Despite changes in technology and civilization as a whole, the African family concept has seen very little or no changes in its basic foundation. From time immemorial, the African family was built on the following five blocks: Religion, parents, extended family, elders and community. Today, even the most educated Africans can still relate to this concept even though a few have strayed away and defined family in totally different philosophies.
Long before the missionaries arrived in Africa in the late 15th Century, religious practices were still the major founding block of families across the continent. Today the two main religions (Christianity and Islam) together with all other religious practices continue to form the foundation of the African family. Even the people who still practice polygyny (commonly referred to as polygamy in Africa) have always consulted a certain religious background for blessings and stability of their large families.
Religion therefore plays the integral role in any African family setup for spiritual guidance and maintaining ethical values. This philosophy that describes the existence of moral values has always been an integral building block of the African family. Just like the Akan Proverb says “To possess virtue is better than gold”, the African society has always held morality as a key asset in life. Religion then plays the greatest role in keeping the African family in check morally.
The African family has for centuries defined clear roles for the mother and father of any household. However, civilization has recently changed this concept but only to a very small proportion. You will find that even the most educated women in the continent will work hard to accommodate their busy professions and family responsibilities. This is the shortcoming of the African culture–women have no leisure time. Yet, these women for example have continued to instill the cultural and religious values to their daughters for them to follow suite and avoid being carried away by foreign cultures. Africans have always insisted on embracing foreign civilization only to the extent where their traditions and ethical values are not affected. Parents in this case, have the ultimate responsibility of ensuring that they raise their children along these trends.
The men on the other hand have always remained to be the heads of the family setups just like in many parts of the world. African men are bestowed with the responsibility of providing the basic needs to their families. That is the reason why many wealthy men in Africa like King Mswati of Swaziland still practice polygamy because they are able to take charge of their roles of provision. But nothing much changes in the style of raising children with regards to morality, even though staunch Christians have always criticized polygamy as being a propagator of immoral behavior.
The extended family plays a great role in the African family setup. Culturally, when a woman is married she becomes a part of the man’s family and has to embrace the man’s cultural traditions and values in order to train her children on the same line. In some cultures like the Luo in Kenya, a wife who loses her husband through death is supposed to be inherited by the older brother or uncle of her late husband. This shocking practice still goes on in some interior villages of this community.
The extended family also plays a major role in conflict resolution among families in Africa. For example, if a couple are having disagreements and fights about their marriage, most African communities dictate that the extended family beginning with the man’s side must be informed of the arising conflicts. In most cases, the uncles and unties will listen to both sides of the couple’s story before sitting the similar genders down for a counseling talk. It is only when matters are declared too aggravating that parents are brought in this customary court.
Again, parents of the man will first join and probably call the next founding blocks of African families (elders) before any resolution to involve the woman’s parents. The woman’s parents are only considered last because it is believed that when a woman gets married, she left her mother and father to become a member of the man’s family. That is why when the woman’s parents are brought into domestic wrangle cases, it is usually for a separation or divorce; highly forbidden practices in the African context.
As described above, African elders play a vital role in establishing and maintain stable family setups. For example, no African wedding can take place without the blessing of not only the couple’s parents and relatives but even that of the elders. Elders can either be older relatives of the parents or community elders of respectable positions such as clan chiefs, kings and religious elders.
Just like described about religion and its role in the African family block, religious elders have always been sought for blessings before a couple is united either in a religious marriage or even a traditional marriage. Elders are even consulted in community matters which eventually reflect on families as described in the role of the community on an African family block below.
There is a Swahili saying that says; “a child belongs to the mother for only nine months in the womb but becomes the whole society’s responsibility when its born”. This saying is enough to describe the magnitude of the community’s role in the foundation of an African family. This role is then practiced by people of all ages from the children to the elderly in maintaining respect and harmony among families of different backgrounds and cultures.
Apart from these people mentioned above, the African child is the most important member of the African family because it is with the children that another generation can be realized. Therefore, parents, religious leaders and the community at large work hard every day to ensure that the African child grows to embrace the African traditions in order to keep the family setup alive. However, old age cultural values and ignorance have greatly contributed to the slow empowerment of the African child especially in rural areas where education has not been received well.
By losing the bond to immigration and urbanization where culture is no longer shared, community development suffers. That’s why Agile-International’s mission includes restoring the cultural wisdom that underlies traditional sustainable agriculture and community development while empowering women.