Saturday, April 12, 2014

Munkombwe and the 'extended family'
By Editor
Sat 28 Dec. 2013, 14:00 CAT

Southern Province minister Daniel Munkombwe says "God will punish us if we completely destroy the extended family system".

Munkombwe urges those who are well-to-do to look after their relatives instead of leaving that to well-wishers. And he says there is need for a legal framework which could compel Zambians to identify their family tree and be legally responsible for its members.

"Those who are able to organise some form of wealth should be able to take care of their relatives and the vulnerable people. What pride does it give me if I can have a relative who can only be taken care of by well-wishers? What is the value of my wealth?" wonders Munkombwe.
To some, Munkombwe may sound outdated, a dreamer. But there is sense in what he is saying. It is true our way of life as a people has changed over the years. But there is still value in our kinship, genealogical, clan, family and household ties.

It cannot be denied that the deep sense of kinship, with all it implies, has been one of the strongest forces in our traditional life. Kinship is reckoned through blood and betrothal (engagement and marriage). It is kinship which controls social relationships between people in a given community: it governs marital customs and regulations, it determines the behaviour of one individual towards another. Indeed, this sense of kinship binds together the entire life of the 'tribe', and is even extended to cover animals, plants and non-living objects through the 'totemic' system. Almost all the concepts connected with human relationship can be understood and interpreted through the kinship system. This is what largely governs the behaviour, thinking and whole life of the individual in the society of which he is a member.

The kinship system is like a vast network stretching laterally (horizontally) in every direction, to embrace everybody in any given local group. This means that each individual is a brother or sister, father or mother, grandmother or grandfather or cousin, or brother-in-law, uncle or aunt, or something else, to everybody else. That means that everybody is related to everybody else, and there are many kinship terms to express the precise kind of relationship pertaining between two individuals. When two strangers meet, one of the first duties is to sort out how they may be related to each other, and having discovered how the kinship system applies to them, they behave to each other according to the accepted behaviour set down by society. If they discover, for example, that they are 'brothers', then they will treat each other as equals, or as an older and younger brother; if they are 'uncle' and 'nephew', then the 'nephew' may be expected to give much respect to the 'uncle' where this type of relationship is required by society. It is possible also that from that moment on, the individuals concerned will refer to each other by the kinship term of, for instance, 'brother', 'nephew', 'uncle', 'mother', with or without using their proper names. Such being the case then, a person has literally hundreds of 'fathers', hundreds of 'mothers', hundreds of 'uncles', hundreds of 'wives', hundreds of 'sons and daughters'.

The kinship system also extends vertically to include the departed and those yet to be born. It is part of traditional education for children to learn the genealogies of their descent. The genealogy gives a sense of depth, historical belongingness, a feeling of deep-rootedness and a sense of sacred obligation to extend the genealogical line.

Genealogical ties also serve social purposes, particularly in establishing relationships between individuals. By citing one's genealogical line, it is possible to see how that person is linked to other individuals in a given group. It is also on genealogical basis that organisational divisions have evolved among different peoples, demarcating the larger society into 'clans', 'gates', families, households, and finally individuals.

The clan is the major subdivision of the 'tribe'. Clans are normally totemic, that is, each has an animal or part of it, a plant, a stone or mineral, which is regarded as its totem. The totem is the visible symbol of unity, of kinship, of belongingness, of togetherness and common affinity. Genealogies may be cited as far back as the original founder of the clan, if he has not been forgotten or if the genealogical line has not been broken through loss of memory.

An individual has to be born in a clan, and he cannot change his clan, though it is possible that in some societies, marriage may lead to a change or weakening of one's original clan membership.

Apart from localising the sense of kinship, clan systems provide closer human cooperation, especially in times of need. If a person finds himself in difficulties, it is not unusual for him to call for help from his clan members and other relatives. This is the point Munkombwe is trying to make and remind us of.

For African peoples, 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. In many areas, they are what anthropologists call extended families, by which it is generally meant that two or more brothers (in the patrilocal societies) or sisters (in the matrilocal societies) established families in one compound or close to one another. The joint households together are like one large family. It is the practice in some societies, to send children to live for some months or years, with relatives, and these children are counted as members of the families where they happen to live.

The family also includes departed relatives, whom we have designated as the living-dead. These are, as their name implies, 'alive' in the memories of their surviving families, and are thought to be still interested in the affairs of the family to which they once belonged in their physical life. Surviving members must not forget the departed; otherwise misfortune is feared to strike them or their relatives. The older the person was before dying, the longer he is remembered and regarded as an integral part of the human family. The living-dead solidify and mystically bind together the whole family.

African concept of the family also includes the unborn members who are still in the loins of the living. They are the buds of hope and expectation, and each family makes sure that its own existence is not extinguished. The family provides for its continuation, and prepares for the coming of those not yet born.

The household is the smallest unit of the family, consisting of the children, parents and sometimes the grandparents. It is what one might call 'the family at night', for it is generally at night that the household is really itself. At night the parents are with their immediate children in the same house; they discuss private affairs of their household, and the parents educate the children in matters pertaining to domestic relationships. The household in Africa is what in European and American societies would be called 'family'.

We have so far spoken about the life and existence of the community. What then is the individual and where is his place in the community? In traditional life, the individual does not and cannot exist alone except corporately. He owes his existence to other people, including those of past generations and his contemporaries. He is simply part of the whole. The community must therefore make, create or produce the individual; for the individual depends on the corporate group. Physical birth is not enough: the child must go through rites of incorporation so that it becomes fully integrated into the entire society. These rites continue throughout the physical life of the person, during which the individual passes from one stage of corporate existence to another. The final stage is reached when he dies and even then, he is ritually incorporated into the wider family of both the dead and the living.

Just as God made the first man, as God's man, so now man himself makes the individual who becomes the corporate or social man. It is a deeply religious transaction. Only in terms of other people does the individual become conscious of his own being, his own duties, his privileges and responsibilities towards himself and towards other people. When he suffers, he does not suffer alone but with the corporate group; when he rejoices, he rejoices not alone but with his kinsmen, his neighbours and his relatives, whether dead or living. When he gets married, he is not alone, neither does the wife 'belong' to him alone. So also the children belong to the corporate body of kinsmen, even if they bear only their father's name.

Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say: 'I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.' This is a cardinal point in the understanding of the views and position taken by old Daniel.

There is really no need to dump our old people, our old relatives into old people's homes like they do in Europe and North America. There is no need to abandon our traditional systems because they can still work - we are still what we were: Africans. And there is no need for self-denial, for trying to be something else. Let's just be what we are and stick to our way of life.

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