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Traditional African Society


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Title: Traditional African Society

Traditional African Society

1000 different languages 1000 different tribes
Stateless Societies
Early African Societies
Early African Societies
Anthropologists think that the first humans lived
in East Africa. Over thousands of years, people
spread out over the continent, forming distinct
cultures and societies.
By about 2500 BC many people in these regions
practiced herding and mixed farming.
Stateless Societies
  • Stateless societies ? cultural groups in which
    authority is shared by lineages of equal power
    instead of being exercised by a central
    government no one executive ruler
  • Community rule over individual rule

Usually the community that made the decisions
consisted of male family heads
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Stateless Societies
  • Function of mobile population, underpopulation,
    and land as resource
  • Even when dense population, there was no state
  • Hunters valued over warriors
  • Ideal was the large complex household with Big
    Man surrounded by 10-40 people
  • Control happened laterally, not hierarchically
    (secret societies, age-grade societies, ritual
    experts as mediators)

  • What are some characteristics of a stateless
  • Society divided into lineages group traces its
    collective ancestry to a common ancestor
  • Authority is balanced among the various lineages
  • No single group holds a majority of power.
  • Operate through sharing of ideas and possessions,
    and cooperation is how they assume that society
    will operate.

Lineages share power
Elders negotiate conflict
No centralized authority
Age-set system
continued . . .
Characteristics of Traditional Tribal Life
  • Tribes
  • a political group that comprises several bands or
    lineage groups, each with similar language and
    lifestyle and occupying a distinct territory

Common Traits or Characteristics of Traditional
African Tribal Life
  1. The good of the group comes ahead of the good of
    the individual.
  2. All land is owned by the group.
  3. Strong feeling of loyalty to the group.
  4. Important ceremonies at different parts of a
    persons life.
  5. Special age and work associations.
  6. Deep respect for ancestors.
  7. Religion is an important part of everyday life.
  8. Government is in the hands of the chiefs kings.

An Africans Search for Identity
1. Nuclear Family
2. Extended Family
3. Age-Set
4. Clan
5. Lineage (ancestry)
TRIBE (communal living)
Social Structures
  • Common Features
  • Many societies developed village-based cultures
  • At heart, extended family living in one household
  • Families with common ancestors formed clans to
    which all members loyal
  • Age-Sets
  • In some areas, people took part in type of group
    called age-sets
  • Men who had been born within same two, three
    years formed special bonds
  • Men in same age-set had duty to help each other
  • Specific Duties
  • Loyalty to family, age-sets helped village
    members work together
  • Men hunted, farmed women cared for children,
    farmed, did domestic chores
  • Even very old, very young had own tasks elders
    often taught traditions to younger generations

Structure of African Society
  • Tribe- group of people that share language,
    customs, traditions, geographic location
  • Clan- group of related families
  • Extended family- parents, children, aunts,
    uncles, cousins, grandparents (common in Africa)
  • Nuclear family- parents and children (not common
    in Africa )

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Kinship and Family Ties
How people are related in traditional African
  • Kinship means a relationship that binds two or
    more individuals
  • Blood relative
  • Marriage

What is kinship?
  • Sense of being related to another person(s)
  • Set by rules (sometimes laws)
  • Often taken for granted as being natural rather
    than cultural
  • Cultures define blood relative differently

  • Includes relationships through blood and through
  • Functions
  • Provides continuity between generations.
  • Defines a group on whom a person can rely for aid.

Family Ties
  • Farming and herding societies consisted of
    extended families
  • Kinships created strong bonds and a sense of

Lineage Lines of Descent
Matrilineal versus Patrilineal
  • Lineages
  • Some societies group people in lineagesthose
    with common ancestor
  • Members of a lineage have strong loyalties to one
  • In some African societies, lineage groups take
    the place of rulers
  • These stateless societies balance power among
  • Stateless societiesno centralized system of

  • Means line of descent or family tree

Traditional Societies Family Descent
  • Matrilineal ? trace ancestors through mothers
  • 20 of African societies are matrilineal today
  • Patrilineal ? trace ancestors through fathers

Inheritance and Descent
Patriarchal Male-Dominated societyvery common
in African tribes
  • Descent is traced through male lineage.
  • Inheritance moves from father to son, as does
    succession to office.
  • Mans position as father and husband is the most
    important source of male authority.
  • Example Nuer or Sudan.

Patrilineal Descent
Matriarchal female Dominated societyuncommon
  • Descent is traced through the female line.
  • Children belong to the mothers descent group.
  • The inclusion of a husband in the household is
    less important.
  • Women usually have higher status.
  • Example Hopi.

Matrilineal Descent
  • Found among 15 of all cultures
  • Kinship is traced through the female line
  • Women control land and products
  • Found in the Pacific, Australia, small parts of
    Mediterranean coast
  • Declining though capitalism

Status and Roles of Women
Status of Women
Roles of Women
  • An African woman's roles are as life bearer,
    nurturer, and source of generations.
  • For an African woman in a traditional rural
    community, the chief measure of success in life
    is her ability to bear many children.
  • The very existence of the family and clan depends
    on women's ability to bear children, who will
    provide security for their parents in old age and
    who will continue to nourish the spirits of the
    ancestors through sacrificial offerings.
  • As a result, much African art is directed toward
    encouraging the fertility of women.
  • Many shrines are devoted to spirits that provide
    the blessings of fertility, and these frequently
    contain sculpture and other objects devoted to
    the concept of fertility.

  • Marriage customs
  • Many traditional African societies are polygamous
  • Polygamy having more than one spouse
  • Men may only have multiple wives if he can
    support them
  • Bridewealth- payment a man gives a womans family
    before marriage (land, cattle, cloth, tools)
  • Dowry- payment a womans family before marriage
    (land, cattle, cloth, tools)
  • Some tribes allow divorce, some do not

No marryd Women, after they are brought to Bed,
lie with their Husbands till three Years are
expired, if the Child lives so long, at which
Time they wean their Children, and go to Bed to
their Husbands. They say that if a Woman lies
with her Husband during the Time she has a Child
sucking at her Breast, it spoils the Childs
Milk, and makes it liable to a great many
Distempers. Nevertheless, I believe, not one
Woman in twenty stays till they wean their
Children before they lie with a Man and indeed I
have very often seen Women much censurd, and
judged to be false to their Husbands Bed, upon
Account only of their suckling Child being
ill.--F. Moore (European trader) on the River
Gambia in the 1730s, Travels into the Inland
Parts of Africa (London, 1738), pp. 132-3.
Bride Wealth
  • Part of Roles of Women

Bride Wealth
  • It has been argued that such a system commodifies
    the bride and thus dehumanizes her, but others
    also make the argument that the system defines
    her value to the marriage in a concrete way and
    that it contributes to the stability of the
    marriage, because were the marriage to end in
    divorce the "bride-wealth" must be returned to
    the groom's family, and if it has already been
    invested in "bride-wealth" for the bride's own
    brothers this can be difficult indeed.
  • The "bride-wealth" creates a bond between the
    families which forces them to invest in the
    success of the marriage.
  • When there is trouble between husband and wife
    the relatives on both sides intervene to find a
  • The male-female couple from the Dogon people of
    Mali represents the ideal of pairing that is
    necessary for procreation.
  • The linking of the male arm around the woman's
    neck emphasizes the bond that is created by

Age Grade or Set
Traditional Societies Age-Set System
  • Age-Set System ? a cohort of young people within
    a region who are born during a certain period
  • Pass through life stages/rites of passage
  • At each life stage the age group inherits
    different responsibilities
  • Boys and girls are generally separated

Age Set
  • Group of boys or girls born in the same year
  • Go through rituals together
  • Transition into adulthood together
  • i.e. Manhood initiation
  • Circumcision ceremony for boys
  • Scarification- ritual markings for tribe

The Age Grade System
  • What are some advantages of an age-set system?
  • Each member can help others to pass through the
    various stages of life they can also help each
    other obtain the specific individual benchmarks
    of each stage.
  • Teach discipline, community service, and
    leadership all together

Problems of Tribalism Today
Problems of Tribalism Today
1. The tribe is more important than the nation.
2. Communication problems.
3. Inter-tribal warfare ? civil wars.
4. Tribal favorites for government jobs
Breaks down tribal traditions.
Tribal intermingling on the job.
Tribalism problem
  • Tribalism is often a stronger force than
  • Political parties based on tribes
  • Problem of creating nationalism artificially.

African Griots
  • Musician, Storyteller, Tribal Historian

Griots, pronounced "greeohs", are storytellers of
West Africa who use poetry and rhythm to teach
villagers about their history. Their home is the
territory of the Mandinke people in the country
of Mali where their tradition is alive to this
day. "Griot" is the French term for this class
of musicians the local term is jeli.
Modern Role of the Griot
  • Historian
  • Genealogist
  • Orator, artist, musician
  • Counsellor
  • Spiritual Leader

Historical Role of the Griot
  • tutored princes and gave council to kings.
  • used their detailed knowledge of history to shed
    light on present-day dilemmas.
  • would memorize significant events, like births,
    death, marriages, hunts, seasons and wars,
    ensuring that the collective heritage, culture
    and lineage of the clan continued.

  • Griots
  • Many early societies did not develop systems of
  • Maintained sense of identity, continuity through
    oral traditions
  • Included stories, songs, poems, proverbs
  • Task of remembering, passing on entrusted to
    storytellers, griots
  • Music and Dance
  • In many societies, music, dance central to many
    celebrations, rituals
  • Carving, wearing of elaborate masks part of these
    rituals as well
  • Early Africans excelled in sculpture, bronze as
    well as terra cotta
  • Traditional music performed with variety of wind,
    stringed instruments

West Africans have preserved their history
through storytelling and the written accounts of
Writing was not common in West Africa. People
passed along information through oral histories,
a spoken record of past events.
West African storytellers were called griots.
They helped keep the history of their ancestors
alive for each new generation.
In addition to stories, they recited proverbs.
These were short sayings of wisdom or truth. They
were used to teach lessons to the people.
Some of the griot poems are epics that are
collected in the Dausi and the Sundiata.
  • Griots passed on more than stories, they also
    recited proverbs
  • Proverbs are short sayings of wisdom or truth

Griots Oral Storytelling
  • Tradition passed down by storytelling
  • Two forms of tales
  • Human characters
  • Animal characters
  • Human tales dealt with creation, death, success
  • Animal tales focused on small creatures vs.
    larger beasts

West African Proverbs
  • It takes a village to raise a child.
  • Talking doesn't fill the basket in the farm.
  • Rats don't dance in the cat's doorway.

The griot profession is inherited, passed on from
one generation to the next. Griots are very
different from the rest of society, almost a
different ethnic group. They are both feared and
respected by people in West Africa for their
wisdom and talent with words.
Griot singer Suso is playing the kora (note his
name on the instrument).
Traditional Societies Griots
  • Father of the poor peopleHusband of beautiful
    ladiesAt whose absence the city is not
    interestingAt whose absence the people are not
  • Be our motherBe our fatherProvide us with
    clothingBe the salt we need for our gravyBe the
    oil we need for our porridge
  • You are our eyesYou are our mirrorYou are our
    hands and legsThat we use to walk.