Economic Aspects of Family Life
Economic Aspects of Family Life
The Functions of the Family. The family performed two basic functions: biological reproduction and economic maintenance of the family unit. Most family members performed assigned functions. Gender-based division of labor was more pronounced in some kinship groupings than in others. Men dominated agricultural production for the market, while growing food for the household and raising animals for noncommercial purposes were exclusively reserved for women. In patrilineal lineage systems some household functions were traditionally defined as female, and sexual division of labor was strictly enforced, but in matrilineal systems those divisions were not so clear-cut. For instance, men in matrilineal cultures dominated activities such as fishing, hunting, waging war, and goldsmithing. Yet, contrary to many scholars’ assumptions, hunting was not exclusively reserved for men. In many regions of ancient West Africa, especially among the Ashanti of Ghana and the Ijaw and Urobo of southeast Nigeria, women were not excluded from hunting or farming. Gender-based divisions in these occupations developed along with modernization. Both male and female family members of the family carried out production inside and outside the home in a cooperative way. While men were generally engaged in production that led to accumulation of wealth, women were often limited to work that supported the day-to-day needs of the family.
Division of Labor. In general, women’s reproductive functions did not restrict them to child rearing alone; they took an active part in economic activities that were geared toward the social and material well-being of the family. When women left the home for farmwork or other activities, they left their children with older family members, including men who were too elderly to farm or hunt. Among the Fulani and Hausa in old Mali and northern Nigeria, where cattle rearing was the basis of the economy, gender-based division of labor was more pronounced than in agricultural regions. In these cultures younger men spent several months together outside the village in search of good pastures for their cattle. The size of the herd a young man was able to tend in a given season was a major
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
factor in his eligibility for a prospective bride. In these pastoral cultures, women stayed behind in the village, where they cared for the children, milked cows, and did agricultural work in the absence of the men. Younger women were primarily responsible for raising animals such as goats and fowl for domestic consumption.
Property Accumulation. While private ownership was not the norm, accumulation of property for the benefit of all members of the extended family was not uncommon. Most property was either used in exchanges with other tribes, especially during marriage negotiations, or for settling feuds. People also disposed of property during the ceremonial worship of ancestors. Indeed, one’s social status was often measured by one’s magnanimity in sacrificing possessions. With the growth of the urban centers and increasing diversification of production, women as well as men became involved in the exchange of commodities, which had the potential for increasing private accumulation, except where it was prohibited by tradition. Bartering could take place within the family or among different families or clans, with each group engaging in different spheres of production. Such activity also helped to sustain social relations among different family units and clans.
Reciprocity. Reciprocity, an ancient mechanism for property redistribution within the family unit, was common in most traditional West African societies, where the economy was at subsistence stage. The practice involved the sharing of property and goods among members of the family and lineage in accordance with established rules of gerontocracy, by which what one received was determined by one’s age and personal needs, not by social standing. Generally, younger men and women tended the farm while somewhat older adults hunted for game. Whatever meat or produce the two groups brought back went into the community food bank. These goods were then distributed according to a set of standards laid down by elders who had since passed on to the world of the spirits. For example, older members of the lineage had first choice of whatever game was caught. It was against tradition for young men to keep game to themselves, and one who did so was treated with animosity by the other members of his age group. After all, the older members of the clan had at some earlier point in their life contributed to maintaining the family, and the younger age group would eventually retire from active work and enjoy the same preferential treatment as the present generation of the elderly. This knowledge that one would eventually move up the age ladder kept the sprit of selflessness alive among the younger generations.
Derrick J. Stenning, Savannah Nomads: A Study of the Wodaabe Pastoral Fulani of Western Bornu Province, Northern Region, Nigeria (London: Published for the International African Institute by Oxford University Press, 1959).