Lifetimes Intertwined: African Grandparents and Grandchildren

By Whyte, Susan R.; Alber, Erdmute et al. | Africa, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Lifetimes Intertwined: African Grandparents and Grandchildren

Whyte, Susan R., Alber, Erdmute, Geissler, P. Wenzel, Africa

In this volume we return to one of the treasures of our contributors' anthropological heritage: the study of kinship in Africa. We have chosen to focus on the intertwined lives of grandparents and grandchildren because they raise so clearly fundamental issues of temporality and relationship. While grandparents and grandchildren live together in shared time, their lifetimes overlap only partly. They have different pasts and different futures, and they share a present that in many countries is being radically affected by historical transformations such as urbanisation, impoverishment and the scourge of AIDS.

The collection grew out of a panel presented at the 2002 conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth (ASA). The theme of that meeting in Arusha, organised by Wendy James and David Mills, was 'Perspectives on Time and Society: Experience, Memory, History'. (1) The ASA itself was founded in 1946 by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, one of the giants in the social anthropology of Africa. He and others like A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Meyer Fortes and Jack Goody laid out a set of issues concerning kinship, marriage and domestic groups that were well illustrated by the position of grandparents. The articles presented here build on their interests in kinship and generation while opening new perspectives and raising new questions. Three main themes run from the early studies through this recent research.


The structure of society in terms of kinship categories based on gender and generation was fundamental to the work of our (British) anthropological ancestors. On the one hand, scholars emphasised the equivalence of alternate generations and the opposition between proximate ones. On the other, they were concerned with lineality and the degree of distinction between matrilateral and patrilateral relations. Several of the articles in this collection follow these lines, confirming and also criticising the relevance of such categories. Notermans writing on eastern Cameroon and Alber working in Benin explore systems of fosterage in which grandparents can assume the role of parents, thus blurring the distinction between alternate and proximate generations. Ingstad from Botswana and Whyte and Whyte from eastern Uganda report on the continuing significance of lineality (or laterality) in the sense that the children of sons and of daughters are differently placed in relation to grandparents. Notermans challenges earlier understandings of lineality in Cameroon by showing how grandmothers fostering the children of their daughters in a supposedly patrilineal society try to keep their grandchildren in a matrilineal pattern by identifying a male member of the maternal family as the child's father in the registry offices. For Notermans, grandmothers are the 'main actors' in a parallel matrilineal descent system. Thus, she argues, 'African kinship systems have been misconstrued through neglecting grandmothers' agency in matters of descent.'

Both Notermans and Alber go beyond a categorical view of gender, generation and descent in that they conceptualise kinship as a mode of exchange, in which people can be seen as gifts. In contrast to the often criticised view of men exchanging women in marriage, they show how small children are exchanged, reclaimed and taken by grandmothers. Very explicitly, Alber conceptualises the giving of grandchildren to grandparents as 'part of a complex process of intergenerational exchange that is essential to kinship relations among the Baatombu'. But far from the formalist approach of the 'French' ancestors, which neglected the actor's perspective, the notion of fostered grandchildren as 'gifts' is combined with the recognition of subjectivity and experience. It is noteworthy, however, that the viewpoint is that of the grandparents and not the grandchildren.

Although questions of structure and classification (including the compass of the category 'grandparent') remain relevant, most of the articles here are concerned with people as actors who invoke categories and shape relationships. …

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