THE BIJAGO FAMILY


(excerpts from "The Ethnography of the Bijagos People of the Island of Bubaque" (1978),
written by the researcher of anthropology, Luigi Scantamburlo)

 
 

TRADITIONAL KINSHIP AND POLITICAL SYSTEM

The basic political and economic unit of the Bijagos society is the village. It is autonomous and usually self-sufficient. The method of rule most faithful to tradition allows for each village to have a chief, as is the case on Canhabaque Island.

But on the island of Bubaque, where traditions are changing and the new political powers influence every aspect of village life, there are only two chiefs.

Men usually remain in the villages where they were born, with their father and brothers. The younger brothers, if permitted, build their houses close to their elder brother's house. In the past, the children were under the total responsibility of their mothers; now they can stay with whom they like best, but the mother has a great influence until they're young adults. Post-marital residence is virilocal, and a wife's sisters or daughters move to her husband's house. In case of the husband's death or divorce, they may go back to a brother's house.


Rules of descent and kinship affiliation

It was a strict rule in the past that the matricn should be kept exogamous, that no marriage was allowed between two individuals whose mother came from the same clan. The Christian influence (Kristons being those baptised or those living with white people) allowed marriage between cousins, and liberalized the rules of marriage among some Bijagos.


General rules of descent

The Bijago people in Bubaque say they are descendents of four apical ancestors, Oraga, Oracuma, Ominca, and Ogubane. Every village belongs to one of these four clans.

Descent is determined matrilineally. Everybody belongs to his mother's clan. This is important for obaining rights over the land and certain religious responsibilities in a village. Those who belong to the same clan as the village chief usually have the best choice when land is distributed at the beginning of every year. Because post-marital residence is virilocal and descent is matrilineal, clans in a village may theoretically disappear if the mothers happen to be all of different clans from the owner of the village.

The matrilineal descent principle reinforces the unity of all the Bijago people, because the four clans are present in all the islands and it does not split the land property of a village, which is protected by the institution of a chief who comes from the same clan as the village. Viilocal residence, however, keeps the real property of the village and the social structure in the hands of the partrikin, reinforcing the importance of the man in the economic structure. This gives stability to farming and helps unify the extended family in spite of divorce and polygyny.

Whan an extended family grows too large, the brothers, with the permission of the elders, can split and form two distinct sections in the same village. A Bijago man, however, never moves to another village, unless it is a new village of its own. If he has to move because of serious conflict with the elder brother, the initiative is taken with pain and loss of prestige and power.


The rules of kinship affiliation

1) There is no distinction indicating sex, except for the terms father (oté) and mother (onsún). Husband and wife are indicated by the same term (osoni).

2) Brothers and sisters are distinguished only by age, such as the older and younger.

3) All sons and daughters are called okpé, without distinction of age or sex.

4) The kin from one's mother's side are the most important, especially for protection and in case of ceremonial duties. In case of death, a person's moveable goods, though often very few, are taken by the members of the matrilineal clan of the dead. For a woman, her mother's sister is the most important person, or her mother's brother.

5) All the cousins on one's mother's side are true brothers and sisters, and their children are as one's own children. Some see a distinction between the children of their sisters and the children of their brothers. On the father's side, the father's brother is also one's father and the father's sister is also one's mother. The children of one's father's sister become one's father or mother, and the children of one's father's brother become one's children or brothers. The cousins from the father's side are indicated as katiakén and the cousins from the mother's side as otorénh, which means "somebody with whom I share the same mother".

 
The Village Chiefs

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