Family is considered a basic cell of the society. All social and cultural practices find their connection with a notion of family, either supporting or distorting it.

Family plays a crucial role in Africa.  Mbiti says that “each person in African traditional life lives in or as a part of the family” (1975, p. 175). Kisembo asserts that “the family community was the fundamental element of the African, this basic sphere of action, through which he became integrated with the larger, human community… he always acted from within the sphere of the family” (1998, pp. 202-203).

In this work I will try to provide a description of the wider family and its functions in the traditional African society. After that, I will focus on some sociological changes taking place in the contemporary society in order to find out whether those changes affected the traditional meaning of wider family.

Traditional understanding of family

Shorter defines family as a “minimal effective group of relatives by blood and /or marriage and analogous groups” (1998, p. 83). By analogous groups he means those members who are not related by blood or marriage, e.g. adopted children.

Nuclear family would consist of parents and their own children. Shorter (1998, p. 83) sees such a family as autonomous and operating without reference to other relatives. Often their place of residence would be neolocal.

Extended/wider family comprises more people. Mbiti says that “for African people the family has a much wider circle of members than the word suggests in Europe or North America. In traditional society, the family includes children, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters who may have their own children and other immediate relatives” (1969, p.106). The relationships within extended family would be based on kinship (biological or putative blood relationship) and affinity (relationship between blood relationships of one marriage partner and those of the other marriage partner). Such a family would include adopted and fostered children.

The behavioral sciences in African context are in a developing stage. This book claims to be the first offering a sociological introduction to the sub-Saharan African family. This book aims to “summarize what is known about African family life in terms of general sociology of the family framework.” (p. 1)


  • Importance of the larger kin group (extended family) beyond the nuclear family.
  • Dedication of the extended family to the raising and support of children.
  • Lack of public display of affection.
  • Care and respect for the elderly.
  • Marriage as a series of interrelated ceremonies.
  • Polygamy as a desired measure of social success or status; male access to younger women and female division of labor.
  • Less prominence of romance in courtship and marriage.
  • Constrained communication between parents and children.

Some aspects of the traditional family change fairly rapidly in transitional situations. Yet, the importance of the extended family and children, the restrained public display of affection, and care and respect for the elderly are sustained.


Some of the impact of modern forces of change in African traditional family can be state and discuss below;

Changes in the contemporary African society

African society has been undergoing a process of profound changes affecting all aspects of its traditional life (Kisembo, 1998, p. 208, Vahakangas, 2004, p.43, O’Donovan, 2000, p. 40). I would like to, generally, mention just few of them that in my view are most relevant to the topic. A lot of these changes directly affect the family which is “the logical outcome of marriage” (Ayisi, 1992, p. 15).

For various reasons, natural and human, the standard of life in Africa, in many cases and for most people, either did not improve since independence or actually reduced. Put together with an ever increasing cost of life, it contributes to the fact that many people live in poverty. It prevents them from fulfilling their traditional obligations (Timberlake, 1985; Wasah, 2008).

Christianity brought some challenges to traditional African practices such as polygamy by equating it with adultery and sin. It also promotes monogamy as the only morally accepted type of marriage. Monogamy, though present and practiced in traditional Africa, was not as widely spread as polygamy (Waruta, 2005, pp. 108-109).

Other changes referred to by various authors that affect directly or indirectly the concept of wider family are: westernization of the African society with its stress on individual success, competitiveness and financial gain, modern education that often promotes personal values at the expense of communal values, modernization of the society with an increased pace of life demanding more time to be dedicated to work, the process of globalization that increases the gap between the rich and the poor and the process of urbanization that encourages many people to move to cities in search of work and contributes to the phenomenon of slums (Timberlake, 1994, Kisembo, 1998, Vahakangas, 2004, Magoti, 2004, Waruta, 2005, Wasah, 2008).

Effects of the changes on the concept of wider family

The changes taking place in the society affect the concept of wider family. In rural areas the family is less affected – people live together, often in physical proximity, support each other and may often be relatively well off because they would have some livestock and farms. One could argue that the concept of wider family could be expanded to look at an ethnic group as a very wide family. It may be a source of support for the members of such a group. When it used exclusively and at the expense of other groups, it leads to favoritism in providing jobs and other opportunities. Lamb describes it in the following way: “to give a job to a fellow tribesman is not nepotism, it is an obligation. For politician or military leader to choose his closest advisers and his body guards form the ranks of his own tribe is not patronage, it is good common sense” (1985, p. 9).  He provides an example of Liberia at the time of Tolbert where a number of members of his family held crucial posts in the country.  Applied to the extreme, the concept of the tribe as a wide family  may largely contribute to such events like genocide in Rwanda in 1994, postelection violence in Kenya and the phenomenon of ‘negative etnicity’ (Koigi, 2008, pp. 95-99).

On the other hand, the wider family support system seems also very much alive. Those members of the family who are better off are expected to support the other members of the family. Those who are living in towns are expected to provide accommodation to those coming from villages to look for job in towns or studying there. Kayongo-Male (1984, p. 59) comments that “many Africans virtually live with relatives, either seeking job or getting education. Hence one enters marriage with a fleet of relatives, living with a spouse depending on whether accommodation is available”.
Eurocentricity And The Traditional African Family

Patrilineality, matrilineality, and the practice of polygyny are three of the major distinguishing variations of the African traditional extended family. The literature on the subject is truly as vast and reflects traditional patterns that are as diverse as the variations of the physical looks of the people found on the continent. What is significant about the various descriptions of the traditional African family is that they are from back in the period before the 1940s and in case of the Baganda from the late 1800s. Social change in Africa as everywhere else is ubiquitous. Such influences as end of intra and inter-tribal warfare with the coming of European colonialism, the Western money economy, industrialization, migration, and urbanization have certainly transformed the traditional African family from what it was 50 to 100 years ago. By 1935, for example, anthropologists like Mair and Richards and no doubt many others were already noticing change in marriage and family patterns.

The written descriptions and therefore perceptions of the traditional African family were also a victim of the European colonial cultural bias and Christian values. In a more obvious way, this Eurocentrism36 did not treat polygamy, the African marriages and the extended family and any others of its “eccentricities” (regarded as such because they were different from European customs) as social phenomena that was legitimate and workable in its own African social circumstances and environment. But rather as curiosities that were to succumb to the superior European monogamous marriage values legitimated by Christianity.

Some of the issues that were the products of the Eurocentrically biased judgements include the following two. First, the strengths, durability, and resilience of the African traditional family were never dwelt on explicitly and at length. For example, in the polygynous African family, like among the Baganda, and many others, your father’s wives and brothers were not just mothers and fathers just as mere kinship terms. These carried with them all the heavy social obligations demanded of a mother or father, daughter or son. There was never a distinction between the biological and non-biological kin as far as primary parental obligations were concerned. Other significant strengths are that the traditional African family increased group cohesion in an otherwise harsh physical and social environment.

Matrilineal Traditional African Family

During the period earlier than 1940s, marriages remained completely matrilocal during the couple’s entire life. But however, after a few years of contact with white civilization and subsequent social change, the custom has gradually changed. The husband could take his wife home if the marriage was thought stable especially after the couple has had two or more children.

The basic family unit among the Bemba was not the nuclear family. But rather the matrilocal extended family comprised of a man and his wife, their married daughters, son-in-laws, and their children. “The basic kinship unit of Bemba society is not the individual family, but a matrilocal extended family composed of a man and his wife, their married daughters, and the latter’s husbands and children.”24
Polygamy or polygyny, which is a distinguishing feature in many traditional African families especially is patrilineal and patriarchal societies, is uncommon among the matrilineal Bemba. Where as chiefs have a number of wives, it is very rare to find ordinary men who have more than one wife. “Polygamy is relatively speaking uncommon in this area and the institution is not an essential part of the Bemba family and economic life as it is among so many Bantu peoples.”

Perversity Of Polygamy

Scholars of the African traditional family agree that the one widely known aspect that distinguishes the African traditional family, say from the European one, is the perversity of polygamy3. Although polygamy is the act of an individual being married to more than one spouse at the same time, the more commonly practiced in Africa is polygyny “….the legal marriage of one man to two or more women concurrently – is permitted.” This author argues that because of its perversity, the presence and absence of polygyny was a significant determinant and indicator of the nature of virtually every African social group; whether tribe, clan, or extended family, whether matrilineality or patrilineality was practiced, bride price existed, and how children were raised.

Polygyny was widely practiced in Africa and it often formed the backbone of the traditional African family patterns. According to Mair, “….the polygynous joint family, consisting of a man, his wives, and their children, is the ideal for most Africans.” Studies conducted from the 1930s to 1950s indicate that polygyny was common virtually in all regions of Africa.  In spite of the perversity of polygyny, there was evidence that it was on the decline. The major reason cited is that with increasing modern influences, marrying more than one wife became an economic burden. Even traditionally, ordinary citizens could not achieve marrying more than one wife. Often only Kings, chiefs and men who had wealth could afford it. Polygyny though set the tone and often determined the strength of the society and pattern of social organization of the traditional African family.




The forces of change in African traditional family are increasingly faced with the challenge and pressure between traditional and modern family values and structure. There is the steady increase in the pace towards the abandonment of traditional practices for modern ones (western). However, the most popular trend is that of the prevalence of family patterns that are increasing merging traditional and modern marriage norms or practices(Kalu1981:2). This paper has presented a short description of the changes that are characterizing marriage and family size in contemporary sub Saharan Africa. There are other practices taking place such as non-marital childbearing, single parenthood, non-marital unions that were not discussed that are as well gradually gaining momentum in the region. It can be infer from the information provided in this paper that practices that depicted rural sub Saharan African societies are progressively being transformed, this is marked by the shift from polygamy marriages that dominated rural sub Saharan African communities to monogamous marriage and the movement from large household to small ones.











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