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4 He Who Eats with You Kinship, Family, and Neighborhood
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Kin, Household, and Nuclear Family

The importance individuals give to kin relationships generally is intensified as the kin ties are closer. It is notable that a number of the proverbs affirming the importance of kinship invoke eating and commensality in ways informants with whom I discussed the proverbs agree show closeness of relationship.

It is the household group, rather than some more inclusive collection of kin, that regularly eats together (although in many homes, the commonly prepared food is eaten in two seatings: first the men and then the women). And it is the household group that contains the kin who are the most broadly important members of the generally important category, kin. Kin relations are said by everyone with whom I talked to be more important in most activities than any others. Of these, the ones involving fellow members of the same household are more important yet.

As we will see below, the household is the material, social, and emotional base for much of what its members do, and more than three-quarters of Swahili households include or are solely composed of the nuclear family (see table 2, below). In examining cultural sharing among household members (chap. 5), I limited the survey to households where the person "in charge" (mwenye amri ) was a member of a nuclear family including both spouses and at least one child considered by them (and by the child) as their biological offspring. This was an attempt to increase comparability.

This focus on the nuclear family is justified by the prevalence of this group among the Swahili as well as by the interest in examining in a natural setting a grouping in which the sharing of understandings about the group, its members, and their relationships would be expected to be in the upper part of the range of sharing.


Narrowly defined groups focused on technical tasks (e.g., a surgical team) might be expected to have members who share more completely the understandings about their work and each member's role in that work. Monasteries or other religious communities and other highly specialized groups may have an extremely high level of sharing among members in some respects, but in dealing with others concerning the broad array of matters that make up ordinary everyday life, the nuclear family would seem to call for at least as high a level of sharing as would be found in any other social group and to provide an ideal situation for mutual socialization as a basis for that sharing.

In chapter 5, we will see that the elements of family culture, those understandings having to do with the nuclear family and how its members do and should treat one another and with what the group should and does do, are only partially shared, even by members of the same nuclear family. One reason for this could be that the nuclear family is of limited scope and importance in Swahili life, but, as we will see, this explanation is not characteristic of the nuclear family in this society.

If group interests and the relations among members were restricted in scope and intensity as those, say, of the residents of a boarding house are, even members of families that continue functioning for long periods of time (and only such families were included in the survey work that formed the basis of the study of sharing) might share only a limited range of understandings about the group and its constituent relationships. Since, however, the interests of the Swahili nuclear family are broad and of intense concern to members and since family relationships are seen as vitally important, limits in the sharing of understandings about these interests and relationships cannot be explained as based in substantially restricted joint concerns and involvements.

What is said about the importance of the nuclear family—and we will consider this more specifically in a moment—should not be taken to suggest that all households are composed of, or even contain, a nuclear family. Fourteen of the 111 households surveyed for the census I made did not include both spouses. Most of these fourteen households are headed by divorced or widowed women, but, despite the emphasis given male authority by the Swahili and the support this has in Islam, these households function in many ways much as do those with a complete nuclear family. They are evaluated by outside community members, according to the evidence I have, on the basis of the same broad understandings that apply to households whose core includes both spouses.

Similarly, roughly half of all households—whether the households include a full nuclear family or not—include one, rarely two, adult, nonnuclear family kin. These "extended" households, too, give every appearance of operating according to the same broad understandings that apply to the other half of the population of households whose only adults are the spouse-parents.

It is not surprising that there is variation in household composition and


that a substantial minority lives in a household without a full nuclear family present. Death and divorce sunder nuclear families in Old Town as they do elsewhere. But this does not diminish the importance of the nuclear family even for those whose household does not contain one. None of the many individuals I talked to who lived in nonnuclear family households thought that the composition of their household was an ideal one. Most viewed their situation as more difficult economically and socially than it would be if there were a full nuclear family in their household, but the truncated (usually because of divorce or husband/father's death) household was their main source of emotional support, material assistance, and social relations. In this they were no different from the majority who live with their spouse and children or parents and siblings.

Whether a nuclear family or not and whether including "outside" kin or not, the household members are much involved in each others' activities and interests. The mother often is, as in many societies (e.g., Bott 1971:69 ff., Young and Willmott 1973:101–102), the hub of activity, and everything her children do is of immediate and central concern to her. At the same time, her views and assistance are usually crucial to the children, at least until they have established their own nuclear families and, most often, even after that.

The mother/wife is also often much involved in her husband's activities. As we will see in chapter 10, men depend on their wives as they do no one else, and if wives have a considerable set of interests (many of them shared with the children) separate from the husband, he is still the most important adult male in the vast majority of households. In many families, men have rather distant relations with their children, especially with the sons, and deal with them mainly through their wives. However, the emotional and material ties between fathers and children are deeply felt and highly influential. As we will see, there is a substantial and sharp division of labor and leisure in the Swahili nuclear family, but that group is of the first importance to all its members despite the differences according to their statuses in how much and in what ways they participate.

In spite of this, the data examined in chapter 5 show that there is only limited sharing of the cultural items directly concerning life in the nuclear family household among the members of that very same group. Among community members belonging to different, but equally stable, families, the sharing of cultural elements concerning the nuclear family is even more limited. These findings are taken as the basis for the view, quite fundamental to this whole study, that extent of cultural sharing is only one, and often not the most prominent, of the contributors to the effectiveness of the groups in dealing with their members' needs and interests.

In fact, other studies of cultural sharing among Swahili not belonging to the same nuclear family (to be seen in chaps. 7 and 9) confirm the limited nature of cultural sharing in this society. Work by others suggests that the


same is true in social groups in other societies (e.g., Pelto and Pelto 1975; Holland 1987a ; Kessing 1982).

To see the nuclear family's place in Swahili society and to understand more of the nature of that society, it will be useful to consider the nuclear family in the context of kin relations in general.

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