Scherin Barlow Massay

Social Anthropologist – Scherin Barlow Massay

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a recognized condition that can develop following any traumatic situation that threatens an individual’s safety or makes them feel helpless. This process began for Africans when they were forcefully kidnapped from their place of cultural reference, and in so doing, lost all familial roles and kinship ties within their society.

Family life in West African societies were sustained through a series of kinship networks and marriage bonds  and were structured around the extended family, which could include three or more generations who traced their descent back to a common ancestor.

Early West African family-kinship values were based on solidarity, mutual helpfulness, interdependence, and concern for the well-being of every individual member of their community. That communal value system was the basic method by which everything was organized and implemented.

It encompassed caring for the emotional, physical and financial needs of both old and young. The extended family was the basic unit of structuring economic relations, and in the production and distribution of food and other material goods. Within the extended family, a woman’s prime responsibility was to take care of her children; however, other family members also played their part.

The Igbo proverb: It takes a community/village to raise a child (Ora na azu nwa), was part of the kinship philosophy in Nigeria and in most parts of West African society. The whole of the extended family shared in the social development of the child.

Different ones provided a variety of role models that helped to give each child a sense of identity, belonging and guidance along the path to adulthood.    Because of such training, the West African child usually developed a strong sense of social responsibility and accountability from early childhood, and learnt to be a considerate and supportive member in his extended family. Moreover, each member of the family thought of themselves in relation to their familial group and this collective joining served as the main agent for moral and social control.

In traditional West African societies, the model of masculinity emphasized the importance of accountability to others. A man’s role was to safeguard the kinship, have sound leadership qualities, be able to provide for a family and perform his communal duties.

In the Akan culture (from which some people were enslaved), if a girl became pregnant before going through the ceremonial rites, it brought disgrace upon the kinship, as each individual had a vested interest in each other. Sexual activities before such initiations were completed were deemed criminal offences, which needed more purification procedures to rid the society of the consequences of such actions.

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In the Akan culture, traditional rites were performed for procreation, without which, marriage was incomplete. Initiation ceremonies tested the individual’s competencies and were platforms for socialisation and transmission of beliefs in which youths learnt moral codes of conduct and cultural values.

Over time, girls would have gone through different learning processes, receiving instructions in how to take care of themselves physically, instructions in familial and communal obligations, and in the multifaceted roles of womanhood. Once completed, the young initiates became adults in their society.

The ceremonies were finalised by the public acknowledgement of the Queen Mother, a woman who had reached the epitome of female power within her society. Marriages were usually a result of negotiations and allegiances between two families.  Moreover, the community and the families were called upon to bear witness to the legitimacy of the marriage. Although polygamy was a normal practice in many West African societies, such marriages were dependant on the man’s ability to pay the bridal price, and his ability to support his wives and children.

However, while polygamy was practiced, polyandry was not, and female adultery was punishable by death. In Igbo and Yoruba, cultures from which many people were enslaved, women were governed by social traditions based on chastity and fidelity and based on the kinship ties; sexual violation was not part of the fabric of West African society.

One of the penalties for any individual or group that acted against the well-being of the community was collective ostracism. Faced with the threat of losing one’s social standing and economic livelihood, there were compelling reasons to act within the boundaries of moral restraint. In traditional West African societies, the model of masculinity emphasized the importance of accountability to others.