The family is an important concept in Africa. Generally speaking, each African belongs to a family which is much larger than an individual one. Families in Africa are not made up of men, women and children only. By birth, the African becomes member of a wider community that non-Africans designate as the extended family.
Many African languages make no distinction between the fraternal brothers and those of the broader family. Sometimes, people of the same village refer to themselves as brothers. When an African introduces a person as his brother or sister, it is not always a fraternal brother or sister. The terms father and mother are used to designate elderly people in the broader family.
Thus, I have many young people of my broader family who call me dad and who call my wife mum. We have four children but we are parents to more than ten children, including our younger brothers and sisters of whom we take care.
The more the family is extended, the more it gets a feeling of pride and security. Even if as an individual, one does not feel important, they will grasp his full importance as a member of the extended family. In Africa, the individual is defined by his family.
The African family does not consist only of the union between living people, it indeed extends 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 to our traditions, our moral values and our culture. It is to say that death does not break the family tie. We function like the biblical families where the ancestors like Abraham and David kept a certain close link with the family even after their deaths.
Unity of the family is very important. The head of the household must maintain unity. When a family is united, it exerts influence on the rest of the society. Disunion contributes to weaken the influence of the family and its respectability. The family members thus have the obligation to maintain the cohesion of the community and the solidarity between them.
If one dissociates oneself from the family, if one breaks the contact with the family or if one refuses to take part in the projects of the family by contributing to the events (happy or unhappy ones), one takes the risk of isolating oneself and undergoing serious consequences.
Great decisions are not made individually in Africa. 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.
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 a family life without a community of sharing. One shares the sorrows and the joys.
This way of life in community maintains a climate of joy in the African environment. One is never alone in their misfortunes. Different people surrounds their person in period of difficulty. Realities of the modern life erode this community practice in Africa, particularly in the cities where people become increasingly individualistic and egoistic.
The pressure to possess, the wild materialism, the illusion of material happiness in the accumulation of wealth negatively affects the community dynamics in the African family. But the African family should continue to resist this individualistic temptation.
The African family is very similar to the biblical traditions. The church was refer to as the family of God’s people in New Testament. It can offer an alternative to individualism in its pernicious form. Individualism is often the consequence of selfishness and search for autonomy. The natural African family is certainly not perfect. It also has its flaws and its weaknesses. Some people misuse the community.
However, when the abuses erected by the Scriptures, the model of community offered by the African family can become a source of blessing for our postmodern world caught up in dehumanizing individualism.