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.


Kinship and Descent

Kinship is often based on relationships of descent in which kin groups define themselves as descendants of shared ancestors. In one type of descent group—the lineage—all members know, or believe they know, their exact relationships to one another. The clan, another type of group, is larger than a lineage. Members recognize that they are all part of the group but do not know how they are related to each other. They may, for example, believe that they share a common ancestor but be unable to trace all the links from their own lineages to that ancestor. Anthropologists who study kinship have identified four major types of descent: patrilineal, matrilineal, double, and bilateral. Africa includes all of them.

Patrilineal descent emphasizes the male side of the family, tracing relationships through the generations from fathers to their children. Patrilineal descent is common among pastoral societies. Because Islam arose among pastoral people in Arabia in the A.D. 600s, Islamic law tends to reflect patrilineal practices. For example, male children are favored over females in inheriting a father’s property. This and other aspects of patrilineal social organization can be found among the ARABS, BERBERS, and other Islamic peoples of North Africa. Many other pastoral groups, including the Nuer of SUDAN and the ZULU and Swazi of southern Africa, are patrilineal.

Matrilineal descent, which traces lineage through mothers, exists in many African societies based on farming, especially in central Africa. Among the Bemba people of ZAMBIA, mothers own the fields and pass them on to their daughters.

Societies with matrilineal social organization are not necessarily ruled by women. Some peoples who trace descent through women give political authority to men. In certain cultures men traditionally go to live with their mothers’ brothers, while women move to their husbands’ villages. Thus the men remain together, while the women through whom they trace descent are spread among the population. Because the men generally remain in the community, they have greater authority. A fairly rare form of kinship is double descent. In double-descent systems, every individual belongs to the patrilineal group of the father and the matrilineal group of the mother. Rights, obligations, and inheritance are split between the two groups. Double descent exists in western and southern Africa among such peoples as the Yako of NIGERIA and the HERERO of NAMIBIA and BOTSWANA. Among the Herero, daughters inherit ordinary cattle from their mothers, but sons inherit certain sacred cattle from their fathers.

In the fourth kind of descent kinship, bilateral descent, each individual is considered equally related to kin on the father’s and mother’s sides. This system occurs more frequently in other parts of the world than in Africa. But bilateral kin groups do exist among some African peoples who live on hunting and gathering. Membership in such groups is flexible. People can identify with either parent’s local groups or with other relatives by marriage.

In hunter-gatherer groups with bilateral descent, kinship can extend throughout all of society because everyone is classified as some sort of kin. The !Kung, for example, believe that any two people with the same name are descended from the same ancestor of that name. If a person’s sister shares a name with another woman, the !Kung consider them sisters. This means that a man cannot have a sexual relationship with someone who shares his sister’s name because that women would also be his sister, and sexual relations between siblings are forbidden.

Features of African Kinship

One feature of social life in Africa’s patrilineal societies is the close relationship between a man and his sispatrilineater’s son—his nephew. Anthropologists call this relationship the avunculate, and in African cultures it may require the uncle to give his best cattle to his nephew or to accept teasing from the nephew. A brother might also be expected to support his sister’s children or to participate in the rituals that mark the stages of their lives. In southern Africa, where the avunculate is common, a boy’s uncle on his mother’s side may be called his “male mother” in recognition of this special link. In some groups the opposite relationship occurs, with a boy’s father’s sister—his aunt—seen as an authority figure called the “female father.” The Tsonga (Thonga) of Mozambique and the Nama of Namibia are some of the best examples of groups that practice the avunculate, although neither group follows the custom as closely as it did in the past.

Kinship and marriage are closely linked in several ways. On one level, kinship rules may determine marriage partners. In this respect, North African and sub-Saharan societies differ widely. North African peoples encourage marriage within a group, often a kinship group. Traditionally, the ideal marriage is between cousins, including the children of two brothers. Among the Bedouin, for example, a boy has the right to marry his father’s brother’s daughter. Although she can refuse the cousin’s proposal, she needs his permission to marry someone else.

Most lineage groups in sub-Saharan Africa, in contrast, favor marriage outside the group. As a result, kinship is not limited strictly to lineage. An individual has important ties with two different kin groups, the mother’s and the father’s. Such ties often extend outside the village or community, offering certain advantages. If a community suffers from drought, war, disease, food shortages, or other disasters, for example, its members may go to live with kin in other areas.

Marriage and kinship are also linked by customs governing the transfer of property between and within kin groups. The most common form of such transfer in Africa is called bridewealth. This is a gift from the groom or his family to the bride’s family, often in livestock but sometimes in money or other forms of wealth. Some hunter-gatherer societies follow the custom of bride service, which involves the groom moving to the home of his wife’s family and hunting or working for his parents-in-law.

Traditional African kinship is a cooperative relationship between household members and members of the larger lineage group. It involves a set of social obligations and expectations that ensures that no one faces tragedy alone. In societies without welfare services provided by a central government, kinship provides a “safety net” for individuals—orphans, widows, the elderly, the disabled, and divorced women— who lack an immediate household to care for them. Although kinship relations have grown weaker—especially in the cities—they continue to serve this function. For example, African kinfolk may support women and children while their husbands are away, perhaps by helping paying school fees or other expenses. Extended ties of kinship remain a vital part of life in contemporary Africa. (See also Family, Marriage Systems.)