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The Spirituality of African Peoples: Family

I’m finally coming back to my summary of The Spirituality of African Peoples by Peter J. Paris. If you’re just joining in, my purpose in this review is not to offer a detailed analysis or critique but merely to raise to awareness certain aspects of traditional (sub-Saharan) culture and spirituality as a test to Thomas Oden’s contention that African culture was instrumental in shaping the direction of early Christian orthodoxy.

Oden argues that this cultural milieu permeated even the more cosmopolitan regions of northern Africa through trade and cultural contacts flowing out of the south along great African rivers such as the Nile and the Medjerda. I especially hope those of you with greater expertise in patristics will suggest points of comparison or contrast, and that those with  firsthand experience with living African cultures will be willing to weigh in on anything in these posts that requires correction or clarification.

As in virtually all pre-industrial societies, the family is central to the traditional cultures of Africa. Paris begins his chapter on the family with a quotation from John Mbiti:

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 sstem. This it is which largely governs the behaviour, thinking and whole life of the individual in the society of which he is a member. (77, citing African Religions and Philosophy [Doubleday, 1970] 135)

Kinship is far broader than the nuclear family of contemporary Western society, encompassing not only the extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins but in fact the entire village, which functioned as “one large family” (78), on the assumption that everyone in the tribe was descended from the same common ancestor(s). Everyone is held together by lines of familial relationship, and every member of this extended network of relations shares responsibilities and obligations. Once again, the fictive kinship language of the New Testament seems quite at home in this environment.

Children

Because of the centrality of family, producing children is a paramount cultural concern: “Throughout Africa, procreation has always been viewed as the primary purpose of marriage.” Therefore, a childless marriage “constitutes a major moral and spiritual problem for all concerned” (78). So serious is the state of being childless that it is often understood as grounds for a man to marry a second wife in order to father children by her.

Displays of Affection

Another feature of the African family is a general reticence toward public displays of physical affection between men and women. Although husbands and wives are expected to express their affection through “respect and caring for each other’s needs in subtle ways,” holding hands or kissing in public are frowned upon (80, citing Diane Kayongo-Male and Philista Onyango, The Sociology of the African Family [Longman, 1984] 8). Paris observes,

It is a curious fact that although African social life is characterized by much joviality in the form of dance, music, and song, personal feelings for one another are rarely expressed apart from appropriate communal contexts. Embracing one another physically even after a long absence is not typically “African,” and those who do so reveal their own adaptation to Western customs. (81)

By contrast, traditional Africans showed deference to those in authority (including parents) by kneeling or bowing before them, never by embracing or kissing them.

Family Hierarchy

The African family is a hierarchy in which one defines oneself not merely in terms of membership but of one’s place in the hierarchical structure. This structure is seen as an extension of the cosmological order of the universe, beginning with God and extending to ancestors, tribal authorities, family patriarchs, and down to the youngest members of the family. The role of the father in such a structure is analogous to the role of an African king: both serve as points of contact between the community and the spiritual world. Just as the king served as “patriarch and priest of all the people” (82), so the father in the family. Paris writes,

In African traditional societies, the role of the father in the family was analogous to that of the king. Like the latter, the former also bore similar responsibilities for the family’s well-being economically, socially and spiritually. As the King was the intermediary between the tribal community and the realm of the spirit, so the father was the chief mediator between the family and its ancestral spirits. (82)

As one might expect in such an arrangement, African societies display great reverence toward the elderly. The eldest living member of the family is by definition the highest authority; he or she is closest to the ancestors—and closest to becoming an ancestor through death.

Moral Development

The web of family relationships and responsibilities is the nexus in which moral development takes place. Young children are socialized into a setting where they quickly learn their duties and responsibilities, and this socialization reaches a climax during the rites of passage associated with puberty and the taking on of adult responsibilities.

The ethical systems of African societies tend to be covenantal: they are based on defined reciprocal responsibilities to be fulfilled by all parties involved:

In all their relationships Africans assume a reciprocity of responsibilities and duties determined, in large part, by traditional understandings, beliefs, and practices. Such responsibilities and duties were exercised within a context that bestowed primary value on activities of constituting, reconstituting, preserving, and enhancing the community, which in turn constituted, reconstituted, preserved, and enhanced the lives of all. (86)

Knowing one’s place in the family or tribal hierarchy thus revealed one’s obligations toward other members of the community. Thus, when two members of the same group met, it was necessary to determine which one was senior and which one was junior in order to settle the corresponding reciprocal duties.

As is common in such a patriarchal, hierarchical setting, it was generally assumed that “wrongdoing could not originate from the top, only from below” (87). This assumption carried over into how family disputes were settled just as it did the resolution of larger community matters.

What, then, is the result of this sort of moral development within the family? E. Bolaji Idowu lists the following elements of good character (Oludumare: God in Yoruba Belief [Longmans, 1962] 151, cited by Paris, 88):

  1. chastity before marriage on the part of the woman
  2. hospitality
  3. kindness involving generosity
  4. retributive justice
  5. truth telling and rectitude
  6. honesty
  7. covenantal faithfulness
  8. honor and respect for the elderly

These are the character traits that, according to Idowu, represent “the culmination of Yoruba morality” and thus separate human beings from the lower animals (88). This moral training is the primary responsibility of the family.

Once I’m through with Paris, I’m going to revisit Osadolor Imasogie’s Guidelines for Christian Theology in Africa and then re-read something from the early African church (probably Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, simply because it’s probably the early African source with which I’m most familiar) to see what sorts of traces I find of distinctively African thought patterns. My hunch at this point, however, is that I’ll mostly find points of connection with pre-industrial, honor-and-shame cultures such as were dominant on both sides of the Mediterranean in late antiquity.

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