The Family in Africa

Author: Philomena N. Mwaura

The Family in Africa

Philomena N. Mwaura*

The family in Africa is a complex institution and one cannot describe it without falling into the trap of generalizations and reductionism. Nevertheless, the family in Africa is the basic social unit founded on kinship, marriage, adoption and other relational aspects. The family is also marked by tensions between African cultural values, Christian teachings, secularism, religions and other ideologies. The family is a unit of production, consumption, reproduction and accumulation. In its simplest form, it consists of a husband, wife and children, and in its complex and most common form it is extended to include grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters who may have their own children and other immediate relatives. Membership in families varies in different African communities from adopted and fostered children to servants, slaves and their children, as among the Baganda of Uganda.

In the traditional pre-colonial society, polygamy was practiced and such marriages contributed to the extension of family relationships by incorporating many people. The extended family formed and still forms the basis of all social cooperation and responsibility. In traditional society, the wider family was the primary place where an individual exercised his or her freedom. The individual existed in connection to a larger group, including his or her wider family.

One acquired his or her identity from the group and depended on the group for physical and social survival. Through various rites of passage, one progressively became a fuller member of society and took on a role in ensuring the survival of the group through marriage and procreation.

The extended family provided the individual with a personal and corporeal identity. One was assigned to a particular community and was assigned distinct roles at various stages of life on the basis of age, gender and social status. The cultural, social and moral norms of the community that were applied within the extended family helped an individual to grow into a productive and respected member of the community. Those norms served as a blueprint for life. The extended family was, and continues to be, the first religious community to which an individual belongs. It was through parents, grandparents and other members that one learned about religious and spiritual heritage. It was possibly where one learned about God, spirits, ancestors and the afterlife. The extended family was and is also a means of mutual support. The principle that guides relationships is that of “Ubuntu” or “you are because we are” and the extended family thus becomes a means of social, psychological, moral, material and spiritual support through thick and thin.

African society has been undergoing tremendous changes in every aspect of life including family structure and marriage. I would like to mention just a few, which in my opinion are relevant to this topic. Changes in family structures reflect the enduring tensions between traditional, Christian/religious and modern values and structures. Although there have been widespread accounts of families abandoning key traditional practices in favour of modern ones, the major trend remains the creation of marriage and family organization that draw on both traditional and modern norms. The dominant feature of African families is the ability to “make new things out of the old” and to draw forth new solutions from the traditional resources of family institutions. Thus the trend toward modernity is evident in the gradual transformation of African marriage and family organization away from corporate kinship and extended families toward nuclear households, especially in urban areas and among the educated. This shift stems in part from the break-down of collective, kinship-oriented systems of production and reproduction.

Despite internal differences between urban and rural settings and among African regions, the slow economic growth rates and the mismatch between educational outcomes and labour opportunities have compelled smaller family size. Betty Bingome and Gilbert M. Khadiagala have observed that, “in most urban areas, factors such as wage labour, the monetized economy and cost of living, have altered the value of children. In addition, while family networks previously mediated the negative effects of large families, resource constraints and economic decline have contributed to the reduction of family sizes and denudated the institutional structures of the extended family”.

However, a critical continuity in African family patterns relates to the persistence of polygyny, hence the much anticipated decline in polygamous households by sociologists is still far from a social reality in most African societies. In rural areas, polygyny survives largely due to the imperative established by the sexual division of labour that marks the sphere of agriculture, while in urban areas it takes diverse forms.

Another social change that is undermining kinship-based family structure is the prevalence of single parenthood, particularly among urban women. As increasing numbers of women have joined the workforce, single and female-headed households have become a discernible pattern on the African social landscape. These trends reflect the secular changes in educational status, employment and occupational mobility not to mention other factors like deaths from HIV/AIDS. Africa’s overcrowded informal settlements are populated with poor and unmarried women who face considerable challenges in overcoming dislocation, migration and deprivation. In some countries like Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia, over one third of the heads of households are female. Others are headed by grandparents and children.

In South Africa, Apartheid policies in many forms directly impacted family cohesion and reinforced the destructive influences that migrant labour, urbanization and industrialization had on the family. Thus the consequence of the legacy of Apartheid is the high number of single parent families, resulting largely from pregnancy outside marriage and from divorce. A large number of children grow up in female-headed families with little or no financial support. It has been argued that the Black family in South Africa has continued to suffer greater disintegration than other families on the continent.

For years, internal migration from rural to urban areas has been the essential mechanism for job opportunities, social mobility and income transfers. Nearly 32% of Sub-Saharan Africa lived in urban areas in 1996, up from 11% in 1950. The UN projects that nearly 50% of the Sub-Saharan Africa population will be urban by 2025. New family structures have emerged due to the phenomenon of migration. Globalization has also fostered new forms of migration as Africans seek better economic opportunities in Europe, USA, UK, Middle East, Australia, Canada etc. For the majority of these migrants, migration is part of the struggle against both debilitating poverty and implicit and explicit forms of political oppression. Africa’s record of civil war, conflict, and political instability has also to a large extent contributed to migration and the disintegration of the African family. Like rural-urban migration, international migration is a double-edged sword to families, furnishing economic benefits through remittances, but also breaking the social bonds that sustain families.

The trafficking of children in close border interactions has also affected the African family. Traffickers keep victims subservient through physical violence, debt bondage, passport confiscation and threats of violence against their families. Justice is often elusive for victims of this vice.

Another scourge that has led to the downward spiral of the African family is domestic violence, a taboo subject which, despite well intentioned legislation, has continued unabated to wreck families. Gender-based violence affects people of all classes, creeds, races and ethnicities. The family and home which are supposed to be the safest space for men, women and children have become sites of struggle, pain, abuse, neglect and disintegration.

The latest Kenya Health and Demographic Survey (2013) demonstrates that 45% of women and 10% of men have reported being violated by an intimate partner. Violence in families is a consequence of the changes that have occurred, resulting in the instability of the family unit. Many marriages are now neolocal, where couples live far from their families. Such families tend to be individualistic and couples no longer benefit from the counsel of elders. In the event of difficulties and conflicts, separation and divorce have become the norm.

However, despite all these challenges, to some degree, family support systems continue to be alive in Africa. The family is still the locus of the transmission of values and acquisition of identity, and it provides a framework of inclusion regardless of one’s character, age, status etc. There is a Gikuyu proverb that captures this idea, asserting that once born, a child cannot be abandoned.

* Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies and Director of Gender Equity and Empowerment at Kenyatta University, Nairobi

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 October 2015, page 15

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