Modernity and the “Extended Family System”

by Ephraim Adinlofu

If there is one institution in Nigeria and Africa that has stood the test of time, it is our traditional extended family system. It has weathered and is still weathering well programmed western spells and storms. Its function is being socially disfigured by the intrusion of modern western values. Though, it seems like it is gradually fading away but blood is still blood, its basic vestiges are still ingrained in us. As far as you are from Africa and the third world, you cannot deny the impact of this institution in your life. We are all, in one way or the other, beneficiaries of that system.

By simple definition “it is composed of a number of joint, compound, elementary and nuclear families occupying separate but nearby homesteads”. Its function encompasses the basic functions of the unit called the family and these are: to “provide emotional needs to all involved; provides sexual needs to husband and wife, or a man and the woman; ensures the procreation of children; acts as a basic economic unit and provides for the early care and training of children”.

Since our corrupt leaders over the years had not deemed it fit to provide us with basic social security, the institution has metamorphosed into our own version of Europe’s social security. In the midst of danger and threat, it is part of our shock absorbing system, a seeming elixir that has been with us from time immemorial. It has saved many, in this modern era of red blood practice of capitalism, from heart attacks and strokes. It has rescued brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, who have almost lost hope on life and its essence. It is an institution that one can still explore towards actualizing one’s dreams and aspirations if one understands the operational principles behind its diverse functions.

Most of us went to school on the strength of this system, otherwise we would have been stack illiterates, walking, sulking or even marauding about with native and naive intelligence. After the genocide of 1967 to 1970 against the Igbo, the extended family system played a key role in rehabilitating most homes that Gowon‘s £20 could do no meaningful good to. Most Igbos who were rich before the war became poor after the war and vice versa. War time is a period of anomie, blind wickedness, norm less ness, confusion, danger and abuse of vacated positions of the fleeing victims. During that war, most Geneva Convention rules of engagement were turned inside-out and up-side-down.

However, in the extended family system “menu drop down”, some of us must have read and heard comments like: “my parents were so poor that it was my mum’s brother or father’s sister, that helped towards my education” or, that “it was my father’s brother that trained me to read medicine, law or pharmacy or it that it was my Zangon Kataf in-law, that gave me money to go into business or that arranged for a visa to enable me travel to either the UK or the USA to seek for greener pastures” etc. In the modern practice of the system, we have seen where an older brother trained younger brother and sister and those trained in turn helped to train older brother’s children and so the circle continues. It never ends.

Even where one cannot shoulder all the responsibility, one still shows some concerns by contributing in other ways to ease the burden on a brother or a sister. With the situation in most homes in Nigeria, it is not easy to look, untouched and unperturbed, at an indigent family especially if you are in a position to at least render a little help. Sometimes, money is not everything but just subtle words of encouragement to struggling members who have manifested positive potentialities. There are raw talents in our communities that what most of them needed is just a little pep talk to move them to aspire and aim higher.

Besides, because the state is shirking or shying away from most of its responsibilities to such a dire level that it cannot even take care of the elderly and other vulnerable members of the community, the burden on all becomes quite obvious. Thus, as a married man with elementary family, you are taking care of your family unit and at same time, your aged parents. The state gives nothing and does nothing for the aged. Even where it does, the quality of what it does is often called to question.

In other wards, without the extended family tree, your elderly parents are left at the mercy of what anthropologists call the “other others”. All things being equal, part of the institutionalised functions of the extended family system has always been to help in blending the basic elementary-cum-nuclear family, joint family, compound family, and the maximal family or quarters. It helps to promote the spirit of sharing, communalism and proper bonding. It guides against selfishness, “ego- massaging”, and excessive individualism and above all, imposes social sanctions on those who go contrary to cultural norms, mores and values.

However, with the spread of its opposite kind and, disparate western value system, especially a constituent vice component of it called individualism, this institution is being threatened left, right and centre. Of course, it has been weathering the storm-petrels of globalization and adjusting by its own internal dynamics, but the pressure is getting out of hand. The “I, me, and myself” culture of the advanced West has dangerously permeated and crept into our system, creating distortions and double personalities thus, we pander to the dictates of impinging powerful western values whilst trying to adjust pari passu and with tact, to the over bearing pressure of traditional callings.

This is where one expects a visionary govt to be proactive in policy making. Govt ought to have started long term plans that will see to the provision of welfare packages for the most vulnerable members of the society. Most European countries’ humane policies and ability to provide social security for their citizens is not beyond Nigeria’s reach bearing in mind our enormous resources and purloined wealth. There ought to be free and qualitative medical care for any Nigerian that has reached the age of 60 years and above; for those, that are under 15 years, and for citizens that are clearly disabled. With the exception of pensioners, those who are 60 years and above should be entitled to a reasonable monthly feeding allowance, which should always be reviewed in line with inflationary trend. A data bank should be set up at the local government levels to collate information on those concerned. This will help to reduce the urge to sequestrate public funds that are at the disposal of our politicians.

Education ought to be made free up to the university level; compulsory up to the senior secondary school level and free to all who want to acquire some skills. It should then be a punishable offence for parents not to send their children to school. Our leaders should be visionary enough to learn to move with global trends. We cannot at this stage, says late Julius Nyerere, still be battling “to go to the village while the white man is already on the moon”. We have got to make some sharp and qualitative strides for conscience’s sake.

Not to be ignored, is the fact that Nigerians in the Diaspora are trying and should not relent in their efforts in sending monies home to help struggling relatives to meet certain pressing basic exigencies of life. When the UK’s Minister for Money transfer released figures of money transferred to Africa by Africans resident and working in the UK, I was touched by the figure, which in fact partially prompted this write-up. The figure was awesome. To remit about £800 million in a particular financial year is no mean figure, even though what was repatriated to the UK from Africa was almost double. This shows however that despite all odds, we still believe in the unity and the philosophical principles behind the ext

ended family system.

In line with this thought, our brothers and sisters at the home front should also learn to control their appetites. Granted that we know that things are not easy back home, it is equally not a bed of roses abroad. Some of us work our hands to the bones to make ends meet. I was quite surprised when |I went home a year last to discover that those who demand for money from me had up to three to four mobile handsets. I have only one in the UK, which is not even roaming. How they top up and maintain those lines baffles me. They cannot even trek short distances, no, they lazily prefer to ride on Okada. Give some of them money to start a project for you, before you call Charles Darwin, stories have started flying. Your money either “changes into a goat” or disappears with the wind, just like that!

In all anyway, the extended family system has come of age. It is one bedrock around which tradition revolves on. It has spread its functional tentacles beyond ethnic, tribal, religious and regional boundaries. Recently, I was drawing the genealogical tree of a compound family only to observe that, that family, through the institution of marriage of the cross-cultural variant, has stretched as far as to Kano and Kafanchan, in the North; Ede, Abeokuta and Ijebu Ode, in Yoruba land; Egbema, in Rivers; Enugwu-Ugwu, in Anambra state; Owerri and Avutu Obowo, in Imo state; Agbor and Warri, in Delta state and London, in the UK. I then concluded that the unity of Nigeria may, in the foreseeable future, be sufficiently taken care of by children from such marriages aided by the mysterious meandering and interpenetration of other aspects of our traditional institutions.

The African extended family system has survived slavery, colonial and neo-colonial bleaching values. I believed it will continue to evolve and survive the unending attacks it is presently receiving from our lawless brand of practice of neo-colonial capitalism with its morally bankrupt value system. And to Nigerians in Diaspora who send money home to help family members, never mind those who are wont to laugh at your profession no matter how menial, may God continue to guide you and may your pockets never go dry! Amen! Ese and A’she! I rest my case!

Prof. M.A Onwujeogwu {Dept of Sociology and Anthropology, UNIBEN}, Dr. Bana Okpu {Formerly of Dept of History, UNIBEN} and Mr. Chris Ebighgbo {Dept of Fine & Applied Arts, UNIBEN}

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Anonymous April 15, 2018 - 7:35 am


buba May 9, 2011 - 9:10 am

beneficiary to those abroad and home. please keep on educating and responding to social issues as they arise. god bless

lovenest Nwachukwu February 11, 2009 - 5:31 pm

There is nothing wrong with our extended family, except that some Africans abroad want to disown theirs and make a fool of themselves. But the system will out live all of us. It is an institution worth preserving.


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