MARRIAGE AND THE FAMILY IN AFRICA: Position Papers, April 1988

Traditional African approaches in the light of natural values, and of modern secular attitude   

 If we are going to speak of traditional African concepts and customs regarding marriage and the family, a few clarifications are called for. The first is that the context of this article is sub-Sahara Africa. Within that context, I use "traditional" in the sense of what was customary up to the time of independence, i.e., some 25-30 years ago. There are two further important points to be borne in mind: a) to speak of "African customs" or "African culture" is necessarily to generalize, and all generalizations are subject to many particular exceptions (in fact, there is not just one "African culture" but many cultures in Africa); b) traditional African values are currently being subjected to strong pressures, coming mainly from the West, and are changing fast particularly in urban environments.


    I think it can help clarity of exposition if we approach our subject from three angles. In the first place we can compare African traditions and attitudes with Christian teaching on marriage and the family, and more concretely with the natural law values that it is part of the Church's mission to preserve and hand on. In the second place we can contrast these African attitudes with the sexual or marital and family "mores" that prevail in the western world. Finally we can devote some consideration to factors that are currently undermining the stability of the African family.


    What I hope will emerge from our study is the fact that the natural law - the law designed to keep man's conduct human - is more deeply rooted and reflected in many traditional African societies than in the western world: as a result these societies of the Third World are more human and offer, if not an unqualified model, certainly a strong reminder of many values that the West has all but lost.




    If we consider the classical three "goods" of marriage as expounded by St. Augustine - the bonum prolis or offspring, the bonum fidei or unity, and the bonum sacramenti or indissolubility - we can immediately state that the first - the sense of children as a good: as a value to be desired - is so strong in the traditional African outlook as to make the other two goods totally subordinated to it and indeed over-ridden by it.


    It is in this light that one should consider the phenomenon of polygamy which is of course the main point where traditional African marriage has most frequently departed from the norm of the natural law.


    Having noted that the incidence of polygamy is much less than many westerners would seem to think (it varies from tribe to tribe, but in practice some 20% to 30% of African marriages have been polygamous, with a norm of two wives per marriage), it is important to underline that the main factor behind polygamy is not sexual incontinence, but the overriding desire and, as it were, necessity of having children. This can be seen, for instance, in the fact that the taking of a second wife is so often the simple consequence of the barrenness of the first.


    Polygamy not only violates the divine design that marriage should be a communion of life between just one man and one woman who then become two in one flesh (Gen. 2, 24), but it also contradicts the fundamental equality of the spouses which is grounded both in nature and in the scriptural affirmation that the feminine expression of human nature - no less than the masculine - images God (Gen. 1,26-27).


    Although polygamy still has its defenders, the majority of Africans readily understand that the Christian and natural norm of monogamous marriage is essential for upholding the dignity of woman. Given the rapid cultural changes operating in Africa, it seems likely that, within a decade or two, polygamy as a pastoral problem will be replaced by western style divorce and remarriage.


    In traditional African society, men guarded the home and the cattle, or went to war. The women worked, caring for the house, the crops, the children. So used were the women to work that a polygamous situation would at times be provoked by the first wife's asking her husband to take a second wife who could be a help to her in her work.


    It could be remarked in passing that the tradition of women being much more industrious than men has accelerated the current process of equalization between the sexes, since the African woman in the modern working situation will generally outdo the man.


    Just as polygamy has been fairly frequent in traditional African society, divorce has been extremely rare. An important point of difference between polygamy and divorce is not to be overlooked. In polygamy the first wife is not rejected or put away; the marriage bond is not considered broken. What is violated is unity, but not indissolubility.


    One might say that, in African tradition, the indissolubility of marriage is conditioned to its fruitfulness. Practically speaking, the birth of a child marked the "consummation" of the marriage. Once a child has been born the marriage is indissoluble. As one African put it to me, "Children became a real external sign of this indissoluble unity." So, if an African women did not give her husband children, she was considered to have failed him—and society-in the most serious way possible. And if he choose to consider his marriage null and send her back to her family, society - and the woman herself - would agree.


    The matrimonial jurisprudence of the Church's tribunals, in line with the natural law, has never accepted sterility as grounds for invalidating a marriage. This African tradition, then, is unacceptable from a Christian standpoint. Yet it is interesting to note it as a sign of something which we will examine in the second part of our study: the high value that Africans place on children.


    All of this undoubtedly implies a "test" approach to marriage. Yet, to my mind, it would not be accurate to interpret this African approach as showing a "trial marriage" mentality in the sense in which trial marriage is spoken of in western countries. The simple underlying fact is that for the African approaching marriage, children are more important than "compatibility."


    Some anthropologists have also sought to read a "trial" approach into a different African phenomenon which is the gradualness of the African marriage process. But this is not an adequate analysis either. This gradualness is simply a consequence of family and clan involvement in the match-making process. African marriages come into being as a result not of a single ceremony, but of many ceremonies with an inter-family significance. But personal consent has always remained the critical moment and factor. Formal betrothal of a couple often takes place in the presence of both families. After betrothal, once the couple actually exchange marital consent (and this exchange may be signified by the simple fact of their having marital relations), then their marriage is traditionally considered to be sealed.




    Africa, recently liberated from western political domination, is in danger of falling under the domination of western—or eastern—ideological neo- colonialism. The African countries are being barraged concretely by western ideas on sex, marriage and the family. Many factors would seem to guarantee the eventual acceptance of these ideas - western prestige, western know-how, western technology, western methods of diffusion - and yet this is an area where traditional ideas and values are deeply rooted, stand in sharp contrast to western ways, and will not easily be supplanted. This is not to say that they are not in danger; they are, as we shall see in our final section.


Sacred Realities


    A first major point of contrast is the African conviction that sex and marriage are sacred realities. Traditional African sexual morality derived from the sense of the sacredness of the procreative function. Sex was a taboo matter; hence to "play" with sex was held to merit a curse. Africans coming to Europe are quite sincere in their scandalized reaction at the public "love"—making that has become common among couples. Even husband and wife, within an African home, are reserved in their behavior before their children. The public expression of any type of sexual familiarity is repugnant to the African sense.


    Virginity was held in high esteem. If a girl came to marriage as a virgin, the bridewealth (dowry) that her suitor's family had paid would have to be increased. In some tribes, for instance, her mother might be given a cow as a tribute to her successful upbringing of the girl. In such a case, the fact other virginity would be a matter of public knowledge, and would earn her special respect from her in-laws.


    As against this, a girl known to be loose could hope, at best, to be married to an old man, as helper of his first wife. To be married to an old man was a grave disgrace for her and her family, before the rest of the tribe.


    Some people would no doubt criticize virtue "based on social pressure" (just on social pressure?) and criticize as well the society that exercises such pressure. What should they then say in criticism of societies that tend to admire vice, and allow or exercise social pressure to bring about corruption in individuals, especially in the young?


    Within marriage itself, it was an accepted norm that there must be periodic abstinence; for instance during weaning periods, or for specifically religious motives (e.g., during drought) as a sacrifice to obtain favors from the gods.


    My intention here is to bring out some of the positive values that underlie traditional African approaches to marriage. I am not trying to paint an idealized picture of a pagan culture. Lest anyone think so, I should add that sexual sins have been as common in traditional Africa as in other societies. But it is also true that the African retained and retains a keen sense of sin, especially in an area considered to be as sacred as sex. It is in fact this native African sense of sin (derived from his sense of sacred realities) that so predisposes the African towards Christianity. The powerful attraction that Christianity has for him lies precisely in its being - and being presented as - a religion of salvation, of liberation from sin.


    We cannot pass on without mentioning something important connected with the taboo system which was largely centered around sexual matters and. intended to preserve moral behavior in this field.


    The sexual permissiveness that has spread through the West in the past 20 or 30 years is beginning to make serious inroads into African societies. African thinkers in growing numbers are becoming sharply critical of the West (and of course they often identify Christianity with the West) for having destroyed the taboo system and left nothing but a moral vacuum in its place. In some cases their criticism may be no more than opportunism at work. In other cases it is undoubtedly quite sincere.


    Christian pastors and teachers are often not sensitive enough to the confusion underlying this criticism and to the harm it can do. And as a result they are not clear and firm enough in helping people distinguish between Christianity as a force that has sought to replace the taboos with a higher and purer and stronger morality, and modern western paganism as a force that seeks to replace the taboos - and, a fortiori, Christian and natural moral principles - with a non-morality. Further, if Christian pastors and missionaries themselves preach or reflect a permissive morality (or fail to criticize it); they will repel precisely those Africans who possess a keener sense of their own traditions and who are therefore most prepared to appreciate how Christian principles, properly taught and properly applied to a culture, can save, purify and uplift the best values of that culture (cf. Lumen Gentium; Ad Gentes 9; Gaudium et Spes 58).


Children - a Blessing


    A second major African characteristic is the deep and universal conviction that children are a blessing. In total contrast to the West, both personal and social attitudes favor having children. Lack of children is considered a misfortune, or even a sign of a curse.


    The desire for children has always been the main motive inspiring the African to marry. It would be inadequate to interpret this as placing the procreational or biological aspect of marriage above the aspect of personal fulfillment. A truer analysis is that personal fulfillment for the African is achieved very principally in having offspring - through which one expresses and perpetuates oneself.


    Children have always been regarded as a prolongation of self and therefore in some way a fulfillment of immortality. As one African put it to me, "A man who had no child would consider himself dead and finished. His life has come to an end: it has no continuation."


    The concept of a deliberately barren marriage is inconceivable for the African, also from the personalistic viewpoint. It would mean a choice not to express oneself; therefore a lack of personality and of personal fulfillment; a choice to remain within an expressionless self-enclosure. Even today an African who sees a couple that does not want children will say that they are barren, i.e., that they are not capable of having children. In consequence, most Africans cannot even understand the idea of contraception. It makes no sense to them.


Community Dimension


    The community dimension of marriage is another main feature of African society. In Africa a marriage is never just an affair between two individuals. It is also an alliance between two families. And in a certain sense whole villages or clans are involved.


    The clan has always had an important say - frequently too important a say - in the acceptance of a marriage partner, precisely because marriage involves the welcoming of a new member into the clan. Africans at times will even say that it is not two individuals but two clans that marry.


    The effect of western ideas is to reduce this social emphasis in favor of more personalistic concepts. Yet many educated Africans remain sensitive to the possibility that a new emphasis on personal values in marriage - mutual love, personal choice, a desire for self-fulfillment, etc. - is not necessarily in contrast with social values nor should it lead to their exclusion. They are also beginning to realize that many western approaches are not so much personalistic as individualistic. The rejection of the broader social commitment that Africans have always connected with marriage covers a hidden and excessive self-concern that can lead in time to a refusal to face up to the demands involved in the mini-society which is the nuclear marriage itself, and to a subsequent collapse of the marriage.


    A successful marriage always has a social aspect. It always calls for an opening out to others (to one's spouse and one's children at the very minimum) and this is possible only in the degree in which individualistic self-love is overcome. Africans often ask with surprise: "But-has marriage in western society become just an individual affair? ..." Individualism for the African is not a new value.


    It is interesting to consider how this family or clan involvement can affect the personal freedom of one or both of the spouses. Family pressure could certainly inspire such reverential fear in a person that he or she consents to the marriage. If the fear inspired is grave then it may be possible to show that the consent lacked a minimum of freedom and the marriage is therefore null. The marriage, however, would be valid if the person concerned, despite the fear, decided in fact to accept the marriage and so gives true personal marital consent. This was probably the case with many European arranged marriages of the past and with the great majority of traditional arranged African marriages. Yet the fact is that many of these marriages "worked," and so the spouse or the spouses may, in the end, have remained grateful for pressure which had helped them to find a solid marriage and home.


    There is another way in which family involvement has had an important effect on personal freedom in African marriage. If a marital crisis arose - a serious situation or quarrel between the spouses that threatened the marriage with collapse - the families would intervene in an effort to save the marriage. The father or mother of the husband, and then perhaps the elders of the clan, would speak with him - and the wife's relatives similarly with her - and in the end there might be an interclan session.


    Here again one has a clear case of family or social pressure brought to bear on individual freedom. But does this necessarily signify a violation of that freedom? African society would rather see it as a strong support to the spouses in moments of difficulty, and a strong encouragement to them to summon up the personal maturity needed to overcome the difficulties. Logically enough, in the heat of the moment, the husband or wife would not always see it in that light. Yet - if they responded - the passage of time often gave them the necessary perspective to see that what had first appeared to them as unwarranted family interference or pressure was in fact family support without which their marriage would not have survived.


    It is easy to criticize such social pressure as bearing down on personal freedom. In healthy societies, however, it may actually be bearing that freedom up and lending it support. The stability of the African family has been in a large measure due to this type of social support.


    Few marriages, after all, have to fail. If many modern marriages do fail, it is so often because in moments of crisis the couple lack family support or have lost the tradition of heeding it. So, instead of being helped over the difficulty and into a more generous and mature approach to human and family love, they let themselves opt for a failed marriage. Having stumbled at a hurdle which was really meant to be a challenge to personal growth and maturity, they easily lapse into isolation and selfishness.


    A few brief points to conclude this section. One refers to the African tradition of "bridewealth" i.e., the payment of dowry (so many cows or goats) by the man's family to the family of the girl whose hand he was seeking.


    It is easy to see bridewealth as a purely or predominantly commercial transaction which is introduced into engagement and marriage in violation of human dignity. Without denying whatever truth this criticism may contain, the matter can also be viewed from another viewpoint: i.e., one can also see brideswealth as a social institution which has a steadying effect on marriage. In a moment of matrimonial crisis such as we have been considering, the relatives of a disgruntled wife would undoubtedly exercise all the pressure possible to avoid her walking out on her husband for, if she were to do so, the bridewealth or dowry would have to be returned to the husband's family... Commercialism indeed! And surely a one-sided pressure on the women involved in such situations?... True. Yet that very pressure also helped to mature the African woman in the spirit of sacrifice. Contrary to what one might suppose, African women tend to be strong and mature: at times with very formidable personalities indeed.


    We should of course note a logical and salient feature within the community dimension of African marriage, which is the total integration of the parents of the spouses into the home, especially in their old age. The idea of excluding parents from family-life was unheard of (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 27). Traditional Africa suffered far less than modern Europe from age-gaps, lack of respect for elders, or contempt for tradition itself.


    A final point of contrast between western and African ideas could draw our attention. This is in relation to the voluntary termination of marriage (i.e., divorce) and the deliberate termination of the fruit of marriage (abortion and infanticide). Regarding abortion and infanticide, they were universally regarded as great crimes and were extremely rare.


    As for divorce, while divorce laws have been introduced into the modern legislations of most African countries, this does not correspond to African tradition in which divorce was almost unknown. (Sterility, as we saw above, was considered grounds for annulment rather than for any divorce after a true marriage).


    Some tribes did regard notorious adultery as grounds for divorce. Here an interesting point could be noted. According to modern laws in some African countries, a wife who has had a tubal ligation without her husband's consent may be divorced. While this is of course totally unacceptable from a Christian point of view, it nevertheless underlines how a deliberate rejection of fertility by one spouse is regarded as an offense - against the other and against the very sense of marriage—that is as serious as adultery itself.


    May I repeat that the purpose of my remarks is not to give an idyllic impression of traditional African marriage. It is simply to bring out certain major positive values it has. Regarding the negative side—especially in the matter of polygamy, which necessarily assigns to women a whole personal and social role of inferiority-, much more could be said. But it is not to my point here to say it. Nor is it to the point to insist than even in a traditional monogamous situation, the actual living out and deepening of love, based on equal respect and good communication between the partners, often falls far short of the ideal. Only Christian marriage offers the grace to reach for the ideal: and even then too few Christian married couples seem to reach for it.




    In this third section, I would like to consider factors that are currently undermining the traditional values which have been present in African attitudes towards marriage and the family.


    The first set of factors hostile to family life are essentially the result of political and social changes. Their incidence on family life was probably inevitable given the sudden emergence of independent Africa into the industrialized and urbanized world of the twentieth century.


    The accelerated change from a primitive to a modem society has upset many traditional family patterns. For instance, in a growing number of cases it is becoming more and more frequent for modern African families to have homes that, if not broken, are certainly split.


    When the father moves to the town and takes up work there, while the mother continues to live in the country, the family is already split. Even if both parents with their children come to live in the town, the home they set up there is often less liveable in than the home they had in the country, and it has a tendency towards frequent changes of location. Urban life is new for the vast majority of African parents, and they have yet to find the way of passing on values to their children within the peculiar difficulties of an urban environment.


    Within this situation special mention must be made of the working mother. In a traditional situation the mother and the small children are seldom separated. The mother works on the land with her youngest child strapped to her back, and is helped in her work by those who are slightly older. In urban situations, the mother now goes out to work. Her place at home is taken by a houseboy or housegirl who often proves to be a negative influence on family life and moral upbringing.


    Urban living hits particularly hard at the extended family, even with regard to its most immediate connections. There is a growing tendency to leave grandparents in the rural home when their married children move to the town. African grandparents in the rural home, it should be noted, are not comparable to western grandparents in an old age home. The rural home is still the African home. The grandparents are in charge of it, cultivate it, and are often visited by their children and grandchildren. But their traditional role in the education of the children is almost gone; just as the traditional prestige of the aged is going in the process.


    The broader connections of the traditional family suffer even more. The custom of receiving relatives into one's home is still strong, but it is placed under great strain in urban conditions. Houses are too small; visiting relatives cost much more to feed, and can seldom be involved in any productive work; tensions are greater and tempers are more frayed. The demise of the extended family could have begun in the bigger cities.


    For Africans, the extended family system - with its guarantee that people will always find support because their relations are always prepared to accept burdens - is a precious inheritance. Those who see the First signs of a threatened breakdown of this form of family and human solidarity - which no western social security can match - realize that this would be an immense loss of civilized values. For the African, it is basically uncivilized to neglect older people or to fail to help relatives who are in difficulties or not to welcome them into one's home.


    In such matters it is a good thing that Africans be critical of western trends and realize that they truly have had, and still have, a more human and civilized approach. It will be a better thing still if western societies come to appreciate and admire these expressions of African civilization and begin, in imitation, the difficult process of reworking the same values back into their own way of life.


The Contraceptive Campaign


    The second set of anti-families factors at work in contemporary Africa do not derive from any internal dynamics of the processes of independence or development. They would not have made their appearance "in any case" in post-colonial Africa. They have had to be imposed from outside by means of a sustained campaign that, to many African eyes, threatens to do more harm to family values on the continent than was ever done throughout the colonial period.


    This is the contraceptive campaign with all of its anti-sex, anti-marriage, anti-family, anti-life implications which radically violate the natural sense-so deeply shared by Africans-of the sacredness of these realities.


    Most African governments have adopted some form of population-control policy. Western population agencies however are not too satisfied with the way these policies have been implemented and tend to accuse African governments of half-heartedness in the matter. The accusation is no doubt correct. No government is going to try to impose policies which their people deeply detest, still less so when most of the ministers of the government themselves share that detestation, and look on those of their colleagues who do not, as having lost their African identity.


    A growing number of African thinkers have become increasingly sceptical about the validity of the arguments behind population control. For decades, third world countries have been told that control is an essential condition for growth and development. "If you want to maximize economic growth, you must minimize population growth." For some time past, however, leading western economists have begun to question these assumptions (Colin Clark, Julian Simon, etc.). What is more important is that the simple passage of time is now permitting them to be questioned within the African context itself.


    Kenya is an outstanding case in point. As the country with the highest birth-rate in the world, Kenya has consistently been the object of special attention from the family planners, and is currently been pressurized to introduce abortion on demand. A lot of publicity was given recently to the prediction of a major international agency that if the demographic growth of Kenya is not severely curbed, the present population of 20 million will have doubled to 40 million by the year 2000, and that this will inevitably mean the economic collapse of the country.


    Such predictions carry little weight with Kenyans when they reflect on something that is no hypothesis by a simple fact lying within their own experience. The exponents of family planning were already present and active in Kenya in 1963, the year of the country's independence, and were making rather similar predictions. The population of Kenya in 1963 was 8.5 million. It had doubled by 1979, and is currently over 20 million. An increase of 250% in little more than 20 years. According to the family planning people the country should now be deep in irretrievable economic ruin. Ask any Kenyan about the situation, and he will tell you that, despite inequalities, the country and individual Kenyans are immeasurably better off, economically and materially, than 25 years ago.


    As Africans become aware of the limitless amounts of money spent by western agencies in propagating birth-control in the Third World, they are beginning to ask: can all of this be really so disinterested? As one African economist put it recently to a student audience: "why is it that we have to pay for aid to build roads and dams and so forth, but we get funds for family planning free... Well, he added, I think that people expect you to pay for what benefits you. If they are prepared to make a free gift, it is because the gift benefits them!


    Not that family-planning aid is really free. The adoption of a family-planning policy is the premium the developing country has to pay if it wants to receive aid in essential areas of development. This is what the developing countries are being told: "If you want aid for highways, hospitals and powerstations, then reduce your birth rate. No family-planning policy? No aid." It is as simple as that.


    Some African countries like Tanzania have hitherto refused to accept aid on such blackmail conditions. Where it is accepted, it inevitably results in a growing current of anti-western feeling.


    The western agencies do not seem to realize -or just do not care- that they are violating deeply-ingrained cultural and moral values. Probably they do not care, because their campaigns are undoubtedly making sure if slow progress. The birth-control mentality is becoming generalized in the cities. Through the schools, including the rural schools, teen-agers and even children are becoming imbued with it. The result is that sexual morality is collapsing among the young. Pornography - another western export - is becoming widespread. Teen-age pregnancies are escalating (hence the insistent call for free abortion as the only "solution"). The African countries too are faced with an ominous growth in social violence and general dishonesty which, as the West has already experienced, always follow sexual permissiveness.


    It might seem difficult to avoid concluding our study on a rather sombre note: and yet I do not think such a conclusion is inevitable. Africa has certainly become enveloped in the cultural and moral crisis of the late 20th century world. Its values are threatened and may succumb to modern materialism, individualism and hedonism, all the more —it would seem- because it has few sophisticated defenses to set up against these onslaughts. Nevertheless it possesses powerful natural defenses in its traditional grasp of pro-life and pro-family values. But these values are not likely to survive today, on their own. They need a new force to uphold them. The force is there; will Africans recognize it?


    This is the moment, then, for African Christians to alert their fellow-Africans to those influences coming from outside Africa which oppose and would destroy natural and traditional African values about life, children, and family or human solidarity. It is also the moment for them to draw the attention of their fellow-citizens to how Christianity recognizes and applauds all the powerful good that dwells in these traditional values, and offers a new key for their protection and perfectioning.


    These are good reasons for hoping that African perspectives will not stop there. The present situation in both the world and the Church offers Africans a new challenge and role: not only to insert their traditional values into the Humanity of Christ, where they will be purified, strengthened and uplifted, but to put these values at the service of Christ's mission to the whole world. If Africa retains its human values - leavened by Christ - it can be at the forefront of the re-evangelization of the modern world.


                        *   *   *   *


    Our considerations have brought us to touch on a great theme: the relationship of human values and evangelization. Of course it is clear dial no one is adequately drawn to Christianity just because lie sees in it a promise of support for his human values. And it is equally clear that the purpose of evangelization is not just to save human values. Nevertheless, it is probably true that the first step in any process of evangelization is the awareness of imperiled humanity, just as the second step is the discovery in Christianity of the promise of salvation for human values. Normally it is only at a later moment and at a deeper level that one discovers how Christianity's promise of salvation for man also includes the promise of divinizing him - which finds its full realization only in the next life.


    The West has been drifting away from Christianity for centuries. The western loss of the sense of God, and of the sense of sin, has been followed by a loss of the sense of man, a loss of human values. At this stage, western man scarcely even knows what it is he has lost. He has almost forgotten what it was like to be human. But his memory - and his longing for recovery - can be stirred if he meets people who have learned to be, and to keep being, human through Christianity: people who are proud of the good values present in their background, and prouder still of the Christian faith that, in calling them out of an ancient paganism, has enabled them to preserve those human values in the face of all the dehumanizing power of modern paganism.


    Those who have strayed farthest - from God, from humanity - are not likely to be the first to return. Africa - where most people have not yet lost their human values, and others have only just lost them - can lead the way back, if Africans truly make up their minds to follow Christ.





[1] This conference was given by Msgr. Burke in January 1987, within a series of courses for the training of in-service volunteers and technical experts in the field of international development. The courses are organized by the "Istituto per la Cooperazione Universitaria" (ICU), Rome.