Ancestry and Kinship: Defining the Family

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Ancestry and Kinship: Defining the Family


The Kinship System. In West African societies, ancient and contemporary, kinship serves as the basis of the legal system, production, jurisprudence, politics, and rituals—as well as the basis for obligations among family members. As John S. Mbiti has observed, kinship is central to African life:

Kinship is reckoned through blood and betrothal (engagement and marriage). It is kinship, which controls social relationship between people in a given community: it governs marital customs and regulations, it determines the behavior of individuals towards another. Indeed this sense of kinship binds together the entire life of the “tribe” and is even extended to cover animals, plants and non-living objects through the “totemic” system. Almost all the concepts connected to human relationship can be understood and interpreted through the kinship system. This is it, which largely governs the behavior, thinking and whole life of the individual in the society of which he is a member.

The Family Unit. Unlike Europeans, most traditional African societies did not have words for uncle, aunt, cousin, nephew, or niece in their vocabularies. Everyone was considered brothers or sisters. To consider someone a cousin or uncle would have been an exclusion of that person from membership in one’s extended family. Within the context of the African family, it was not unusual for someone to have more than one father or mother. In fact, it was customary to refer to any member of the family who was older than, or about the same age as, one’s biological parents as mother or father. At the same time, those elders had parental responsibilities, such as providing emotional and financial support to a younger family member. Even outsiders residing temporarily in a village were called brothers or sisters if they stayed long enough, as a sign of their full acceptance in the family unit.

The Nuclear Family. In a nuclear family the household consists primarily of a husband and wife and their children. In West Africa the rise of the nuclear family was usually associated with the decline of old societies, though there is evidence that certain forms of nuclear families did exist in some traditional African societies. The nuclear family in its purest form—with one husband and one wife—did not exist. The number of wives a man brought to his household depended on his economicstatus, and many men could not afford to bring additional wives into their households. Yet, even men and women in nuclear arrangements lived within a network of other family members, some of whom they might have sexual relations with. In such situations it is extremely difficult to find the boundary where family relations stopped. Children born under nuclear housing arrangements were still surrounded by other adults who had authority and control over them.


West African social life was structured by taboos. In some cultures a man married to a flat-footed woman was not expected to live past the third year of the marriage. As a result, many eligible men stayed away from these women. The birth of a child feet first was usually considered a bad omen, not only for the baby’s mother but also for the entire clan. Taboos relating to a woman’s menstrual circle and sexuality were also in abundance. For example, people believed that women with irregular menstrual circles had been cursed by witches, and in some cultures women who openly expressed pleasure during or after sexual intercourse were regarded as evil. People responded to most negative happenings with elaborate ceremonies or by pouring libations. Because the ancestors were believed capable of solving most family problems, people routinely turned to them for assistance in difficult situations, usually by offering a libation. This ritual involved pouring water or wine on the mother earth and uttering incantations to communicate with elders who had passed away. Thus, libations connected the present to the past and helped allay the fears of the living about present or impending bad events.

source : Mary Douglas, Purify and Danger:An Analysis of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966).

The Extended Family. The most common form of family grouping in ancient West Africa was the extended family, which comprised spouses and their offspring along with related members such as brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, and older members of the clan who either could no longer survive on their own or chose to remain within the larger unit. People from other clans sometimes resided in a compound so long that they became regarded as part of the extended family. The eldest member of the extended family, male or female, usually had the power to set up living arrangements and conjugal patterns. Incest was rare.


Paul Bohannan and Philip Curtin, Africa and Africans, fourth edition (Prospect Heights, III.: Waveland Press, 1995).

William Fagg, Divine Kingship in Africa (London: British Museum, 1970).

Hugo Huber, “Initiation to Womanhood Among the Se (Ghana),” Nigerian Field, 23 (July 1958): 99-119.

Huber, “Kinship terms and traditional form of marriage among the Se (West Africa),” Anthropos, 53, no. 5/6 (1958): 925-944.

John S. Mbiti, African Religion and Philosophy (New York &, Washington, D.C.: Praeger, 1969).

Peter J. Paris, The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Searchfor a Common Moral Discourse (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

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Ancestry and Kinship: Defining the Family

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