What is a family? Is it a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labour? Or is it something else entirely: a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void? ~ Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father

It is interesting to note how unavoidable the question of origins is; even to the “speaker-in-chief” of the United States of America. Americans are famous for espousing the You-Can-Be-Whatever-You-Want-To-Be philosophy which in many ways disregards aspects that condition our “creatureliness” such as history, identity, genetics, race, tradition and community. In Dreams from my Father, Barack Obama has dedicated pages, ink, time and energy into a memoir that delves into the events that make up his personal history – a commendable effort which would otherwise be a waste of pages, ink, time and energy if We-Can-Be-Whatever-We-Want-To-Be. For me, memoirs and autobiographies have always been a window into the complex and intricate chain of causes and effects that make up our lives and that ultimately prove that we are never completely in control of the events in our lives and that in the final analysis; we cannot be whatever we want to be.

But I digress; I would like to attempt an answer to the questions on family posed in the above preamble by Mr. Obama. My point of departure is an aspect of African culture that has frequently been referred to as the “Cult of the Ancestors”. By cult here I mean – as the etymology of the word suggests – that which we have nurtured and cult-ivated over time and has therefore become identified with us, valuable to us and consequently, proper to our way of being. By the expression, “Cult of the Ancestors” I mean that attitude of reverence that we reserve for our elders, be they close or distant, familiar or foreign. By cult, in short, I mean that which we honour, cherish and yes, even what ultimately we worship.

Of all the entities that we value, the first and most primordial is life – life understood in its broadest possible sense. This, we are aware of even before we can define it – if it can be defined. We have a strong feeling, a deep intuition, for instance, that though the memory of our forefathers may fade after they die, we are somehow aware that the dead stay upon the earth: they are on the other shore…. and the other shore cannot be seen with the naked eye. We, Africans feel strongly that from within the afterlife, the deceased continue to protect and support the community. Even death, then, is captured within the ambit of life; it is part of it, not antagonistic to it. It serves to provide contrast; to make life shine even brighter. I believe that it is precisely this love for life that leads Africans to give such great importance to the veneration of their ancestors. We believe intuitively that the “dead” continue to live and remain in communion with us. Honouring the memory of our ancestors or the “living-dead” is a trickle down effect of valuing life.

Now, if wealth and value are correlative terms, then we affirm here that this value constitutes, par excellence, our wealth. Not only the value we attach to life, but more concretely, the value we attach to that specific facet of life that we have called above the “Cult of the Ancestors”. The ancestors are an extension of village life and a priceless part of it, for which reason we “look up” to them. It is ironic how, no matter how much of the physical world has been discovered and no matter how numerous our acquaintances may be, the most fitting phrase that has been used to describe the modern world, to my mind, is that of a “global village”. The explorer has gone full circle, traversing the length and breath of the globe in search of wealth and in search of himself only to come back home to the reality that the African has known all along – that we are the more wealthy, the more interiorly rich, the more we are part of a tightly-knit community. This is our heritage and our contribution to history – and we ought to cling on to it with the same tenacity and scrupulosity with which we are told Robinson Crusoe clung on to the remnants of his shipwreck.

Why then have we let ourselves get dragged into that disease of the modern world which consists in the depraving and enslaving pursuit for money? Since when did the wealth of African nations consist in making money? Why do we let ourselves get side-tracked by the allure of the sirens? Does our odyssey have to follow that of other civilizations? If our history is different from theirs, should not also our raison d’être vary from theirs? True, we share the same life, but life is, do not forget, at once simple and multifaceted, a unity and a diversity, like a colourful African tapestry.

Our notion of wealth does not consist in material accumulation but in interior richness. We are as rich as the sum total of the people who have preceded us. Do we not say of the child who has inherited material possessions from his parents that he is rich? Are we any the poorer then for the values we have inherited from our ancestors? Aren’t we, on the contrary, so much the richer? In African societies, the true pauper is the individual without descendants.[1] Chinua Achebe reiterates this idea when he says that “We do not pray to have more money but to have more kinsmen.” If we look at life from this point of view, so much will change. We will realise that we were born rich, that our wealth is received, not self-made; that it is natural not artificial.

Our wealth then is found concretely in ourselves and by extrapolation, in other people, living or “dead”. We revere life, the living community, relationship; that dynamic connection that comes when we group ourselves around some value(s) we hold dear. These values are the source of community which, incidentally, is a compound word derived from “common unity”. The first and most natural community is of course the family. The family is the first place where we are grounded in otherness, in relationship; it is the first place where human warmth, affection… love is engendered.

With the help of the foregoing considerations, we can now furnish some rudimentary answers to Mr. Obama’s ruminations. What is the family? Is it a genetic chain? Yes, part of the definition of a family lies in the fact that we are part of a family tree – we belong to a long chain of descendants from whom we inherit the genes of our forefathers. Is it a social construct? If by social construct we mean what the social contract theorists (Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau…) or the eugenists (Friedrich Nietzsche, Adolf Hitler…) meant by social construct, then NO! Families are not “constructed” by man nor are they mere economic units; they descend from a given seed or root; much like a stream descends from a mountain peak.  A man can no more construct a family than a child can make itself a face. In short, families are natural, not artificial. If however by social construct (and I doubt this is the meaning implied by the author) we mean, that man is a social being who needs to discover culture-specific laws to govern his community, then yes, the family is a socio-economic structure – a natural, not an artificial one. Is the family an ambit of love? Definitely! This in fact, seems to be the most fitting definition of a family since it breaks down, without eliminating them, barriers of race and tribe and because it thereby fosters both unity and diversity. Finally, is a family a reach across the void? Hopefully, yes. If “the void” is to be understood here as that breach or veil of uncertainty that separates the realm of the living from that of the “dead”, then this is a question best to be answered precisely by those who have given themselves to the “cult of the ancestors”. Furthermore, if it is true, that the life and the love that was engendered in the family is ever present and genuine, and in addition, if it is true that love is that one primordial value that takes on multiple facets when viewed from diverse cultural lenses, then, yes, the strength of love is precisely that power that also extends across the void, preserving our relations and experiences, linking us, via the thin thread of memory, to our ancestors.

This worldview has far-reaching consequences. One that comes out clearly at this juncture is that, since there is no break in the continuum of life, it is inconceivable in the mind of anyone who is born and is immersed in such a cultural mindset, that life can be destroyed. Note that, the question here is not whether life ought or ought not to be destroyed. It is about whether it CAN or cannot be destroyed. It is a question of the intellect, not of the will – a matter of knowledge, not volition; of reality, not possibility. This distinction is of utmost importance. If we are born into a worldview wherein the notion is absorbed into our very fibre that the definition of life is that which IS, of necessity, ever-present; that life is received, that it is something into which we are born, something that cannot NOT be, then, unless the idea is suggested or imposed by an external influence, the question of whether life ought or ought not to be destroyed does not even enter the mind and if it is even dares enter the consciousness, it is rebuffed with abhorrence. It is for this reason that the people of Africa not only keep elderly parents and relatives within the family, they also respect life from the moment it is conceived in the womb until its natural end.

The question of wife inheritance is another natural corollary of this worldview. If belonging to a tightly-knit community is what gives meaning to an individual’s existence, and if it is true that through a woman, life is perpetuated; then it follows that a widow must be put in a place and in a position where she can find meaning and where she can continue nurturing life. Admittedly, this is a compromise solution but a person must belong somewhere otherwise they are suspended in a void and the idea of a void is, as we have seen, inconceivable. A few words from Sobonfu Somé can help illuminate this point:

Without the community, the individual is left without a place where he can contribute. The community is that grounding place where people come and share their gifts and receive them from others.

And again:

The family in Africa is always extended. You would never refer to your cousin as “cousin,” because that would be an insult. So your cousins are your sisters and brothers. Your nieces are your children. Your uncles are your fathers. Your aunts are your mothers. Children are also encouraged to call other people outside the family mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. [2]

To conclude, we repeat and in this way affirm once more our fundamental principles. The first is that the sons and daughters of Africa love life. Consequent to this is that we revere the living community. Faced with an increasingly globalised world, the upshot is that on one hand, we can benefit tremendously from the reciprocal encounter and cross-fertilization of cultures, but on the other hand, we should be wary of elements that are foreign to our genius (how appropriate is this word). The Trojan horse must not be allowed into the African village. We all know how that story ended.

If we cling tenaciously to this genius, we shall offer to the modern world, new ways of living, models of life that can make the world a place of true humanity as opposed to the wasteland of technological existence that it is becoming.

I conclude, borrowing again from, or rather calling upon, one more icon in that broad “network” of African thinkers who form, as it were, a living web, an ensemble of men and women, living and “dead”, kindred spirit with whom I feel a deep connaturality:

“Vertically, the (black) African personality is rooted in the family and in the primordial Ancestor, if not in God. Horizontally, it has links with the group, with the society, with the cosmos. This personality is enriched and blossoms through the bonds of reciprocity, which it actively maintains.[3]


1.  Allasane Ndaw is a Senegalese philosopher, dean of the Faculty of Letters at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar.

2.  Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian novelist and poet born in 1930. He is the co-founder of a new style of African literature that draws its main inspiration from oral tradition and the rapid social changes at work in contemporary society. He is regarded as one of Nigeria’s greatest novelists. 

3.  Jean-Marc Éla has published many books. He has long taught at the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon, and has been a visiting professor at the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. He was born in 1936.

4.  Sobonfu Somé belongs to the Dagara people of West Africa. She was brought up traditionally and taught by elders. She is a bearer of Africa’s message, one of great richness and sensitivity.

Robert Odero is a staff member of Strathmore School in Nairobi, Kenya.