Professor Jacques Binet
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (France)


Nature and Limits of the Family
in Sub-Saharan Africa[1]


It is not easy to give an exact definition of the word ‘family’ The term can apply to very different juridical institutions and to biological data. ‘Family’ designates the grouping of those who are linked biologically. But the law intervenes to fix the limits and type of relationship. From cousins to cousins people search for more and more distant ancestors until a legendary grouping is established which includes a whole people. However, human memory has its limits, and in general fixed boundaries. On the other hand, ever since humanity began to recognize the links between a child and its two parents, a double stem has been established, paternal and maternal. Here again the law intervenes to fix a preference. Parenthood is not simply a matter of nature but also of culture. The family is the cell where these relationships are lived with intensity. If several generations remain grouped round one culture, one leader, one common patrimony, the family can grow to the size of a village and become the only important social unit. Elsewhere, father, mother and children constitute a basic family which fits into a larger unit, less closely bound together.

In Africa the system of an extended family is more frequent, in the conditions of a traditional dwelling-place, although ancient lore does not encourage reliance on the family circle. The family guarantees total security – perhaps too total – because it supplies a shelter from all kinds of risks which could strengthen character, provoke energy, develop intelligence. It is a permanent shelter, for the family is always there. The development of personality is not helped by too protective a framework. Separate from the family, migrants come together around an older member who plays the paternal part of an arbitrator and organiser. In sum, they re-create a family of choice. Transcending death, the family group continues to live, a new father replacing the father when he dies. The psychological importance of such confusion of persons is well-known.

BinetAngolaIn a study in 1962 J.-P. Ndiaye established that what African students in France most lacked was a social milieu, an ambiance, 33% for a group, 32% for a framework, while family, friends, mother came only in third position with 31%. A collection of individuals is not to be mistaken for a village. This term denotes places, dwellings but also a type of life, an attitude to others, considered as brothers, without clear definition of their situation or relationship. In ancient western society also an extended family existed, but its importance was balanced by that of the village, where relationships between families forged the links which were firmly political but also the material framework of labour and tools, so also economic. The complex diversity of such links, allied to awareness of individual responsibility, encourages the growth and development of every personality. The monotheism of Christianity and Islam underlines the interior and individual character of the beliefs and practices of each member. An African family continues to be more marked, at least in its aims, by community factors. To see what it is, and what Africans would wish it to be, the elements which make it up, individual and household, must be analysed and compared with global society.

Family and Individual

Individuality is always subordinated: theoretically the only person to have a juridical personality is the head of the family. Everyone else, even heads of households, is usually subordinate: their responsibilities are simply delegated. But customary law does not take this logic to an extreme, and does not protect minors. Women and children can buy and sell unrestrained; they can organise commerce, possess their own sums of money. The husband, the father controls little, and the patriarch even less. In fact there is no question of being under age and looked after, only of dependence. Dependence on a patriarch remains firm, as that of a vassal in feudal law.
Within the family differentiation of individuals is discouraged: in some villages all the men eat together. Sometimes the cooking is shared, on a rota. The individual has scarcely any privacy. Even children are shared: every family will receive a child willingly, nourish it and look after its education. Even the classificatory terms of relationship are used naturally. Everyone calls men of his or her father’s generation ‘father’, and those of the same generation ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. In such conditions neither parental opposition nor the Oedipus complex can develop on the classic psychoanalytical lines. Children take refuge in any household if their mother will not accept them. Nevertheless, instinctive attachments remain, and failure to satisfy them causes unease. Many an orphan flees from the family and migrates to the town because they do not find warmth with an uncle or aunt. Contrary to the logic of the laws of the clan, individuals are not fully satisfied by their absorption into the extended family and nowadays prefer to live in major cities – an adventure of individualism.

As the individual is undervalued, the individual must subordinate personal interest to that of the group. Even patriarchs who chose marriages or professions for their dependants were within their rights. Assertion of liberty, the right of sons or daughters to build their lives and choose a spouse, the rights to personal happiness, all these fit badly into the structure of the patriarchal family. They spread from towns, through educated milieux.

BinetHommeThere can be no doubt that the harmony is not always perfect. One need only look at the way relations gather round a successful person. By custom everyone thinks to find there life and a roof over their heads. In a rural milieu hospitality is the rule: food is provided by the products of the field, the guest can help in the shared work and if necessary make other contributions. In the town the picture is utterly different: everything must be paid for, even firewood. Living-space is very limited, even if someone possesses an independent house. Town-dwellers are quite reticent about the traditions of hospitality. In the course of an enquiry one person interviewed said cruelly, ‘People aged 20 or 30 cannot save up any money, since their relations come asking for money and presents. Only people aged 40 or 50 can save money, since their parasites are dead.’ Out of respect for tradition, young intellectuals refuse to agree that this hospitality is burdensome. But everyone knows that, in order to escape such family pressure, businesspeople prefer to live in foreign countries. In addition, women, on whom this burden falls, are often frank about their disquiet, especially when it is a matter of the husband’s family. Some of them, more sensitive, say that all conjugal intimacy becomes impossible. So the family in the African sense, the extended family, imposes certain limits on the individual. Solidarity is a fine thing, since it ensures vital help to everyone, including the sick, the incapable, the aged. Besides, and perhaps more important, it guarantees for everyone the present and future security needed. But these advantages are paid for by restrictions and constraints which limit individual advancement and initiatives.

In the past this was hardly felt, but with modern patterns of life, openness to foreign customs and experience of city life, a certain discomfort is evident.


Family and household

Family must be sharply distinguished from household. In the western world family is constituted of father, mother and unmarried children. Recent studies insist that links continue into adulthood. But after two or three generations collateral bonds fall away. In Sub-Saharan Africa the situation is entirely different: there is no difference between family and lineage: all the offspring of one stem remain linked and do their best to maintain the permanence of the clan. This attempt is often illusory. After two or three centuries the descendants often become too numerous to stay together. New villages are formed which at least theoretically retain their links to the village of origin. Sometimes the diaspora is so considerable that relationships are wiped out. Often Africans claim that they retain their clan genealogy, their ritual prohibitions to avoid in particular any incest, a supreme sin, even if it is involuntary. Nostalgia to bring clans together again remains strong in certain populations, as the memory of a mythical golden age.

BinetgrainSometimes inheritance rights strengthen this attempt to achieve permanence. Africans do not really appreciate juridical solutions which are too strict, and often prefer a more equitable solution. Nothing as rigid as rights of the first-born. However, the line of heritage was often designed to avoid division into multiple stems at the death of each chief. Nevertheless, to give a nephew authority over his uncle would seem unacceptable. Therefore it often happened, in such a case that relationships with another generation would be undone, sometimes with a division of functions: at the chief’s side an elder would play the part of a counsellor or a priest. In certain ancient tribes the succession as head of the family goes to the oldest surviving member of the oldest generation. This makes good sense in a culture where the dead are important: the oldest generation is the one nearest the dead and the world beyond, with the power conferred by this proximity.

The problem is not primarily inheritance: the possessions of a subsistence-level farmer are modest and perishable. Land itself is not scarce in a land of few inhabitants. Sometimes a distinction is made between common land which can be disposed of by the pater familias, and land appropriated by an individual, especially in the case of long-term cultivation. Rather than ownership, it is control of a territory which matters, or the right to have authority over persons. By putting the accent on the endurance of the line and on efforts to keep together a work-force (which could be as many as, or even more than, a hundred), customary law limits the numbers belonging to a single branch, either of mother or of father. A patrilinear community is especially well-adapted to residence by the local rights of the father. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as a matriarchate, since authority is confined to a man, the brother of the mother. A child is made dependent not on his father, but on his maternal uncle.

The African family system combines perhaps better with polygamy than with monogamy. The latter in fact gives a household a tendency to fold back on itself too narrowly. Father, mother and children can easily constitute a self-sufficient group. In the case of polygamy the father remains a little outside the various family-groups constituted by each wife and her children, often joined by some exterior element, a relation or worker or guest entrusted to it.

The purpose of a marriage, especially a polygamous one, is to give the family a numerous progeny. Thus the interests of households become subordinate to those of the extended family. Indeed, in civilisations characterised by the cult of ancestors, a numerous progeny is essential to survival. In addition, people feel their fragility in a huge and underpopulated country, where a high death-rate threatens groups with extinction. People take in only slowly phenomena on a scale which is too broad for them to understand. Today, while with medical advances (vaccines, antibiotics) the population of Africa is often on the threshold of catastrophic growth, people continue to hope for very numerous children, just as in a previous age of defective demography. The African family assuages this demographic worry, since the household – especially a monogamous one – seems to be too limited to give certainty of survival.

Some figures may help. Polygamous households are not frequent, perhaps 15%. Polygamy is more frequent in rural milieux than in urban areas, savannah or forest than in the Sahel. Most frequently it is a question of little polygamy - two or three spouses – rather than the major polygamy where chiefs gather dozens of wives. Of course as the sex-ratio is more or less stable, as everywhere, the late age of marriage and a relatively high proportion of celibate males (some 20%) balance out this polygamy.

If polygamy creates problems, the instability of marriage creates more: many women leave their households, with or without a legal divorce, refuse to marry and prefer to live in concubinage. Contrary to popular belief, a monogamous or polygamous household is not the only economic unit. Every individual has a harvest of their own to sell or dispose of as they wish. In the present situation heads of households have some advantage because they dispose of their farm-produce, and especially that which is not traditional; this is the case for most export products. As for the patriarch, he possesses his own land which makes him certain of a harvest sufficient to feed strangers, to give one good meal a week to all those under his roof, and to distribute food during the period of hunger while the new harvest is awaited. This traditional usage gives the patriarch his pre-eminence in a non-monetary economy. The hand that holds the grain holds the power. But receipts in cash are upsetting all this equilibrium. In strict custom money belongs to the one who earns it. This money guarantees independence of householders from the patriarchs, and independence of wives and young people from householders.

Global Family and Society

BinetTchadIncluding individual and households, there are vast regions where families are the only existing societies. Many tribal societies have not had institutions on the scale of the tribe. For some the only link between families was initiation. Often a village of a single clan is confused with a family. Even when several extended families are represented there, it is hardly an organised community, merely a collection of families, run by a council of patriarchs or organised round the founder-family.

In other countries kingdoms were formed, issuing from medieval states, born of conquest or growth of population. In the last case, among the Yoruba of Southern Nigeria, and among the Bamilekes or Bamous of the Cameroon, the chief was considered a sacred personage, the incarnation of the ancestors, of sort of patriarch on a higher level. However that may be, when a society develops into a state, extended families are the necessary intermediaries between households and the state. The patriarchs take care to filter external influences. They insist that each member of the family be registered with them, ‘behind them’ as it is put. They are careful to pay taxes for each to give concrete expression to the ties of dependence in the relationship. With the development of personal authority, and the mobility of population, many men and women escape the authority of the patriarch, even if they re-form in their new habitat a group which resembles the family they left.

Among peoples dominated by the cult of ancestors, the extended family is by definition the prime religious community, and each family has its own ancestors who have nothing in common with those of the neighbours. Nevertheless, sometimes a tribal group joins the families together, and sometimes the chiefs have created a more widespread cult by joining together the dynasties of the ancestors of the population.

In Islamic areas the families construct their prayer-enclosure by surrounding a sandy area with great stones. But in Islam – as in Christianity – the great African family does not find a philosophical or liturgical basis which fits them. In fact Islam puts its accent on the community of believers, and Christianity on the brotherhood of all people, whereas the family was happily turned in on itself.

In the face of the modern world, the great African family is an obstacle to the birth of social classes. In fact the pool of relationship is so vast that any rich man has brothers or cousins who are poor. Even if he wished, he could not break through these links and choose to associate only with his own class. Nevertheless, the first cracks have made themselves felt and film-makers like Sembene in Xala or The Mandate denounce the egoism of the wealthy classes.

BinetprofessionThe African family seems to us a basic social structure, far from the family household of the modern West, far even from the extended family of the European past, whose economic basis was so powerful. Individuals and households, aiming for greater autonomy have sapped it at its base, while state institutions, especially regional administration and regional justice have claimed a power superior to that which it had. All who have studied it have commented on the strength and harmony of the greater family, its role in drawing all things together. But has it remained sufficiently supple to adapt itself to new aims? The educated student coming from its village school, the migrant living in the town, the planter who has set up a coffee-shop, all create new problems. Those who have gone away also want make use of their energies, and to this end they appeal to the young people over the heads of the ‘fathers’. We are already being told that the elderly are unhappy at being abandoned; groups of Catholic Action have needed to launch campaigns to rouse Christians to help these elderly people. That would have been inconceivable twenty years ago, when everyone was oppressed by the rule of the elderly.

African societies need to face up to the necessity of adapting rapidly. The leaders express a desire to remain true to their African heritage, to their authenticity and their Africanness. They must quantify the urgency which they put on these words, for day by day the building is crumbling away. Built on authority and common interest it cannot tolerate new forces or individual interests. The authority of the patriarchs must still be accepted, respect must be tinged with affection, obedience must not block free initiatives, a community sense must meld with respect and honour for individual personalities.


[1] Jacques Binet (1916-2009) was both Administrator of the French overseas territories and Director of Research at the Office of Overseas Scientific and Technical Research and professor of the International Centre of French-language Studies at the University of Paris IV, the Sorbonne. He represented France to several organisms and ministries in different African countries, and directed several important scientific projects in Africa. We would like to thank the Institute for Research of Development for giving us permission to publish this article, originally published in Études scientifiques (1979,