Forum home

No. 41, August 1998

Current issue Past issues Search Forum

Language and thought - African Perspective

by Kate Jenkins
Hermann Gmeiner International College in Ghana, West Africa

Reflections on the concept of family in Africa


Following are extracts taken from a paper presented at the IB Coordinators Conference in Lomé, Togo, by Mr. Isaac Quist. Until recently, Isaac was one of a team of TOK teachers at SOS-Hermann Gmeiner International College in Ghana, West Africa. The paper deals with Ga, just one of the seven major language groups in Ghana (this number shoots up to around 200 if dialects are included). However, examples contributed in TOK lessons by staff and students indicate that there are certain common features shared by the different language groups and other African nations in regard to the connection between language use and family relationships.


In Africa the term mother refers not only to ones biological mother but also to the sisters of one's mother and in fact one's father as well. It could actually extend to any step­mothers that one might have and there is no single independent word which denotes aunt, so the concept of an aunt is quite remote. In the Ga 1 language, for example, nye/mami would refer to all the above. True, there would be subtle distinctions when the need arises, to indicate clearly the nature of the relationship but the terms used are all derived from the root term nye/mami e.g. your mother's sister would be a senior mother (nye/mami onakpa) if she is older than your biological mother and a junior mother (nye/mami fio) if she is younger. The distinc­tions usually do not go beyond indicating seniority by age and/or whether that mother is a mother's sister or a father's sister. With the word father, (tse/papa) the same principle applies. One could have a senior father or a junior father 2.


Among the Ga the term nyemi refers to all siblings. This would also refer to-the-offspring of all of one's parents' own siblings. In other words, there is no term to denote cousin; they are all brothers and sisters. The term nyemi does not even make gender dis­tinctions. If you wish to indicate gender, then you have to add the terms which denote male and female (e.g. nyemi nuu, nyemi-yoo) In the same way, the term bi which denotes child would equally refer to the child of one's sibling and hence there is no word to denote nephew or niece.


This situation is also interesting when one considers the terms to denote in-laws among the Ga. The expression shaa nuu refers to father-in-law whilst shaa yoo refers to mother­in-law. The word shabi would refer to all the brothers of one's wife. The root word sha denotes the idea of relation by marriage. So far, so good. But the term nga which properly refers to one's own wife, applies also to all the sisters of one's wife and again distinctions will be made according to seniority by age, so that a sister in-law older than your wife would be your senior wife (nga onukpa) whilst one younger than your wife would be your junior wife (nga jio). Similarly, the term wu, which refers to one's husband, applies equally to all the brothers of one's husband as well, with the same distinctions along the lines of seniority by age applying. Interestingly, all the sisters of one's husband would be referred to by the term wu yoo , which translates literally as ‘female husbands'.

Implications for the community and the individual

From the foregoing, evidently kinship terminology among the Ga is generic rather than specific, thus fostering the closeness and interconnectedness of the family, the lineage and the clan. The implications of this are many. Perhaps one of the most far reaching is the emphasis on a communal rather than an individualistic ethos and the generic termi­nology illustrates this oneness of the group. It also indicates the insistence on the individual as a member of a larger family, which is itself an integral part of an even larger group, all the members of which trace their origin to a common ancestor or ancestress and thus belong to the same lineage. This is further emphasised when one considers that all members of a family must be present and perform defined roles during the events that mark the various rites of passage for each member. This would also denote a symbiotic relationship between any individual and his or her family or lineage, within which mutual rights, privileges and responsibilities are shared. For example, the family or lineage owes the individual support and security, be it material, emotional or spiritual and confers an identity on him.

The individual in turn has a duty to con­tribute in any way possible towards uphold­ing and enhancing the positive image of the family or lineage or even the larger clan. This was very well illustrated in 1983 when about 2 million Ghanaians resident in Nigeria were deported overnight. It was at a time when Ghana itself was in the middle of a veritable famine and therefore in considerable crisis. International relief agencies such as the Red Cross and other donor agencies immediately decided to offer assistance and set up camps to accommodate the deportees. It soon became clear, however, that there was really no need for these camps; they remained empty as each of the returning deportees was quickly absorbed by his family, lineage or clan. Indeed, it would have been considered a disgrace for a family if any of its members had to use the facilities of the camp. This shows how real the responsibility of the fami­ly or lineage or clan is towards its members. In the same way, any individual who indulges in acts considered to be anti-social earns disgrace not only for himself, but also stigmatizes the whole family or lineage. Such a stigma may have dire consequences for other family members which may include exile, exclusion from marriage and so on.

Evidently then, the identity of the individual is inexorably linked with the family and lin­eage. In fact, among the Ga, moral deficiency in any individual is considered almost con­genital and language use among the Ga rein­forces this notion. Should any individual indulge in any such anti-social acts as rape, thievery, incest, murder etc. the crime is not only his but that of his family as well and is expressed in proverbs such as: The crab does not beget a bird or more coarsely as The smell of the vulture comes directly from its mother's egg.

Ethical Issues

A number of ethical issues are raised from this arrangement of the family and its rela­tionship with its members. The family obvi­ously bears a collective responsibility for the moral outlook and behaviour of its members which it therefore seeks to regulate. On the other hand, the individual's behaviour, both privately and in public, is governed not only by an awareness of state laws but perhaps even more by consciousness of its consequences to the family. The family therefore has vested interests in the behaviour of its members and thus places a premium on fostering in them socially approved values. Interestingly, laziness and arrogance feature prominently as attitudes which are disapproved of, along with actions such as lying, rape, incest, thievery and murder. The family therefore requires of its children conduct which shows a maintenance of the status quo. To this end, humility and submissiveness to the authority of social position, age, experience and the family's ethos are highly valued. An examination of a few proverbs3 highlights the deference to age, experience and position. Our people say The wise elder is more than a seer. They also say You don' t go cross checking with your mother information given to you by your grandmother. We are also told It is from a man's stock of wisdom that he gives to his children.

Knowledge and Age

It would seem then that wisdom and knowl­edge are almost the exclusive preserve of age and position. It would seem further that the child in this setting has no voice or mind of its own and must therefore accept as givens all she/he is told by his/her elders and betters. A questioning attitude is not fostered in chil­dren; in fact, it is actively discouraged through the ridiculing of such children as misguided upstarts. For example, our people say Children crack open snails, they do not crack open tortoises. Other, even more scathing, and almost proverbial stock expressions make the child's position clear. A child who turns to question his elders is reminded that he or she is a miserable infant whose mouth still reeks of the nauseous smell of breast milk. Certainly, such expressions constitute sharp checks on what is seen as a child's arrogance or impertinence, which really is often no more than an attempt to question things. For the adults, however, this habit of questioning is an affront to their authority and dignity and threatens the sta­tus quo, thus elders and leaders of any kind in Africa tend to enjoy almost unquestioned authority and can do as they please when dealing with 'younger' people, often with very little or no check whatsoever.

Is this family organization and its internal relations of any significance to the typical African child doing the IB? What, for exam­ple, would be the implications of this for the teaching and learning process in the class­room? What about a subject like TOK and its essentially Eurocentric modes of objectivity and critical thinking? Before we rush into any hasty conclusions we need to remember that it is our people again who say that The child whose hands are well washed is fit to eat with his elders.

Political Implications

Again, one might ask what happens when such unquestioned authority is abused, espe­cially when translated to the national level? Does this perhaps account for the almost unending, life-long reigns of corrupt dictators all over Africa? Does the seeming indiffer­ence, passivity or even cowardice, on the part of the countless oppressed peoples of Africa to their own plight have anything to do with the way their language conditions them to think about age, position and authority? One regularly hears proverbs like: We stand in the compound of a coward to point to the ruins which are the only reminders of what once was a brave man's house and The coward lives long enough to enjoy the victory chicken. Is it then the case that cowardice is actually upheld against bravery, perhaps more in the sense of 'discre­tion is the better part of valour'? Again, before we rush into conclusions a cursory examination of the word feeto, which is the nearest equivalent to coward in Ga, should give us pause. Feeto literally means 'a bottle for shit', which is really the measure of esteem accorded the coward among the Ga. It would perhaps be more useful to conclude-that the Ga tend to see mass action as being more effective than isolated individual acts of brav­ery which quite often lead to no real change. Though mass action is preferred, the unques­tioning passivity towards authority seems to create obvious difficulties in arousing the masses to act for the common good. There is thus a general tendency towards a belief in the rather fortuitous workings of poetic jus­tice and our people say The mansions of crooked thieves are destroyed by crooked thieves.


1. Ga refers to a coastal tribe in Ghana and also to the language which is spoken by those people. Most of the other Ghanaian ethnic groups share similar concepts and lin­guistic characteristics.

2. Among the Akan, however, because of their matrilineal inheritance system, there are clear terms which distinguish precisely between father and uncle and nephew and niece. In matrilineal tribes inheritance is passed on through the mother's family. It is not, however, a woman who inherits, but the son of the husband's sister. The Akan obviously place a higher premium on affinity by blood than by marriage or anything else.

3. In Africa, proverbs occupy a special posi­tion. in oral discourse; they are both 'the palm oil with which words are eaten' and a technique of verbal expression which reflects the world view of African peoples. There are functions and rules that govern the use of proverbs which show deference to age and position within the traditional setting.



back to top

Forum is jointly published online at by the International Baccalaureate Organization and Lena Rotenberg Educational Consultant, © 2000-2004. Forum is a peer-reviewed publication aiming to offer original, thoughtful articles promoting Theory of Knowledge (TOK) teaching, in a fashion that is immediately useful to teachers. It is published twice per year in English (November and May) and twice per year in Spanish (February and August). Page last modified 2 August, 2004 .