The Concept of Wealth in Traditional Africa
beninmw | May 3, 2008 at 09:03 pmby
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Most lineages in traditional Africa have a "family pot," a general welfare fund managed by the head of the extended family. Income-earning members are obligated to make contributions to this fund. Obligations vary from family to family and tribe to tribe. The contributor in some cases may make a minimum regular payment. In other cases, the contribution may be irregular and based upon financial ability. In some families, contributions may be entirely voluntary for those who no longer live in the village. However, failure to contribute is often interpreted as an abandonment of one's family, which is considered a serious transgression. The offender may be ostracized or caused to forfeit his inheritance rights. However, atonement can often be made with one "large" contribution to cover past arrears.
Across Africa, the family pot, called the agbadoho among the Ewe seine fishermen of Ghana, is used for a variety of purposes: to provide the initial start-up capital for a business or trade; to finance the education, hospitalization and the foreign trip of a member of the extended family; to cover funeral expenses; to finance improvement costs to the family land; or to construct new dwellings.
The African family pot, not well understood, has also been the source of much confusion and myth. The erroneous corollary was the assumption that there were neither poverty nor rich peasants in pre-colonial Africa. Even the United Nations Regional Department on Social Welfare Policy and Training of the Economic Commission for Africa, succumbed to this myth in 1972:
In rural Africa, the extended family and the clan assume the responsibility for all services for their members, whether social or economic. People live in closely organized groups and willingly accept communal obligations for mutual support. Individuals satisfy their need for social and economic security merely by being attached to one of these groups. The sick, the aged and children are all cared for by the extended family. In this type of community, nobody can be labelled poor because the group usually shares what they have. There is no competition, no insecurity, no big ambitions, no unemployment and thus people are mentally healthy. Deviation or abnormal behaviour is almost absent. (Cited by Iliffe, 1988; p.3).
Forced sharing was generally not the rule in many African ethnic societies. There were rich merchants, traders and poor peasants. Inequalities of wealth were very much a feature of indigenous Africa. For example, Among the Igbo (of Nigeria) inequality was recognized in age, status, wealth, religion, birth and descent. Royalty was in name and not in fact, as the Igbo recognized achievement rather than hereditary-bestowed greatness (Olaniyan, 1985:24).
Africans accumulated wealth just as any other people, and differences in wealth were recognized. In the view ofSchneider (1986), The Hausa (of West Africa) are not equal in wealth. Wealth differences are indexed by the fact that some gandu, a productive unit composed of a father and his married sons, are much larger than and contain many more subunits than do others. Furthermore, these large gandu have more manured land in crops, more bushfields (unmanured fields) and more marshland. In this society, a good deal of effort is expended by people to increase the size of their holdings and the scale of their production in order to increase their wealth - and obviously some people are more successful at this than are others (p.186).
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