The concept of extended family system is a recognized, well known age long practice in Igbo land. It is a practice where many relations, including distant ones, depend on other capable relations for upkeep, education, training, apprenticeship and general survival. It is a practice that has worked in Igbo land for long. It is a sort of multi-generational family. In Igbo culture, the core of the family is the nuclear family: the parents and their children, while additional relatives are considered extended.
It is the type of family unit that has multiple relatives other than just the parents and their children living in the same household. Despite what Ndigbo see as a lot of advantages of the extended family system, however with the steady dwindling Nigeria economy, many now doubt the sustainable of the system.
It should be noted that the key characteristic of the extended family is that there are multiple adults in the family that are not parents of the children, though they may also have parent-like roles and share in the responsibilities for providing for the whole family one way or the other.
One of the advantages of an extended family system is the kind of security it offers to the members of that family. In an extended family, for example, members believe that they have people on whom they can count on in times of needs and even in times of trouble. One of the occasions on which the system helps a lot as large number comes into play is during funerals, weddings and other major events that require huge money and combined efforts. On occasions like these, the extended family helps in raising money, running the errands and generally in organizing the occasion to ensure it succeeds.
Another advantage of the extended family system is that it brings unity to the entire community. The blood relationship that exists among all the cousins, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, etc., brings about peace and this peace leads to unity that extends into the larger society. It has also been observed that in times of financial or emotional crisis, the wealthy members of the family render help to other not well to do family members. For instance, if a boy secures admission to study in the university and the biological father is in capable of paying the fees, a member of the extended family easily usually wades in to sponsor such a person. Also, a sister who is about to get married could get assistance in many forms from the members of the extended family to ensure that everything goes smoothly.
The extended family system in Igbo land comes to great play when a man dies leaving the children with no inheritance or support. In this case, the uncles and aunties and other members of the extended family could take over and raise the children on behalf of the deceased brother or uncle without the children going through much stress. This cannot be found in a nuclear family system.
According to a community leader, Chief Gabriel Emenyonu, the head of Onyema extended family of Umuobasi in Omoho in Anambra State, although extended family is becoming less influential in many Igbo communities due to the changing times, it used to be the pivot for human and capital development in many communities. The family meetings, he said is usually organized during annual festivities are periods when members of the family settle disputes among them, evolve ways of assisting family members in need of assistance and visiting their sisters married out.
Speaking with South East Voice, Emenyonu said: “What is today an extended family for us began sometime in 1962 when the first son of my late brother wanted to travel to the United Kingdom for further studies. Because his biological father could not shoulder the responsibility alone, the entire family contributed to send him abroad. By the time he finished his studies in 1967, the civil war broke out and he remained abroad throughout the period of the war.
“In 1970, the family re-established contact with him and he facilitated the process that enabled two other children of his uncles to join him. Those two other young men who travelled in 1972 have also helped other members of the extended family to acquire education abroad.
“Currently, we fix our family meeting for every 3rd of January and every member and people, whether living abroad or in Nigeria, attend the meeting during which we discuss matters of interest for the entire extended family.”
Some members of the extended family, he further explained, had also been assisted to go into business and the trend has continued till date. The entire members of the extended family, he added, bear the cost during the burial or marriage of any member of the family.
Emenyonu however, observed that one of the disadvantages of the extended family system is that some members tend to manifest selfish attitude that is inimical to the peaceful coexistence of the unit.
For Eze Ndubuisi Nwabeke, the Chairman of the Abia State Council of traditional rulers, the extended family system has helped to foster unity and development in Igbo land and called for the sustenance of the system. The monarch, however, explained that the sustenance of the system depends on the capacity of the individual to extend assistance to both close and distant relations.
In an interview with South East Voice, Eze Nwabeke said that the prevailing economic downturn in Nigeria has made it more difficult for people to extend traditional assistance to their extended families.
He said: “The extended family is an age long practice in Igbo land where wealthy members of a family extends assistance to both close and distant relations. When the father of the family dies in a polygamous family, it becomes the responsibility of mostly the first son to take care of the welfare of both his siblings and other distant relations in the areas of education, training in various trades and even upkeep of the entire family. These close and distant relations include brothers, sisters, uncles, nieces, step brothers and sisters and sisters’ in-laws and wives married to the family. It promotes unity in the extended families. Extended family system has helped to foster growth and development in Igbo land.
“Extending assistance to the family, extended family members and even others in the society is very much encouraged and it attracts divine blessings. Nothing stops anyone to extend assistance to both their family members and other people outside their families in their times of need. The sustainability of this system depends more on the capacity of the individuals who are to extend assistance to their relations.”
The monarch stated that it is viewed as an act of wickedness if the first son or any wealthy member of the family refuses to cater for the extended family after the death of the father of the family.
“If the first son or any other well-to-do member of the family refuses to cater for the extended family, it is seen to be an act of wickedness. Extended family system is in line with the Igbo policy of being your brother’s keeper.”
In his contribution, the Traditional Prime Minister of Ibeku ancient kingdom, Chief Uche Akwukwuegbu (BAWAS), said that the extended family system in Igbo should be discarded. The practice according to him is burdensome and weighing down capable ones among relations.
Akwukwuegbu, who is the National President, Nigeria Association of Traditional Prime Ministers, NATPM, said that the present economic realities no longer favours the sustainability of the practice despite its merits in promoting family ties and brotherly affection.
He observed that so many capable ones in Igbo land had been drawn backwards because of the burden of extended family members and advocates that individuals should try to work hard and save for the future so as not to be parasites to other family members or relations.
“Extended family system has weighed me down. The practice is no longer necessary and sustainable. The white man’s system is better. Our system is dragging so many capable people backwards because of the attendant burden.
“Everybody should endeavour to work hard and train their children so that in their old age those children will, in turn, take care of them. The most annoying aspect of it is that some people will expect you to carry them and still carry their children and grandchildren for them. If you carry too much burden it will break your back”, Akwukwuegbu said.
Corroborating Akwukwuegbu’s position, Mr. Blessed Uchenna, a trader in Umuahia, said family responsibilities should not be shouldered by one member of the family else “he will collapse”.
The Imo state-born trader, who said he already had a feel of carrying burdens of extended family members, noted however that blood ties among relations make them not to close their eyes against their own.
He, however, said that many businessmen had collapsed due to excess luggage forced on them by extended family members. This is like a family where the man is the person working and the woman has nothing doing. You will discover that it could get to a point where the man’s income may no longer sufficiently sustain the family.”
He, therefore, strongly advised every member of the family to strive to earn a decent living and not constitute any burden to other members of their extended family.
But a university lecturer, Mrs. Onyebuchi Oko believes that the extended family system should be sustained, arguing that “it is part of our culture”.
She said that shying away from extended family responsibilities is alien to Igbo culture. According to her, despite the worsening economic situation in Nigeria, Igbo identify should not be discarded.
It is part of us. We can’t do without it. It is part of our culture. Some Igbo names and phrases like Igwebuike, Umunnabuike, Onyeaghana Nwanneya, represent the culture of extended family system.
“It should be sustained but there should be a re-orientation among our people. The youths should be encouraged to embrace skill acquisition for self sustenance. This will lessen dependence on others.”
Speaking with South East Voice, Chief Anaekwe, said that extended family system is one of the best cultural practice Igbo forefathers left behind for Ndigbo.
saying that it should not allowed to go into extinction. Anaekwe cautioned that every Igbo family to maintain the system if they want to keep progressing to the envy of other tribes that do not practice it. He said that the system be sustained and discouraged anything that will put a stop to it, including bad women whom he said married into the families as wives who usually work towards destroying it.
According to Anaekwe, “extended family system is one of the best cultures and traditional practice our forefathers created and left for us, and it will never cease to exist; wherever you find the extended family system, you find progress, success, development, peace and unity, nobody goes hungry and life becomes sweet and worth living.
“Anywhere or any family in Igbo land where extended family system is not practiced, you will find out that it is because of bad women brought in as wives into the families, the women who came either from different states, local government, tribe; it is mostly from different tribes, maybe it is not practiced in their tribe, because of their own culture and they try to fight to discourage it when they come in.
“Again many of our women who studied overseas are practicing what they learnt there in Europe, America and other Western world where they believe in ‘me, my wife and children only’, and in most of such families and cases, women dictate the pace in such situations and you will find out that peace and progress do not reign in such families.
“So extended family system in Igbo land is our culture and it makes us to be one among the equals, distinguishes us from others in all ramifications; it makes us to be our brothers’ keepers, and it is one of the reasons why Igbo individually and generally compete in terms of wealth than other tribes, if they are not even the richest among the tribes in the country.
“The essence of the extended family system and why it is working positively for Ndigbo is because if you are rich, you will extend it to your relations in the extended families; your paternal and maternal relations and the wealth keeps growing and development and progress keep expanding.
“The only place we are having problem with it is from our women who are manner less, selfish and self-centered who want everything to themselves and they should not be encouraged by our men; they must be stopped and made to key into our extended family system otherwise, they should forget about progress in their families.
Such women when they come in the first thing they want to do is to put confusion and crisis to separate you and your siblings, and when she succeeds in separating the siblings she will take it to the extended families, mostly those whose husbands are rich, they are bad women with evil intentions and must not be allowed to continue if we must continue to be Ndigbo we are. Any attempt by anybody to stop, discourage our extended family system practice should be resisted otherwise we are finished as Ndigbo and families.
According to Ezenenwu, because of the extended family system, many Igbo sons and daughters are being trained in various fields of human endeavour by the extended family members who are rich enough to sponsor others.
“In fact, it is only of recent that I started seeing Igbo people begging for alms unlike before. Ndigbo are always ashamed of begging because their well to do extended family members do not allow them to go hungry or to be found wanting.
“I am therefore urging other ethnic tribes to emulate Ndigbo in terms of embracing the extended family system”, Ezenenwu said.
In his contribution, Nze Dozie Nweke, President of Aborji Akanano Union, AAU, Oba, Idemili North Area Council, extended family system is the same thing as one’s maternal and paternal relations and in-laws.
According to Nze Nweke, during a funeral, marriage or chieftaincy installation ceremonies, it is the responsibility of the extended family members to assist their man or woman financially or otherwise to ensure that such ceremonies are performed successfully.
Nweke therefore urged extended family members not to allow their members to suffer from hunger and starvation in the midst of economic crunch, adding that on the other hand an extended family member should not kill or harm fellow members as observed in some cases.
In his view, Chief Rommy Ezeonwuka, said it is the extended family system that make Ndigbo unique and make them stand tall among other ethnic groups.
For Chief Hyman Udema, a titled chief in Obosi, Anambra State, “extended family life in Igbo land is an ideology that knows no bounds in terms of prevailing economic situation at any time.
“It is a systemic practice gone down with generations that would endear generations to come. Sustainability is not dependent on abundance but on commitment and natural pledge”.
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