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The Igbo Family Structure

Family is a very important institution in the lives of Igbo people. All relationships, according to Igbo culture, emanates from the family. Every child birthed in any family begins to learn about human relationships from within the family.

Our collective view of the family unit, as people of Igbo extraction, is quite different from the views of the Western world. To Americans and Europeans, family basically implies one father, one mother, and their biological or adopted children. But, if we observe closely what is implied when Igbo people talk about family, we’ll see that, to our people, family refers to a group of people living under one household who may or may not even be related by blood or marriage.

It is in a family setting as described above that we, Igbos, differ so much from Westerners but not-so-much from other African tribes.

Polygamy is part of Igbo culture, and is well accepted and acknowledged by our people as a man’s legitimate right, if he so chooses to have multiple women as mothers in his household.

In understanding Igbo family life and structure, we have to take into consideration three (3) Kinds of family settings common in Igboland as follows:

  • Family Setting with Only One Mother: This kind of family structure found in Igboland consists mainly of father, one mother, children, dependants, and relatives. Some 50 years ago, it was quite rare to find this kind of family setting among our people living in the geographical area designated as South-East Nigeria.

  • Family Setting with Multiple Mothers: Polygamy is part of Igbo culture, and is well accepted and acknowledged by our people as a man’s legitimate right, if he so chooses to have multiple women as mothers in his household. One key feature of this kind of family setting is recurrent quarrels and undue competition among the mothers within the household as each mother typically cooks her own meals and maintains her offspring without undue interference from others.

  • Extended Family Setting: We, Igbos, are mainly known for this kind of family set-up in which father, mother or mothers, children, in-laws, from both sides, friends, and other relatives all live together as one household.

Reasons Why Igbo People Prefer the Extended Family Setting

  • The extended family is like a pillar of support for each member of the household as some members may be not-so-rich, widowed, orphaned etc as the case may be. The popular Igbo saying; “Igwe bu Ike”(Multitude is power) was coined to reflect the high value we place on the extended family setting.

  • It helps the upbringing of children as their training is not merely confined to the limits of the knowledge and experiences of their biological parents.

  • It reduces the financial burden and woes of the elderly members of the household as both the young and old jointly work together to make money and pay bills or put food on the table for every member of the family.

Some Challenges Associated with Igbo Extended Family Setting

  • It makes the financial burden of a few members of the household heavier as every other member’s needs also become theirs.

  • It could make some members of the extended family household lazy, because some will not develop their abilities or increase their effort in life, because they have their hopes of survival hinged on the success of well-to-do members of the extended family household.

Responsibilities of Various Family Members According to Igbo Culture and Tradition

Father: The father represents and speaks on behalf of the family in public forums. It is his responsibility to cultivate, grow, and develop the family wealth and resources. He serves as the family priest and spiritual leader and teacher of Igbo culture and traditions to members of his household. It is the fathers’ responsibility to lead by example, correct deviant members of the family when they go wrong, and provide for the needs of his household.

Mother: It is the mother’s responsibility to inspire and fuel the father with ideas to move the household forward towards progress and development. It is expected of her to preserve the family wealth and resources. It rests on the mother’s shoulders to set and uphold standards of morality and purity in the family. She has to make the household homely and comfortable for every member of the family including occasional visitors. Finally, it is her duty to love the father of the house, cook his meals, and maintain the cleanliness of the home.

Children and other Dependants: According to Igbo culture and tradition, children and dependents are expected to serve and remain under the mentorship of father and/or mother only on the condition that they know what they are doing and are not bad influence on the children or dependents. Male children and dependents are supposed to be 100% under the mentorship of the father, while female ones are supposed to be 100% under the mentorship of the mother.

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