Childless and Unmarried People

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Childless and Unmarried People


Childlessness. The primary goal of marriage was bringing children to the family, lots of children. In ancient Africa children were considered assets to the family and the lineage in general. Most children above the age of four were put to work on the family farm, thereby increasing the wealth and economic standing of the family. Furthermore, most elderly parents relied exclusively on their children for economic support, so having large numbers of children was a means of ensuring comfort in one’s old age, like investing

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in a pension fund. Children were considered the pillar of any marital union, and bearing children established a woman as a welcome member of her husband’s family. While childlessness was never regarded as the fault of a woman, in many cases it constituted a valid ground for divorce. Childlessness, which of course might have resulted from infertility on the part of either the man or the woman, was explained in various ways. In some cases childlessness or delayed procreation was blamed on some evil act the woman might have committed in a previous life. In other instances it was attributed to the work of “evil doers” in the family. A woman who was unable to give birth to children typically spent years and years looking for remedies from medicine men and sorcerers, but once all the avenues were exhausted she resigned herself to her fate. In many polygamous marriages, such a woman—if she were considered a “good” wife—was allowed to adopt children from fellow wives of her husband or from the wives of her husband’s uncles. Since maternal responsibilities were shared by all the women of a polygamous family, childlessness did not carry the sort of social stigma that it did in other familial systems. In some cultures, however, the body of a childless woman could not be buried in her husband’s compound but was returned to her father’s house, where her brothers presided over the funeral rites.

Unwed Women. While marriage was considered an important and necessary part of Family Life, there were some women who for one reason or another did not marry. In some cultures the first daughter of a chief did not usually marry, because she was expected by custom to remain in the household and look after her mother in old age. If a chief’s eldest daughter did marry, she had to “replace” herself with another woman. This practice was not spread throughout all parts of West Africa, however; it was an exception to the rule. Other categories of women who remained unmarried included those who had difficulties finding a man because of their low social status, those whose families were subjects of taboos and stigmas that isolated them socially from the rest of the clan, or those whose husbands had rejected them for having lost their virginity prior to marriage. These women remained in the margins of the society and were forbidden from associating with married women during important events such as weddings or naming ceremonies. Their brothers or uncles monitored their activities in the community so that they would not bring further disgrace to the family. Their sexual contacts with men were kept secret, and if such a woman became pregnant, she was likely to be sent away from the village to take residence with close relatives elsewhere. Usually, if an unmarried mother were mentally ill, she and her infant were banished from the village, or her child was taken away and sent to distant relatives. If the child of an unwed mother did remain within the family unit, it most likely was looked down on and spent its life in a lowly status.

Unmarried Men. It was not unusual for a clan to have a pool of unmarried men, whose marital status carried with it the same social stigma as it did for their female counterparts. There were several reasons why a man remained unmarried, including impotence and lack of means to support a family. Men who were not married by the usual age were not only rumored to be impotent, but they were most likely excluded from the activities of other men in their age group. These unmarried men were often ridiculed as possessing feminine characteristics, and other members of the clan avoided having social contacts with them. In some instances a family would employ the services of priests or medicine men to ascertain whether this particular problem was a consequence of sins the family had committed in the past. They often staged elaborate rituals to cure the man of his impotence or alleviate his supposed fear of the female sex. As a last resort, the unwed man might be sent away from his father’s compound or village to take up residence with his mother’s clan. A family was unlikely to express openly any suspicion that an unmarried male relative might have homosexual tendencies, because homosexuality would bring much greater shame on the family. An unmarried man was thus under constant pressure to prove his sexuality by taking a wife, and when he was financially unable to do so, members of his families would, as a matter of honor, raise the necessary money among themselves in order to put behind them the shame of harboring an unmarried male adult in their midst.


George B. N. Ayittey, Indigenous African Institutions (Ardsley-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Transnational, 1991).

Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall, The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings (Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books, 1989).

F. Ivan Nye and Felix Berardo, The Family: Its Structure and Interactions (London: Macmillan, 1973).

W. N. Stephens, The Family in Cross-Cultural Perspective (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963).

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Childless and Unmarried People

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