Kinship Relations & Political Systems in Africa

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  • 0:01 Kinship and Politics in Africa
  • 0:46 Kinship
  • 2:58 Political Systems
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we will explore kinship groups, specifically their role in communities in Africa, in addition to their role in Africa's pre-colonial political systems.

Kinship and Politics in Africa

Who in your life do you consider your kin? Perhaps you go by a stricter definition and consider only those you are related to by blood as your kin, or perhaps you are far closer with your friends or neighbors and they're more like kin to you than your relatives ever will be. Regardless, for Americans, the answer to this question usually only has bearing on where we are going to eat Thanksgiving dinner. In Africa, however, and especially in Africa's past, kinship ties were far more important, to the point that they could determine the political future of a community or country! In this lesson, we'll define exactly what kinship is and the impact it had (and still has, in some areas) on African political systems.


As hinted at above, strictly speaking, you have kinship with those to whom you are related, your aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and so on, essentially, your family. But for anyone whose biological parents are divorced or who were raised by their grandparents or someone else entirely, 'family' as a term can become very messy very quickly. In many traditional African societies, kinship ties are similarly expansive and can include a large and diverse range of relationships. Depending on the region and the people, these kinship ties can result from blood relation, the sharing of a living space, or simply by living in the same village.

These fundamental ties, be they blood relations or otherwise, bind many African societies together. In many places, the kinship group or family is the basic group of social organization. The basis of many of these groups is common ancestors and descent through the male line, though matrilineal societies also exist in Africa, and there are even some who recognize both. New kinship ties are formed between groups often through marriage. Though the wife often leaves their own kinship group to join that of their husband, it also forms new connections between previously disparate communities.

Because of these large webs of kinship, traditional family responsibilities are often shared between families and communities. For example, it's not uncommon for children in Africa to be raised by several people who are not necessarily their biological mother and father. Unlike in the west, there is no common belief in Africa that children will suffer emotionally if their primary caregivers are not their biological parents.

The exchange also strengthens kinship ties in the community. Through allowing someone else to care for their child, they are both demonstrating their trust in the other individual and including one another in each other's community of kinship. It also acts as a failsafe against the insecurity, which was rife in Africa; if something happened to the biological parents, there were already others in the community who would ensure the children were raised as part of the social group. Other duties often shared within kinship groups were caring for the elderly and, in some African cultures, the arranging of marriages.

Political Systems

As kinship groups and ties are often the most basic level of social organization in Africa, they also have a long history on the continent as being important to more complex, political organizations. For example, in pre-colonial Africa, there were several strong empires, which were ruled by a single king and his family in a similar fashion to the medieval and early modern kingdoms of Europe and Asia. For example, the famed Malian king, Mansa Musa, was an absolute monarch with total control over the administration of Malian government.

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