The Family in Africa

By E. Douglas Clark


"In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future."

-Alex Haley

The central role of the family in Africa has not escaped the attention of journalist Richard Dowden, author of the acclaimed book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, for which Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe wrote the foreword. According to Dowden,

Family is central to life in Africa.... The self-made man does not exist in Africa. If the motto of Europe is individualism: ‘I think therefore I am,' Africa's would be communalism: ‘I relate, therefore I am.' In Zulu there is a saying: ‘One is a person through others'... Africans know who is family and know where they come in it, both vertically and horizontally. A man without a family is no-one. He is nothing.[1]

The strength of Africa is in her families. What Equatorial Guinea's constitution calls the "African spirit of family" is affirmed in other language the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights:

The family shall be the natural unit and basis of society. It shall be protected by the State which shall take care of its physical health and moral. The State shall have the duty to assist the family which is the custodian of morals and traditional values recognized by the community.

At least 28 African constitutions likewise expressly recognize the central role of the family, which is described, for example, as:

  • The fundamental element of society[2]
  • The basic[3]-or natural and fundamental[4]-unit of society
  • The basic cell of society,[5] or the basic nucleus of social organization[6]
  • The basis of society,[7] or the natural and moral basis of the human community[8]
  • The foundation of society,[9] or the natural and moral foundation of the human community[10]

Africa leads the way in affirming these universal truths about the family. In no other region on earth do so many countries constitutionally proclaim the irreplaceable position of the family. And in nearly all of these African constitutions, there is also a promise to protect and assist the family.  In addition, no nation on earth has a greater constitutional commitment to the family than Cape Verde. (Read its provision on the family.)

The core importance of the family in Africa was emphasized in the Plan of Action on the Family in Africa, issued in July 2004 in Benin by the Regional Conference of the Family in Africa:

In Africa, due to its multiple roles and functions, the centrality, uniqueness and indispensability of the family in society is unquestionable. For generations, the family has been a source of strength for guidance and support, thus providing members with a wide circle of relatives on whom they can fall back. In times of crisis, unemployment, sickness, poverty, old age, and bereavement, most people rely on the family as the main source of material, social and emotional support and social security.

Therefore, the African family network is the prime mechanism for coping with social, economic and political adversity in the continent. It is the principal focus for socialization and education of children and is central to the process of human rights education. In all societies, the family is the setting for demographic reproduction and the seat of the first integration of individuals to social life. As a result, the family is at the centre of the dynamics which affect all societies

Traditionally, Africa's development has been a result of the strength of the family. Large families were a source of labour and an indication of prosperity. The extended family system ensured that the poor families were generally supported by the rich. The unity within the family ensured its survival in cases of internal conflicts, crises and adversity.[11]

Accordingly, the family will necessarily continue to play a crucial role in Africa's development:  

Recognition that the family is the basic and most fundamental unit of society, a dynamic unit engaged in an intertwined process of individual and group development, justifies the need to place the African family at the core of society which needs to be strengthened as part of Africa's development process.[12]

The plan further declared that it is "imperative" that "the African family be well positioned to play a crucial role in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals."[13]


[1] Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 21.

[2] Cape Verde, Madagascar, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles.

[3] Côte D'Ivoire, Gabon, Mauritania, Mozambique, Uganda.

[4] Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Namibia, Malawi.

[5] Burkina Faso.

[6] Angola.

[7] Chad ("natural and moral base"), Comoros, Rwanda, Somalia.

[8] Central African Republic, Senegal.

[9] Andorra, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Libya.

[10] Niger.

[11] Plan of Action on the Family in Africa 12, 13, 14.

[12] Ibid 1

[13] Ibid. 31.