrilineal). When descent is patrilineal, the descent group is composed of people of either sex whose fathers belong to the group. Siblings belong to the descent group of their father, but their mother belongs to a different descent group, the group to which her father belongs.

Therefore, a man’s children will belong to his descent group, but a woman’s children will not belong to her descent group. Analogously, if descent is matrilineal, siblings belong to the mother’s group but their father does not. A woman’s children will belong to her descent group, but a man’s children will not belong to his (Schapera: 1971). Matrilineal is a system in which descent is traced through the mother and maternal ancestors. Matrilineal is also a societal system in which one belongs to one’s matriline or mother’s lineage, which can involve the inheritance of property and/or titles.

Matrilineal descent, which traces lineage through mothers, exists in many African societies based on farming, especially in central Africa. Among the Bemba people of Zambia, mothers own the fields and pass them on to their daughters. Among the Bemba people of Northern Zambia, marriage is matrilocal. “That is to say a man goes to live in his wife’s village, at any rate for the first years of his married life. This is also true of marriage among other Zambian tribes like the Bisa, Lala, Lamba, Chewa, Kaonde, and many others.

Among the Chewa of Eastern Zambia, the custom of man living with his wife’s parents temporarily or permanently was known as Ukamwini (Barnes: 1951). Societies with matrilineal social organization are not necessarily ruled by women. Some peoples who trace descent through women give political authority to men. In certain cultures men traditionally go to live with their mothers’ brothers, while women move to their husbands’ villages. Thus the men remain together, while the women through whom they trace descent are spread among the population.

Because the men generally remain in the community, they have greater authority. Power and authority in matrilineal societies ultimately lies in the woman and her brother. As such children at an early age learn that their father has little authority or responsibility for them. The father knows that his children are not his ultimate responsibility but his sister’s children. Meanwhile the man and her married sister do not live in one locality, as they must maintain their marriages. Some scholars have suggested that this arrangement might be fraught with potential social problems and conflict (Bell & Vogel: 1960).

More so than a patrilineal household where all the people charged with authority over the children potentially live in one household. Overall, there are two forms of social groups that from the basis of Bemba marriage and traditional family. First, there is the local unit of matrilocal marriage consisting of a man, his wife, his married daughters and their husbands and children, second, the matrilineal descent group which consists of maternal relatives and ancestors traced back to several generations. These constitute the core of the Bemba traditional African family around which the social organization of the raditional society revolves.

“Both form the basis of the political structure of the tribe since the matrilocal extended family is the nucleus of the Bemba village although many other elements may be added to it, and succession to all political offices is fixed by the rule of matrilineal descent (Yizenge: 1988). A larger proportion of Zambian families are matrilineal than are patrilineal in organization. Within the country’s nine provinces, most households in the four provinces of Central, Northwestern, Luapula, and Copperbelt are matrilineal.

The Namwanga and the Ngoni in the Eastern province, the Lozi in the Western, and the ILA in the Southern province are patrilineal. These groups are also patrilocal. That is, after marriage, the couple lives in the husband’s family house or close to his father’s household. Daily activities such as eating and educating the young are seldom conducted in the privacy of one’s house. Zambian villages have a central place governing the village. This place is called Insaka or Nsaka. In the matrilineal villages, the Insakas are located at the village center (Yizenge: 1988).

This matrilineal descent pattern is in contrast to the more common modern pattern of patrilineal descent from which a Family name is usually derived. Patrilineal descent emphasizes the male side of the family, tracing relationships through the generations from fathers to their children. Patrilineal descent is common among pastoral societies. Because Islam arose among pastoral people in Arabia in the A. D. 600s, Islamic law tends to reflect patrilineal practices. For example, male children are favored over females in inheriting a father’s property.

This and other aspects of patrilineal social organization can be found among the ARABS, BERBERS, and other Islamic peoples of North Africa. Many other pastoral groups, including the Nuer of SUDAN and the ZULU and Swazi of southern Africa, are patrilineal (Schapera: 1971). One feature of social life in Africa’s patrilineal societies is the close relationship between a man andhissister’s son—his nephew. Anthropologists call this relationship the avunculate, and in African cultures it may require the uncle to give his best cattle to his nephew or to accept teasing from the nephew.

A brother might also be expected to support his sister’s children or to participate in the rituals that mark the stages of their lives. In southern Africa, where the avunculate is common, a boy’s uncle on his mother’s side may be called his “male mother” in recognition of this special link. In some groups the opposite relationship occurs, with a boy’s father’s sister—his aunt—seen as an authority figure called the “female father. ” The Tsonga (Thonga) of Mozambique and the Nama of Namibia are some of the best examples of groups that practice the avunculate, although neither group follows the custom as closely as it did in the past.

In patrilineal cultures when a marriage occurs the wife becomes part of her husband’s family, and if you have family names in such a culture, it becomes natural for the wife to take her husband’s family name. There may be a sense in such cultures that both the husband and wife are really part of each other’s families now, but since descent is reckoned by the male line, there is a greater sense that the wife is part of the husband’s family rather than visa versa (Yizenge: 1988). These are the reasons that the custom exists sociologically, but the origins of the custom tended to be obscured in the minds of many.

When radical feminism came along, it wanted to radically tinker with the sexual status quo, to smash traditional gender roles, and even to call into question the institution of the nuclear family. (I’m talking about radical feminism, mind you, not moderate feminism that merely wanted better treatment for women. ) Doing away with the historical naming conventions would serve those goals (as well as making it harder to keep track of who is related to whom, thus undermining the family), and so not taking the husband’s name became a symbol of defiance against traditional values.

Though there are some differences in these two societies matrilineal and patrilineal, there are some similarities which both societies perform as families. A Zambian family, like families elsewhere, can be thought of as a group. The most important duties of this group are to reproduce, nurture, and educate the young to become productive members of the family and the society at large. This training process is also referred to as socialization. The head of the Zambian family can either be the father or a maternal uncle. If it is a maternal uncle, the mother, more than the father, plays a crucial role in decision making within the family.

These matrilineal families are very common in Zambia. In matrilineal families, the authority and power to make decisions rests with the mother and her relatives. In some family types, the father is the decision maker. These patterns of authority and power are passed from one generation to the next in Zambia (Coser: 1974). The stable satisfaction of sex needs is the Primary and essential function of family in these societies. Sex instinct is the natural urge of human being. The satisfaction of this need requires that both male and female should live together as life partners.

It is the family where the husband and wife can satisfy their sex instincts easily and comfortably. Without family the satisfaction of sex need is almost socially quite impossible. A family not only satisfies but also provides the appropriate mechanism through marriage to regulate sexual behaviour of husband and wife (Coser: 1974) Reproduction or procreation is another essential function of family in both matrilineal and patrilineal familities. The family along with regulating the sexual behaviour in relation to the satisfaction of sexual needs secures a legitimate basis for procreation.

Since the inception of family, it has been performing this fundamental function. This function of family contributes to the continuity of family and ultimately perpetuates the human race as a whole. Protection and care of the children is another essential function of family. It is regarded as an institution par excellence for the production and rearing of children. It is true that no other institution can take required care of the child like family. The child at birth is complete helpless and cannot survive at all without the help of the family.

It is the family which provides care, protection, security (Physical, mental) and fulfils all other needs to make him fit in the society. Family is one of the primary agents of socialization. Family members teach the child the norms, value morals, beliefs and ideals of society. In the family the children first learn what is good and bad, what is right and wrong. They develop specific habits, traits of character, attitudes and values. The senior members of the family pass the family culture to the new generation thought socialization process. Thus, family acts an instrument of culture transmission.

In both societies childhood is the socialization of the child in readiness for adulthood. This is sexual differentiation in socialization in which girls will become acceptable mothers and wives and boys husbands and fathers. Children are expected to help in minor household tasks. Boys herd goats, cows, and livestock. They also perform light duties for relatives. Girls at an early age are taught a wide range of household and agricultural duties including cooking, cultivation and tending children. “Girls, in distinction to boys, seldom have time to play games (Stephens: 1982). Family makes a provision of a home or a common habitation for its embers. Here both husband and if live together for procreation, protection and care of the children. It is a place of multifarious activities. All the members of the family depend on home for comfort, protection and peace. It is that institution which provides the mental or the emotional satisfaction. Members of the family exchange their love, sympathy and affection among themselves. Fostering is common in both societies. When couples fail to have children, they often become foster parents. It is also very common among siblings to foster care; that is, children are fostered by aunts and uncles.

A survey of households in Kitwe, the second largest city in Zambia, found that about 14 percent of all children aged fourteen and younger, and nearly 18 percent of children aged to ten to fourteen years were not living with their parents (Ahmed 1996). The estimates of the extent of fostering in other African countries, such as Ghana, are much higher. Often fostered children are considered and treated as though they are biological offspring. When families are forced to adopt children following some misfortune, foster children may become victims of abuse and neglect.

This chapter only focused on the matrilineal and patrilineal African traditional family patterns because they seem representative of the broad patterns that exists on the continent. It must be emphasized, however, that these were traditional patterns as far back as late 1800s up to as late as 1960s. The dramatic social changes in Africa during the last three decades of political independence from European colonialism have obviously affected the traditional family. And from our explanation it can be seen that the society some one belongs to dictate his or her life this is because each society has its norms and believes.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 6 January 2017

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