The African traditional understanding of family

The African traditional understanding of a family was as follows:-

The husband is the head of the family and is superior while the wife is the subordinate, dependant and has no part in decision making

Some families were patrilineal where children belong to the father and matrilineal, where children belong to the mother but the former was more common.

Children were highly valued; the more the stronger, blessing status therefore lack of children was incompleteness in life.

Upbringing of children was corporate responsibility of parents, relatives (whole community including visitors).

Tasks, duties, responsibility and obligation were well-defined according to sex, age, status.

Corporateness in the family emphasised where individualism was highly discouraged. Under the saying; "I am because you are and since you are therefore I am" and "No man is an Island" an aspect of interdependence.

Marriage was obligatory; which was the meeting place of the three worlds; the living, the dead and those to be born.

Family differed from people to people but with the following common elements; socio-religious by which the newborn is firmly rooted in society by second birth and naming, education and socialisation.

African families were extended and large where elders were consultants and even visitors and friends had a hand in its affairs.

Family life was geared towards attainance of harmony, love, communal welfare.                                                     

Polygamy was a major aspect.

 In the beginning there was no mixed/ intertribal marriages through it was changed later.

Bride wealth was important as a way of confirming relationship and which determined ones responsibility and ownership / sense of belonging.

Inheritance of widows (levirate where brother takes over late brothers wife) or Sororate where sister takes over place of her late sister's husband bridging the gap of the deceased .

Celibacy was not allowed and failure to marry was considered a rebellion to the living dead and society which could lead to calamity.

Both old and young play important roles in communal life as far as family provisions, responsibility and security is concerned.

Disputes were solved by elders and community leaders.

There was emphasis on rituals, ceremonies and other cultural norms.

Family outlived major roles for each to contribute to development each with specific roles depending on sex, age, status.                                

Divorce was not common; family tried to avoid it except that it was regarded as an accident in case of witchcraft, adultery and misbehavior.

In family, customs and taboos are kept e.g. among the Baganda women are not supposed to eat sheep (mutton) meat, chicken or eggs.                   

In a family the married enjoy more status and privileges than the unmarried.

Childlessness can be considered a curse hence polygamy.

In African families their gods/ spirits were instrumental in conflict resolutions of families' e.g. Lubaale such as Kibuka as a god of war in Buganda .

There was mutual love among family members, cooperation through sharing and caring for one another.

In some societies the elder son became the second in command after the father.

Elderly men were both political and cultural advisors to the family basing on experience

In what way does this concept of family differ from families of today?                    In families today men and women are equal which is brought about by women liberation.

This therefore means that headship of the family is no longer restricted to the man.

Educational roles have been taken up by teachers, pastors, religious leaders.

Today a man and woman can do the same work.

Mixed marriage are encouraged i.e. one can marry from any tribe, nation or race.

Today the family is basically nuclear; husband, wife and children.

Polygamy is on the decline and taken over by monogamy either due to Christian influence or bad economic conditions and or western mode of life.

There is more permissiveness in society; there is no caring moral attitude.

The system of inheritance has collapsed either due to economic hardships or decline in cultural value; leave alone the AIDS scourge .


Women participate in political affairs, go for seminars, studies; leaving men at home to care for it and can dictate on family affairs.

There is generation gap where the young cannot listen to the guidance of elders leading to more disobedience by the young.

Family life suffers due to working conditions, long hours, and no time to share with the family.                                                                                        

The marriage institution has been weakened due to fear of responsibility; trial marriage, concubinage are alternative options.


There is a growing wave of individualism under the saying 'everyone for himself and God for us all.'

Divorce is more common today and without many restrictions.

The aspect of sharing and cooperation is diminishing e.g. people no longer share sensitive things like needles leading to selfishness.

There are many unmarried women and men since it is no longer obligatory.

Modem families today are governed by the national constitutions and not by family heads or rules.

In African tradition men married women while today women can initiate and marry men.

Today women can initiate divorce.

Children are not very important as before; couples can decide to stay together without children or use birth control whereby children are produced when they wish so is the number.

Modern families no longer put emphasis on customs, rituals, norms e.g. in Bugisu today; some parents take children to hospital for circumcision other than the cultural method of doing it.