Family in Africa is characterized by persons, unborn, living, or deceased, who are related to each other or may become related to each other through direct blood and ancestral affinity. Members of the same family are related to a common ancestor in biological as well as sociospiri-tual terms. The African idea of family comprises all of the members from a particular lineage. This lineage might be, as was usual in most cultures, matrilineal or, as it is increasingly, patrilineal. A household may consist of several generations from the oldest member of the family to the youngest. Indeed, coresidence is not necessary, although proximity is usually required. From this perspective, it is possible for a family to have several locations or houses and the children of these several houses belong to the same family. In most cases, where polygamy exists, children live with their mothers. This entry looks at the role of the family and concepts related to kinship.

The Family's Role

The African family establishes a child's presence in the world and provides the child with identity, spiritual ancestry, and personhood. One does not have personhood without the collective family in the African sense. No one is alone, and no one is an individual island. Thus, the family acculturates the child to the position that he or she occupies in the human realm. Children in families are taught their lineages, responsibilities, values and customs, and obligations to the family. Many things are taboo, that is, they are considered deeply dysfunctional to the family if they are done by the children and this serves, therefore, as a prohibition for antifamily behavior.
According to most African scholars, one of the principal roles of the family is procreation. Because it is believed by many Africans that life continues after death and that reincarnation occurs in human form, it is important to maintain the procreative function of the family as a way of maintaining the presence of the ancestors in the land of the living. Once ritual has played its course in the remembrance of the ancestors and there are no more children or grandchildren to ritualize the ancestors, they can only live by returning to Earth in a human form. Thus, the continuity is ensured because the ancestors return not in an animal form, but in the form of a child who is born to the same lineage. Often the African elder's only worry appears to be, “Who shall ritualize me when I am deceased if I have no children.” Therefore, men and women believe that having many children is one of the best ways to ensure continuity so that the circle of humanity, especially in the family, is not broken.
The African family is also the center of spirituality and economic production. By increasing the productive capacity of the family, often with the expansion of the members of the family through plural marriage or through adoption into the family, economic stability is maintained. Because marriage is how members are traditionally added to families, the significance placed on marriage in Africa relates to the spiritual continuity of the group. It is rare to find matrifocal families in Africa where a mother and her children exist outside of a relationship with a man.

Kinship Concepts

The most popular family type may be called con-sanguineal. Yet this term is often referred to in the West as the “extended” family, where the idea of the nuclear family is seen as standard. Use of the term extended has become problematic. Thus, consanguineal families consisting of a mother and her children living with a man or a blood-related family member, which might be the husband's brother, is the norm in Africa. This condition can occur if the husband dies and leaves the wife with children. Such a family does not become matri focal because the responsibility of the husband's brother is to maintain the deceased wife or wives and children.
Several types of kinship descriptions exist in Africa. Among Africans, some groups will have no two relatives sharing the same kinship term, although they may be equal distance in generation from the ancestor. This is rare. However, the most common description appears to be one that allows a distinction between sex and generation. In traditional societies, Africans did not utilize the “Eskimo terminology” for kinship derived from the work of Western anthropologists for the so-called nuclear family. Because Africans do not have the concept of a nuclear family consisting of a father, mother, and child, it would have been inconceivable for the African sages to arrive at this type of kinship structure.
The Western family assumes only one mother and one father, whereas the African family considers several mothers and several fathers. The Western family speaks of a son and a daughter as children of the same parents, whereas the African family sees the son and daughter of a particular family as the son and daughter of the larger family. The Western family speaks of a brother and a sister, whereas the African family accepts all siblings of the same age group who are related to the same ancestor as brothers and sisters. Thus, the idea of first cousin, second cousin, or third cousin does not exist because these are only brothers and sisters.
One finds variations in all societies because human beings have become quite mobile. Thus, to speak of the African family as if it were static would be a mistake. Nevertheless, there remain some core principles that seem to dictate the way that Africans view family. The family centers on group continuity and economic production, male-female complementarity where there is strict gender role responsibilities, the practice of procreation as a matter of spiritual and community life, acceptance of children of the same generation as sons and daughters, and a haven for identity, nurturing, customs, and traditions.



  • ancestors
  • kinship
  • children
  • nuclear families
  • brothers
  • family
  • family centers


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Diop, D. A. (1991). Civilization or Barbarism. Chicago: Lawrence Hill.
  • Forbes, S. (2005). A Natural History of Families. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Oheneba-Sakyi, Y., and Takyi, B. (Eds.). (2006). African Families at the Turn of the 21st Century. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
  • Therborn, G. (2004). African Families in a Global Context. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordic African Institute.