The subject of “family patterns in Africa” is so broad that it cannot be adequately addressed in a few lines. The cultural and physical diversity combined with the dramatic social changes of the last three decades on the continent makes family patterns so variegated.
So my short description of the African family is only a partial view of a complex reality – because Africa is plural and it has complex realities. I am going to limit my explanation to the understanding of Ugandan families, which I believe share a lot in common with other African families found in other countries.
A modest Ugandan home
When I was a child growing up in Uganda, I lived in the family of my paternal uncle. We woke up every morning before sunrise. We were then all invited for morning prayers by my uncle. After prayers, we all listened to the advice and instructions for the day given to us by my uncle. He made sure that each member of the family was in good health. He also shared his programme of the day with us.
One may ask, why go through so much trouble, waking up so early every morning, depriving oneself of sleep for a family reunion?
Professor Mbiti, provides the best answer, when he defined the identity of an African as, “I am because we are, and we are because I am.”
The family is an important concept in Africa. Generally speaking, each African belongs to a family which is much larger than an individual one. The African family is not only made up of a man, his wife and their children. By birth, the African becomes member of a wider community that is also known as the extended family.
The more the family is extended, the more it gets a feeling of pride and security. In Africa, the individual is defined by his family.
United We Stand
The African family does not consist only of the union between living people. It is indeed extended to the ancestors. They play a big role in the dynamics of the family. In the African imagination, the dead are not dead. The ancestors maintain a relationship with the extended family.
We refer to them when we relate, through our traditions, our moral values and our culture. Indeed death does not break the family tie. In some cultures the grave yard is also close to their home, a sign that they are part of the living family. The new born children are named after them to make sure that they are still remembered as members of the family.
The great decisions are never made individually. For example, a father should not marry his children without discussing this with the extended family. It is inconceivable that young people marry without involving their families. Even during this modern era, the marriages still remain an affair between two families and not only between the two individuals who are in love.
The extended African family is a place to practice solidarity. One cannot conceive family life without sharing. One shares his sorrows and the joys with his extended family. The children are brought up through the collective effort of the community.
The African family certainly is not perfect. It also has its flaws and its weaknesses. Some people take advantage of the strength of the extended family by misusing the solidarity of the community such as relying on others to do the work and using superstition as an excuse for not advancing, thus weakening the bonds.
The Traditional African family is a very broad concept which has challenging variations across the continent. These variations are caused by differences in tribal customs or culture according to geography, history, religion, inter migration, political and economic structures and influences.
Frank is studying for the Catholic priesthood and is supported in his vocation by CARITAS For Children. If you would like to read more about him, please click here.