An All Encompassing Definition of Family


This morning I was reading a New York Times article regarding the changing character of the American family.  Lately, I wonder how I will be changed by living in Ghana.  I’m the product of Chinese parents and the American educational system.  After almost three years in Ghana, it’s inevitable I will inherit some African/Ghanaian concepts about family as well.


In Ghana, “family” has an inclusive, nurturing definition.  “Family” does not simply mean your immediate family but also encompasses your extended family.  It’s not uncommon for a “sister” (true siblings or cousins) to take in their relation’s child and raise them as her own.  She may or may not receive financial help from the child’s biological parents.  Not only does this happen between relatives within Ghana but also between relatives in Ghana and the US, the UK, or Germany.  The child will go to school with the sister’s children and basically be adopted into the family.  For instance, I know a lady whose parents are divorced and who both don’t live in Ghana.  The lady was raised by her aunt in Ghana for the last 10+ years, went to college, and now is looking for work.  Her parents send money when they can.

Similarly, my friend and driver, Emmanuel, takes care of his four children, sister-in-law and her husband, and at least one more close male friend.  The male friend is not related to Emmanuel but they all live together in a 2 bedroom house.

Nowhere is this idea of shared responsibility more different than the American one more obvious than with the concept of head of household.  Basically, the wealthiest male figure in an (extended) family is responsible for the well-being of everyone in the generations beneath him.  He financially supports the tuition, room, and board for those whose parents cannot afford it.  He may find a job for an unemployed relative, he may provide “welfare” to those people/families who cannot find work.  For instance, a friend told me that a friend he knows makes over $300,000 per month as the owner of a business.  After taking care of his extended family, however, he only has $10,000 for his immediate family.

Many (extended) families may meet once a week or month to discuss family concerns and disputes.  For all important matters, you must ask the advice for the head of household.  You don’t have to listen to it but you must seek his counsel as a sign of respect.

GH Children


Closely related to the topic of responsibility is the importance of children to the family and to society.  Ghanaians prize having children above all else.  That’s why it’s not unheard of for families to have 4, 6, 8, or 10 children.  This cuts across class.

Thus, when Ghanaians meet me, the one of the first questions they ask is, “Do you have children?”  Given my age, I’m assumed to be married.  When I say, “No, I have none.”

“Why not?” shortly follows.

I try to explain that taking care of children in the US is very expensive.  The $250,000 figure often sits in my head when I explain all the costs involved.  To Ghanaians, that’s ridiculous.  You have children first and ask questions later.

Honestly, before I came to Ghana, I had a similar view regarding having children. Living here and frequently seeing young couples with 3-4 young children scampering about does not scare me.  It only enhances my desire to leave Ghana with an African (Mormon/Catholic/Muslim) view toward raising children.  The more the merrier.

It’s also common for children to be playing outside without parental supervision.  This fact underscores how safe Ghana seems to be.  One thing I think is funny is that if someone thinks your child is misbehaving, then he/she can scold or hit your child.  The thinking is that the child probably deserved it.  Children are expected to be respectful and obedient.

Wedding Photo

Kwaku David Photography

Gender roles

The primary role for women is to marry and have children.  Women who do not have children are treated as witches.  A friend was telling me that some families will encourage an unmarried woman over 30 to get pregnant.  Once the baby is born the woman has the support of her family to raise the child.

I have previously described how women expect men to pay for their “maintenance” while dating.  Maintenance can include money for food, hair, clothes — some men will pay for apartments and cars.  To me, this seems like another way of objectifying women.  Women here, however, wouldn’t have it any either way.  Several weeks ago, someone in my French class was asking what “going Dutch” in French meant.  The professor explained that in France sometimes men and women will alternate paying for dates or they will split the check.  All the women in class burst out laughing.  Preposterous!  Ridiculous!  Why should I have to pay for a man to take me out?

Despite my previous posts about matrilineal inheritance, Ghana is still very much a patriarchal society.  Men hold most of the decision-making positions in politics, work, education, and healthcare.  Though less common today, men can marry multiple wives as permitted by Islam or traditional.  The only role that women are able to hold significant power is that of trader.  Traders import and export goods and can be quite successful.  Nonetheless, the woman is expected to give outward deference to her husband.

Men get a lot of freedom in society to be… men.  Many men have mistresses.  I’m beginning to it’s the rule rather than the exception.  (I’ve also learned it’s an African thing not just a Ghana thing.)  For instance, it’s rumored that the president has, at least, two mistresses.  And no one seems to care.  Extramarital infidelity is not a scandal here.

Given this African cultural characteristic, I wonder if this is one of the reasons that African-American men have higher rates of divorce than other groups in the US.  Perhaps culturally men are expected to be promiscuous but America is particularly unforgiving when it comes to extramarital infidelity.


Living here for nearly 3 years, it’s inevitable to be influenced by Ghanaian society. I admire Ghanaian large families.  I can’t imagine being able to field a baseball team with 9 children but the thought of having such a vibrant house is attractive.  I also wonder, could I take a more encompassing view towards family?  Could I be more giving?

Furthermore, I’m torn my Western concepts of gender equality and Ghanaian expectations for men to assume financial responsibility of the house.  Even in America, I get mixed signals from women over whether they want to be taken care of or respected as equals.  In Ghana, it’s just a more macho perspective.

In the meantime, I’m still living here so maybe the balance will keep shifting further to the Ghana side.

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