What is commonly referred to in western societies as the extended family, is in most African communities considered to be core family.
Uncles, aunties, nephews, nieces and in-laws, make the clan, village and kraal. They collectively work the land, take care of their children, tend the livestock, administer justice, pay homage to their ancestors and worship God.
Collectively, members of the extended family teach their young boys and girls how to conduct themselves, interact with other people particularly elders and the general dos and don'ts. This is how it is in much of Africa.
The extended family system is clearly defined by relationships (kinship) and ensures that communities support each other. This kinship helps to define marriage patterns, dictates inheritance, provides a safety net for disadvantaged members and makes it mandatory for the community to accord their deceased a decent burial.
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 recognised 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.
Kinship is based on relationships of descent in which kin groups define themselves as descendants of common ancestors. In one type of descent group -- the lineage -- all members know, their exact relationships to one another. The clan, another type of group, is larger than a lineage. Members recognise that they are all part of the group but do not know how they are related to each other. They may, for example, believe that they share a common ancestor but are unable to trace all the links from their own lineages to that ancestor.
Extended family set-ups or kinships can be broadly classified into four major types: patrilineal, matrilineal, double, and bilateral, all of which can be found in different parts of Africa.
Patrilineal descent emphasises the male side of the family, tracing relationships through generations from fathers. This kind of system is found in China, the Middle East and many parts of Africa including South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. It is common among Arabs and other Islamic peoples of North Africa. Customary and Islamic law tends to reflect patrilineal practices. For example, male children are favoured over females in inheritance.
Matrilineal descent, which traces lineage through mothers, exists in many African societies including the Bemba people of Zambia and Malawi. Mothers own fields and can pass them on to their daughters. Societies with matrilineal social organisation are not necessarily ruled by women. Political authority in such societies can reside in men.
Double descent is fairly rare. In a double-descent system, every individual belongs to the patrilineal group of the father and matrilineal group of the mother. Rights, obligations, and inheritance are split between the two. Double descent exists in western and southern Africa among such peoples as the Yako of Nigeria and the Herero of Namibia and Botswana. Among the Herero, daughters inherit ordinary cattle from their mothers, but sons inherit certain sacred cattle from their fathers.
Bilateral descent refers to a kinship set-up in which each individual is considered equally related to kin on the father's and mother's sides. This system occurs more frequently in some parts of the world other than Africa.
However, bilateral kin groups do exist among some African peoples who live on hunting and gathering. Membership in such groups is flexible. People can identify with either parent's local groups or with other relatives by marriage.
One feature of social life in Africa's patrilineal societies is the close relationship between a man and his sister's son -- his nephew. Anthropologists call this relationship avunculism, (brother of the mother/uncle), 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 certain stages of their lives.
In southern Africa, where avunculism 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 Tonga of Mozambique, the Shona of Zimbabwe and the Nama of Namibia are some of the groups that practice avunculism.
Marriages and kinship
Kinship and marriage are closely linked in several ways. On one level, kinship rules 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, their ideal marriage is between cousins, in-cluding the children of two brothers. Among the Bedouin, of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, a boy has the right to marry his father's brother's dau-ghter. Although the daughter can refuse the cousin's proposal, she needs his permission to marry someone else. Sub-Saharan African societies consider it as incest.
Most lineage groups in sub-Saharan Africa, in contrast, favour marriage outside the group. As a result, kinship is not limited strictly to lineage.
Individuals have 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, its members may go to live with their 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 lobola/bride-wealth. 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.
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 vulnerable members such as orphans, widows, the elderly, the disabled and divorced women, who lack an immediate household to care for. Although kinship relations have grown weaker especially in the cities, they continue to serve this function. African families may support women and children while their husbands are away, perhaps by helping pay school fees or other expenses.
Extended family ties or kinship remain a vital part of life in contemporary Africa.
- Phillip Mataranyika is the chief executive officer of Nyaradzo Funeral Assurance Company and can be contacted on e-mail:mav