Transforming lives on four continents

Family life in Africa

Posted by Mission Catalyst at 10:33 on 25th May 2010

Daniel Bourdanné explores issues related to being part of a family in Africa – and how individuals are defined by those closest to them.

To speak about the African family is as if someone asked a blind man to describe an elephant. Unable to see the animal in its entirety, he will reduce the description of the elephant to that of the part which he has touched. If he touches the tail, he will say that the elephant is a small animal because of its short tail.

Thus, allow that my short description of the African family is only a partial view of a complex reality – because Africa is plural and it has complex realities.

One cannot describe them without falling into the trap of generalisation and reductionism.

Start the day
When I was a child growing up in Chad, we woke up very early. Every morning, before sunrise, we all went to greet my father. During this family meeting, my father gave us advice and instructions for the day. He made sure that each member of the family was in good health.

He also shared his programme of the day with us. We studied the Bible and prayed together for the day.

My father also rose up early each day and went to his uncle’s house. This uncle was the one who took care of him after the death of his father and who did all he could to help him found his own family.

Every morning, my father wanted to make sure that everything went well in his uncle’s compound. After that, he then came back to receive all of his children as well as all those living under his roof.

Why go through so much trouble, waking up so early every morning, depriving oneself of sleep for the family reunion?

Wide community
The family is an important concept in Africa. Generally speaking, each African belongs to a family which is much larger than an individual one. The African family is not only made up of a man, his wife and their children. 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 are called 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’ can be used to designate any 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.

United we stand
The African family does not consist only of the union between living people. It is indeed extended 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 this unity because the more the family is united, the more it exerts an influence on the rest of the society.

The 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.

Sharing everything
The great decisions are never made individually. 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.

Even during 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 practise solidarity. One cannot conceive a family life without a community of sharing. The meal is shared. 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. One is always surrounded 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.

A source of blessing
The African family is very similar to the biblical traditions. It can be a source of richness for the Church which is defined as the family of God's people in the 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 are corrected 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 dehumanising individualism.

Daniel Bourdanné (pictured right) is General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.


An edited version of this article appeared in issue 4/09 of Mission Catalyst.


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