February 23, 2005

African Family Structures

The NYT finally tells some truth about Africa: One of my recurring topics is that sub-Saharan family structures tend to be radically different from the Europeans ones that most educated Americans are familiar with (and that African-Americans have tended to be poised in between). The New York Times finally gets around to discussing African family structures because they've figured out how to give the topic a feminist slant in "AIDS and Custom Leave African Families Nothing:"

There are two reasons why 11-year-old Chikumbutso Zuze never sees his three sisters, why he seldom has a full belly, why he sleeps packed sardinelike with six cousins on the dirt floor of his aunt's thatched mud hut.

One is AIDS, which claimed his father in 2000 and his mother in 2001. The other is his father's nephew, a tall, light-complexioned man whom Chikumbutso knows only as Mr. Sululu.

It was Mr. Sululu who came to his village five years ago, after his father died, and commandeered all of the family's belongings - mattresses, chairs and, most important, the family's green Toyota pickup, an almost unimaginable luxury in this, one of the poorest nations on earth. And it was Mr. Sululu who rejected the pleas of the boy's mother, herself dying of AIDS, to leave the truck so that her children would have an inheritance to sustain them after her death.

Instead, Chikumbutso said, he left behind a battery-powered transistor radio.

"I feel very bitter about it," he said, plopped on a wooden bench in 12-by-12-foot hut rented by his maternal aunt and uncle on the outskirts of this town in the lush hills of southern Malawi. "We don't really know why they did all this. We couldn't understand."

Actually, the answer is simple: custom. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa the death of a father automatically entitles his side of the family to claim most, if not all, of the property he leaves behind, even if it leaves his survivors destitute.

In an era when AIDS is claiming about 2.3 million lives a year in sub-Saharan Africa - roughly 80,000 people last year in Malawi alone - disease and stubborn tradition have combined in a terrible synergy, robbing countless mothers and children not only of their loved ones but of everything they own...

The tradition is rooted in the notion that men are the breadwinners and the property of a married couple represents the fruits of the man's labor. Women may tend the goats and plant the corn, but throughout the region's rural communities they are still regarded as one step up from minors, unable to make an economic contribution to the household.

When the husband dies the widow is left essentially to start over, much like a young girl, presumably to search for another husband. Since the children typically remain with the mother, her losses are also theirs.

The degree to which men control household property varies from country to country and tribe to tribe.

In matrilineal tribes, children are considered descendants of the mother, and the family typically lives in the mother's village. Should the husband die, the widow typically keeps the house and land, plus items judged to be women's essentials like pots, pans, kitchen utensils and buckets, according to studies by Women and Law in Southern Africa. Her in-laws collect the more valuable belongings, like bicycles, sewing machines, vehicles and furniture.

Most tribes are patrilineal, meaning that children are considered the father's descendants and men are viewed as the owners of all of the property. Here, a new widow's situation is truly precarious. Her in-laws may allow her continued access to her home as long as she does not remarry. But if she wants to move away, she leaves bereft of all property.

Alternatively she may be forced to marry one of her husband's relatives to keep her property. Or she may simply be driven out altogether.

The NYT's feminist angle isn't terribly illuminating here since this particular case involves a man discriminating against his son in favor of his nephew. So, let me explain the reasons behind this system, since it seems bizarre to us for a man not to want his estate to go to his widow and children. We wouldn't think of providing for our nephews before our children, but in Africa that is not uncommon. Why do Africans act like that?

The U. of Utah anthropologist Henry Harpending, who lived with various African tribes for 42 months, recounts that once, when he was about to set out on a dangerous journey through lion country, his worried hosts asked him, "To whom should we send your property in case you are eaten?

"Uh, to my wife, of course," Henry replied, puzzled.

"To your wife!" the tribespeople exclaimed, aghast. "Why don't you want your property to go to your family instead?"

By "family," they meant Henry's birth family rather than his marriage family.

So, why, relative to the temperate world, is there less paternal investment in tropical Africa and more investment in siblings' children? The simplest explanation is because husband's enjoy less certainty of paternity. That, not coincidentally, is the same reason there is so much AIDS -- because African husbands are less likely to do what it takes to keep their wives sexually faithful, such as working hard to provide for them. So, they get cuckolded a lot. In turn, they don't put much effort into providing for their wives' children, since the odds that they are also their own children are not all that high.

This logic all makes perfect sense, but it goes a long way toward explaining why Africa is so poor.

African-American family structures are of course midway between African and white American norms, on average. Euro-American norms were winning out until the increase in welfare payments to single mothers in the 1960s, at which point monogamous two-parent families began to collapse. Today, about two thirds of African-American babies are illegitimate, although that r ate has stabilized during the more hard-headed past decade.

No comments: