The subject of "traditional family patterns in Africa" is so broad that it cannot be adequately addressed by many scholars. The cultural and physical diversity added with the dramatic social changes of the last three decades on the continent makes the family pattern situation so variegated as to defy any sweeping generalizations. This difficulty in generalization bone of diversity was already apparent to many early scholars of the African traditional family. This essay will briefly explore traditional African family patterns explaining the concept of kinship in Africa, the differences and similarities between patrilineal and matrilineal families systems.
Kinship is the web of relationships woven by family and marriage. Traditional relations of kinship have affected the lives of African people and ethnic groups by determining what land they could farm, whom they could marry, and their status in their communities. Although different cultures have recognized various kinds of kinship, traditional kinship generally means much more than blood ties of a family or household. It includes a network of responsibilities, privileges, and support in which individuals and families are expected to fill certain roles. In modern Africa social and economic changes have begun to loosen the ties of traditional kinship, especially in the cities. But these ties still play a large part in the everyday lives of many Africans (coser: 1974). The basis of kinship, in Africa as elsewhere, is descent from an ancestor. The most widespread descent group is known as the clan, which can be either patrilineal or matrilineal. The members of the former type of clan comprise all those who are born from a single founding ancestor through the male line only; those of the latter comprise all those born from a single founding ancestor or ancestress through the female line only. Patriliny is far more common in Africa than matriliny, which is limited mainly to parts of Zambia and Malawi, in central Africa, and to Ghana and Ivory Coast, in western Africa. Regardless of the means of descent, authority in the family and elsewhere is always formally held by men; therefore, men have domestic authority in both patrilineal and matrilineal families (formal matriarchy is unknown in Africa). Clans, which are rarely corporate units in Africa, are clusters of kin who claim a single common ancestry but can rarely, if ever, trace the actual links of descent. Usually clans are exogamous units and may recognize various ritual prohibitions, such as taboos on certain foods, which give them a sense of unity and of distinctiveness from others (Bell & Vogel: 1960). According to stephens (1982) Clans are typically segmented into constituent groups, with each group recognizing a founding ancestor more recent than the clan founder; these are known in the literature as lineages, one of the criteria for a lineage being that its members—patrilineal or matrilineal—can trace actual kinship links between themselves. Lineages may themselves be segmented into smaller units, the smallest typically being the group around which a domestic family is established. Such a family (if patrilineal) includes the husband and his children, all members of the small lineage, and his wife, who by the rule of exogamy must come from another clan Almost every African society has some form of descent group, however transitory, as the basis of its social organization. The recognition of these variations of ancestral descent is an effective way of constructing local groups that can last for several—often for many—generations and in which the close-knit ties of kinship provide powerful links through the notion of common "blood." By claiming exclusive ancestry, such a group can claim exclusive rights to clan and lineage property. Marriages between their members, by the rule of exogamy, cement them into larger communities and societies, each possessing its own sense of common ethnic and cultural "belonging." Although...
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