Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 28 July 2006

Globalization and the African kinship network system: will it sustain?

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"Because I relate therefore I am"
-African philosophy

By Mading de Ngor*

July 27, 2006 — I trace my ancestry to the 18th ancestor. This is how it is in much of Africa. When a child is born, he must learn to count to the last ancestor starting from his very name. The African devised the system because kinship makes up a significant part of our essence. A child must be told who his relations are to minimize any risks of incest which undermines what is viewed to be preordained and whose discontinuity is abominable in all solemnity, kinship. I don’t intend to explain kinship across all of Africa, for it was really in Sudan and particularly amongst the cattle rearing Dinka where I had my sharpest memories and reverence for this vital custom.

Kinship is about sharing and generosity. When one family to another in the general African culture wed a girl, this gesture symbolizes a very special undertaking and displays a solid symbol of unity. It meant that these families were now one and will click together to champion any adversity along their way. A Dobe Ju Honsi of Botswana, otherwise called the "Bushmen", will share a relation’s water pool until it dried out and move to the next to facilitate the shortage and scarcity of water resource. For the people of my tribe (and presumably those whose tribes I am yet to study), sharing and generosity are twofold and were often shown by one’s ability to give a kin a cattle. Usually, the relatives are stakeholders, say when a lineage daughter is "married off" to a man from another village. Cattle are then allocated by the closeness of a relative in the ancestry line. For instance, hypothetically, Aluel has just got married by Deng. Deng agrees to give Aluel’s family 50 cows. Some of the cows will go to Aluel’s relations on her mother’s side, the maternal kins. Ditto to her uncles on her father side, the paternal kins, and so on and so forth.

According to the Dinka, when cows were sacrificed to the deity, each relation’s share of the meat was predetermined. This system of sharing was fixed and firm to the extent that when a relative failed to turn up, his share was taken to his house (luak).

Kinship is about exercising common values. The significance of the African Kinship Network System is characterized by the fact that the practice oriented individuals to be mindful of others and as the saying goes; the individual becomes part of a whole. Therefore, one was cultured to be generous to the whole world because being a relative ingrained a notion in Africans that one was part of a common agenda. That you are a people of ubuntu and cieng: an entity, a group, a nationality, a community and plotters of a shared destiny. By exercising of common values, I mean the execution of a communal values embodied in the idea of sharing and relating, which is mostly about doing as opposed to receiving. I want to illustrate this by reciting a Dinka song by a traditional iconic singer Pancol Deng Ajang. It captures the spirit of the day, namely:

A visitor stood in front of my herds.
He gestured to buy milk.
I said, "come and sit visitor",
The milk of my father’s herds,
Have never been sold to anyone.

Even if you summers and winters,
You will takeoff by your own discretion,
The home is where people eat for free.
Take back your money!

In hindsight, it is probably due to the resilience of the kinship system in Africa that helps the "destitute" inhabitants to have zest and jubilance in the midst of burning fires. According to the New African editor Baffour Ankomah, it’s become a cliché for Western volunteers in Africa and journalists to say:
"’The people are so poor, they have nothing - and yet they have so much joy and seem so happy.’"

Before I can elaborate on the durability of kinship in Africa on the face of the accelerating change, it is worthy to bring to your attention the latest developments in the "modern" world where the West is now turning to African traditions to seek happiness despite being hammered in the world’s conscience that Africa is the "Dark Continent" of doom.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) vs. General Well-Being (GWB)

In this month (July, 2006’s edition), the New African editor summarized in his column "Baffour’s Beefs" what he deems "the most important political speech I have heard in my entire journalistic life." It was delivered by the British Conservative Party leader, Sir David Cameron. It reads: Today....I want to set out a new political agenda on life as it is lived," he said on 22 May. "In a series of speeches over the next few weeks, I want to look at the things that matter most in people’s lives. Working life. Family life. And what we might describe as community life - neighbours, surroundings, local institutions... How can we in Britain master the challenge of providing people with work that adds not just to the quantity of money in their pockets, but the quality of their lives?"

He continued: "Too often in politics today, we behave as if the only thing that matters is the insider stuff that we politicians love to argue about, economic growth, budget deficits and GDP. Gross Domestic Product. Yes, it’s vital. It measures the wealth of our society. But it hardly tells the whole story. Wealth is about so much more than pounds or euros or dollars can ever measure. It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB - General Well-Being."

He went on to explain what it is: "Well-being can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It can’t be required by law or delivered by government. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, and above all the strength of our relationships. Improving our society’s sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times. In an ever-more competitive world, we have to be constantly vigilant in the battle to secure investment, create jobs and spread opportunity. But we should also acknowledge a vital truth that the pursuit of wealth is no longer - if ever was - enough to meet people’s deepest hopes and aspirations. I think it’s increasingly clear that the spirit of the age demands social values as well as economic value."

The young Tory leader continued: "We hear a lot about the bracing winds of globalization - footloose capital, buccaneering business, accelerating change. And we are often told that we have to embrace the change, not resist it. But that’s too simplistic. On one level, of course, we have to be comfortable with change. But on another level, the human level, we have to remember what makes people happy, as well as what makes stock markets rise.

"What makes us happy, above all, is a sense of belonging, strong relationships with friends, family and the immediate world around us. That’s about permanence, not change. It’s about the personal, not the commercial...We know there is a deep satisfaction which comes from belonging to someone and someplace. There comes a point when you can’t keep on choosing, you have to commit. If so much of our modern globalized consumer culture ultimately seems unsatisfying, then it is because it fails to satisfy this deep human need...I believe that a new political agenda with Well-Being as well wealth creation as its aim, must find ways to address these challenges."

David Cameron speech should be an eye opener to many Africans who believes capitalism and consumerism are the order of the day. Far from it, but let’s resume our discussions of kinship.

Setbacks to Kinship

Recently, I bumped into a young girl of Congolese background on a public transit. She sat adjacent to me and though we lapsed into dread silence and stared fixedly away from each other, her robust and ubiquitous presence made me uneasy. We occasionally and conspicuously stole glances at each other before I’d decide to break the silence. Our discussions were animated and rapturous: we clicked as if we had known each other for centuries. Were we kin and kith by any chance?

The uniformity of the general African culture is striking. A child in rural Rwanda would have already undergone similar rites in upbringing as a child in a village in Sudan. Ask a Rwandan, a Ugandan and so on what he used to do as a child and you would be blown away by the resemblance of the customs. I came to that realization that we Africans shared common experiences and perceptions of which kinship is paramount as I speak with the young Congolese female. She migrated to Canada five years ago as a result of the ending onslaught in the Congo. When I asked if the thought of returning to the Congo had ever crept in her mind, the young lady’s answer sounds incongruous.

"My sister is a university graduate", she said. "She is contemplating going back, but there are a lot of relatives [in the Congo]." One need not explain at length the unpopularity of kinship without embarking on the showdown between the Africa that was, the Old Africa of kith and kin and the New Africa that is transpiring, the one characterized by self-service and individualism. According to the catchphrases of the day, the New Africa is associated with "planning" and "education." "No more in the New Africa shall a person have many wives and children with insufficient budget to care for them. No more in the New Africa shall people give to their kins recklessly or risk the saving gap". This is globalization at its best fostering the rise of the New Africa over the former and ultimately posing a monumental barrier to the upkeep of the Old Africa of kinship.

Africa revolves around kinship

Kinship is to Africa what privatization is to the Western World. With globalization and its homogenizing tendencies, Africa is vastly being "privatize", "Westernize" and marginalize.

In his entire 40minutes address to his nation late last year, the President of the United States of America George W. Bush uttered a line I wholeheartedly credited. He said that "the democracies in the Middle East will not be the same with ours, they will reflect their values." This is wholly true, but the question as always remains: why should African democracies reflect the Western style of democracy where privatization and capitalism are being emulated in Africa, nonetheless unsuccessfully?

Africa and the West are fundamentally different from the outset. Africa depends on communalism, whereas capitalism is the embodiment of the Western essence. Look at the divergence of the West ’s philosophy and the African philosophy. The West says, "Because I think therefore I am" while the African says that "Because I relate therefore I am." A Westerner is who he/she is because he/she thinks, while the African, contrary to that, is, because he/she relates. And in the steps of the same Western syllogism comes the coinage "human right" with contempt for the African communality where individuals are part of the whole. In other words, the human in the phrase "human right" is the "I" in the European philosophy. Hence, the human began as a European and later expanded to "everybody."

To sum up, the kinship system is the soul of Africa, but with the deterritorialization of Africans across nations, globalization has become disproportionate and unsustainable in the sense that if a person in the Diaspora has many relatives, as most of us do back in Africa, he/she is helpless in shouldering such a stiff responsibility of assisting multiple relatives single-handedly. Yet when we look at this from a not so money angle, what’s important to people in the words of the British Tory David Cameron is "a sense of belonging". I am who I am today because I know I count not necessarily to the whole world, but to my relatives and the villages around me. I feel proud to be a kin of someone.

* Mading de Ngor is the webmaster of New Sudan Vision, to be online soon. He is reachable at :



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