Chapter 4 (pt.5)


Cognatic Relations: Taking this inclusive criterion as our definition of cognatic relations we should need to include the relation of mother and child. Enough has already been said on it, however, that we shall not deal with it further here. The relations which we shall look at are those which an individual may be party to with his spouse, his spouse's family, his mother's brother, matrilateral half-siblings and cousins, maternal grandparents and matrilineal ancestors. As in the case of agnatic relations, we may note that these relations apply primarily to males, as the only jural and ritual 'majors' or potential majors. They do not merely involve individuals, however, but are essentially relations between groups and/or corporations. At the very least, all of a man's close agnates are implicated in his cognatic relations.

Marriage: Marriage can be seen as an event as well as a relation, of course. In either case it involves a number of persons of varying corporate range on either side. As Fortes emphasizes:

Marriage relations illustrate a very important principle of Tale jural relations. They are always relations between lineage units. Even when they appear to involve only particular individuals the lineage framework is implicit in the transaction . . . . Though marriage formalities involve primarily the nuclear lineage and medial lineage, they presuppose the entire framework of maximal lineage and clan relations; and this is the case with most other jural relations among the Tallensi. (1945, p. 230)

In the present discussion we shall not take up marriage as an event or transaction in any detail, and we shall distinguish the relations it creates with 'in-laws' for brief discussion immediately following. What we are here concerned with is, then, the relations of husband and wife. It should be remembered, however, that although we treat this relation distinctly, it is central to the organization of a much wider range of ties. It is, as Fortes notes, the counter-axis to kinship in the structure of the family (1949a, p. 15). There are two primary aspects to the marriage relation which we need to note: its relative (in) stability and its character of reciprocity. The two are interlinked, and the former in particular is connected to the competition between men over wives.

Wives and land are the two primary resources of Tale men:

It is a common thing to find a group of men discussing the relative importance of farms and wives, the two basic practical interests of the natives. They seldom fail to come down to the fundamentals. I have heard an elder sum it up somewhat in this fashion: 'If you don't farm you will have no food; and if you have no food you die. Then what is the use of wife without food? But if you have no wife you will have no children and your life is wasted.' In the end, however, it is usually agreed that farming is the more important, for the man who lives long enough will not lack a wife and without food one cannot support a family. (1949a, p. 82)

The existence of such philosophical debates points out the irreducible importance of both wives and farms. There is an important difference between the two, however, which is that there is no intense competition (according to Fortes in the 1930's) for the possession of land. Wives, on the other hand, "form the chief object of competition both between individuals and between corporate groups" (op. cit.). An important indicator of this is the fact that

more than 90 per cent of all cases brought to chiefs' courts nowadays are concerned with wives, and they are always triangular affairs with two men competing for the woman or her offspring. (1949a, p. 83)

Wives are important both directly as a source of labour, and in their reproductive capacities. Further, the links which they create to other group are important socially. The competition over wives may have been accentuated (Tale men claim this is the case) in recent years by the newfound wealth and consequent competitive advantage of chiefs and headmen (op. cit.). It should be remembered, however, that this applies primarily to young women since the chief's wives will soon stand to be redistributed by inheritance, and to formal rights of paternity, since the young wives are generally available for sexual affairs with young men.

Competition is one of the factors, though, which contributes to the considerable instability of Tale marriages. The age differential between men and women (esp. in plural marriages' more junior wives) is another, along with the central issue, which is the disjunction of interests and lineage loyalties which are inevitable between a husband and wife:

A young man rarely settles down permanently with his first bride, and young women generally treat their first marriage as an experiment unless the husband is a much older man to whom they have been married by formal negotiation. (1949a, p. 84)

Tale marriages frequently begin in elopement which, if it is fairly successful, will then be followed by a placation gift from the husband to the girl's father. The new husband is the obligated to undertake the payment of bride price, with four cattle (or the equivalent) being the salient point of demarcation. As Fortes notes:

The observance of the jural proprieties gives a husband a weapon with which he can try to assert his rights to and over his wife. It does not give him an absolute guarantee of these rights nor does it ensure the stability of the marriage. (1949a, p. 86)

A woman may either leave or be taken from a husband after having borne children to him, although this is progressively rare as there are more children. This is essentially because children represent a growing commonality of interests in contradistinction to the disjunctions imposed by descent (1949a, p. 90).

No matter how long a couple stay married, however, (and this may be a lifetime) the disjunctions in their patrilateral descent never fully disappear or lose effect. It is this which lies behind the formal reciprocity which obtains in the relation of husband and wife. If a husband borrows from his wife, he is expected to make a repayment to her. Further, she has separate rights to her own time (except on crucial ritual occasions, 1949a, p. 105) and her own property. This latter is governed by

the wider principle that all those who pool their labour in the common task of providing food and shelter for the household are entitled, severally, to a just share in the product of their common labour . . . also . . . a principle that really follows as a logical corollary upon the principle just stated. The products of individual industry and enterprise belong to the individual, subject to the nominal over-right of anyone who has authority over him or her, in particular, of the head of the family. (1949a, p. 102).

It seems tome that the logical order of the principles should perhaps be given the other way around, but the point is clear. A wife's independent rights may be seen in the matter of inheritance:

A woman's clothing, and her household utensils, most of which she provides for herself, belong to her solely. They are distributed, on her death, to her daughters, daughters-in-law, and sisters. Any money or livestock she may possess passes to her sons on her death, these being what might be called consumers' capital goods, the appropriate owners of which are men. (1949a, p. 103).

One significance of this is that women are able to operate as independent entrepreneurs in petty commodity production and/or marketing. This has been of increasing importance in the post-colonial years, as markets have grown in importance, and dependence on local agriculture declined (cf. Hart, 1974).

In the case of husband and wife, Fortes finds an 'obvious material basis' for their economic reciprocity (1949a, p. 102). This is the differentiation of tasks within the household as a productive unit. We may suggest that it is important as well, however, that she is genealogically distinct and able to 'vote with her feet' in leaving her husband, if she has the support of her kinsmen. This fact, as well as an attempt to ensure amicable household relations, is presumably behind the rule that a husband should be completely equalitarian in showing favours to, having sex with, or providing economic goods for each of his wives in a polygamous marriage (1949a, pp. 107, 129).

To conclude, then, even as close a personal relationship as that of husband and wife never escapes, among the Tallensi, from the governance of the system of lineage relations. A senior wife may acquire some weight of authority of opinion or memory in her husband's (and/or son's) lineage, but she can never become a part of it, she will always be an outsider, and she will always serve to distinguish her children from their half-siblings.

Affines: In general, affinal relations are not of major significance in Tale social organization. As Fortes puts it, affines do not have 'axiomatic' ties, but rather have specifically defined rights and obligations through their parallel interests in a given woman (1949a, p. 119). The obligations, other than those specifically appertaining to the marriage (eg. bridewealth), are primarily the responsibility of the son-in-law toward the father-in-law. The former, for instance, should raise a work-party for the latter in such instances as the building of a new house. Such matters, clearly are not the result of mutual interest. The son-in-law has no particular interest in his father-in-law's new house, only a defined obligation to his wife's father. There is an element of reciprocity, not only of the son in return for his wife, but in that the father-in-law must throw a banquet of some proportions for the work-party. There is an additional significance to these work-parties, however, which is that they create a prime occasion for the young men of the husband's lineage to meet girls, who of course will be of the wife's lineage. Marriages thus tend to replicate themselves. Such multiple ties of course increase the significance of each. The basic rule is that men seek wives among the, both spatially and socially, nearest women:

The restrictions on mobility in the past encourages it. But the most important factor was, and is, the circular relationship that exists between marriage and extra-clan kinship ties. Marriages create extra-clan kinship ties; social contacts between members of different clans are largely canalized by extra-clan kinship ties; and these ties lead to contacts that in turn bring out new marriages. (1949, p. 290)

Fortes goes on to note that this process was already undergoing modification when he studied the Tallensi. Greater social mobility was leading to young men taking wives from more distant parts, even frequently outside Taleland, in increasing numbers. In other words, in at least this one aspect, social relations (in our usage) were losing their control over social and individual action.

Now, despite the relation of reciprocity which exists between affines, there is no relation of authority:

The relationship between affines, in the Tale sense of this term, is not quite the same as that of a woman with her husband's parents and siblings. A man's affines have no authority over him. The tensions connected with common residence are absent. There are no common economic, jural, or ritual interests between affines. (1949a, p. 118)

There are tensions, of course, having to do with common rights in the woman connecting the two units, and exemplified (the above statement notwithstanding) in their common ritual responsibilities for the offspring of the marriage. Tensions have largely to do with the fact that a man's affines have a certain amount of coercive power over him, specifically in the matter of bride-wealth, and more generally in that they may demand the return of their daughter, or back her up if she flees. Lastly, these tensions are difficult to resolve, since there are not other overriding commonalities necessarily present between the two groups. Since clans are exogamous, only (or at least primarily) the strength of multiple marriage ties (and their stronger resultant, mother's brother-sister's sons ties) and ritual connections stands against prolonged disputes. And, as our discussion of witchcraft showed, a social tie through a woman is a point of vulnerability as well as solidarity or strength.

Mother's Brother and Sister's Son: The most important cognatic relation among the Tallensi is that of the mother's brother (ah2b) to his sister's son (ah2n). This is the cognatic relation primarily characterized by, in Fortes' terms, an 'axiomatic' bond. In other words, it has a basic and intrinsic moral sanction to it. This is, in large part, because it is a relation established on the basis of descent and not as a matter of personal choice (as say marriage and affinal relations are). It reflects the close bond of mother and son, even in distinction from the son's patrilineal identity.

A person's own maternal uncle (ah2b) and maternal grandfather (yaab) and their immediate lineage segment impinge directly and frequently on his life. His maternal uncle's home is his own second home; he has a quasi-filial status there, and, in addition to close bonds of sentiment with his uncle and his close kin, he has specific ceremonial rights and duties in relation to them. (1944, p. 59)

This relationship is of course at its strongest in the case of an illegitimate boy, who will grow up in his ah2b's house and as a full member of his clan, although with the disabilities noted in Chapter 2 above (1944, p. 56).

As we have noted, a young boy receives his start in animal husbandry with a gift of a hen from his maternal uncle.

The significant point, here, is that a boy begins to act and feel as a social personality in his own right in economic terms and in opposition to his patrilineal line. His self-differentiation is a function of his matrilateral kinship, correlated with the antithesis between the dugand the yir in the structure of the joint family. Their childhood attempts at animal husbandry may be the first stage in the economic differentiation of sons of the same man by different mothers; and it is this that leads, at a later stage of the lineage cycle, to their separation. When that time comes it is a common thing for a man to 'beg' (soh) land, to build on and farm, from his maternal uncle. The gift of a hen is repeated at a higher economic level in a form appropriate to the nephew's wants and maturity. (1949a, p. 194)

A primary fact of the process of agnatic corporate identification is thus emphasized: at the lower levels of the corporate structure, patrilineal groups are distinguished by their relative commonality of cognatic ties.

It is because of the principle of the equivalence of siblings that

the mother's brother and not her father - though he is the head of her natal family - holds the key position in the network of social relations that bind a person to his mother's patrilineal kin. (1949a, p. 305)

This further emphasizes the parallelism between the mother's brother and father relations for a man, since the two relations will, generally involve him with men of the same generation. The relationship, ideally, also involves the fewest steps of matrilaterality; that is, it is a link through only one woman rather than two (a woman and her mother, who are of course not members of the same lineage, cf. 1949a, p. 298). This relation is the 'key' one not only in a metaphor of relative importance, but also specifically because it allows for or is integral to the operation of each of the others:

All extra-clan kinship ties, except those of uterine kin, are rooted in the relationship of mother's brother and sister's child. (1949a, p. 299)

In contraposition to the formal reciprocity which obtains in relations between a man and his affines, the maternal uncle-nephew relationship is characterized by a considerable element of mutuality.

Ah2n and ah2b cannot contract debts with each other. Any loans which take place are subject to the 'principle of equivalent returns', but not formal reciprocity. The lender cannot demand repayment, but rather must depend on the more generalized responsibility of the borrower to make an equivalent loan or gift in due course (1949a, p. 306). Similarly,

an ah2b must be respected by and he has considerable moral authority over his ah2n; but he cannot demand obedience from him as of right. (1949a, p. 305)

As may be expected, in relations of 'own' ah2b and ah2n, the former (the uncle) is much more often the creditor than the debtor. This distinction is much less, if at all, the case when the relation is not direct, but a matter of extension to close agnates or corporate groups. The strength of mutuality which Tallensi see as implicit in this relation is indicated by the fact that sorcerous revenge, which we noted above may occur through a wife of a lineage or clansman of the victim, may also be caused by the vengeful clan through an ah2n of theirs who is a clansman of the victim (1949a, pp. 319-320). Thus this relation is close enough to override even putative patrilineal kinship in some circumstances. At the very least, it is the source of ambivalence in the system of relations; there is always a component of threat or danger in matrilateral bonds.

These strong general aspects to the relation can of course be strengthened in individual cases, as when a divorced woman takes her child and returns to her brother's settlement where the (let us say) son is raised. The boy thus grows up as virtually a member of his uncle's household. When he reaches maturity, or sooner if his father takes him, however, he will return to his own patrilineal settlement, but frequently with a strong personal attachment to his uncle and other matrilateral kinsmen. There are exceptions to this, though, in the cases of boys who choose to remain indefinitely with their uncles:

It is significant that in the old settlements extremely few cases of this kind occur, and it is always assumed that the nephew will eventually return to his natal settlement - though he does not always do so. In the new settlements, where personal kinship ties largely replace lineage ties as the basis of local aggregation not only sororal nephews but more distant cognatic and even affinal kin frequently live with a kinsman - until they can set up in their own homesteads. (1949a, pp. 71-2)

The important thing to grasp here is the extent to which cognatic relations may be used by individuals to create personal adaptations in flexible situations without the leaving the overall idiom of Tale social organization. As we shall discuss below (esp. Chapter 7) the cumulative proportion of such manipulations may influence overall rates of change, but less dramatically than where such an individuation leaves the organizational scheme altogether.

As we have suggested, corporate groups as well as individuals may be linked as ah2 and ah2b:

The statement that extra-clan kinship ties are relationships between individuals, or between individuals and corporate groups, has therefore to be qualified in one particular . . . lineages can be related as 'mother's brother' to 'sister's son'. We have seen that this is the relationship assumed to exist between accessory and authentic lineages in some clans, and between some linked lineages of different clans. But conceptually in all cases, and, no doubt, historically in some, these linkages between corporate units go back to a mother's brother-sister's son bond between individuals, perpetuated in accordance with the lineage principle. (1949a, p. 283)

Various rights and responsibilities go with such a linkage, many of them varying according to particularities, but most prominent among them the investure of a new diviner by his (usually fairly distant) ah2b:

The setting up of a divining (bakologo) shrine for a man is done for him by the lineage of the ancestress who has demanded the erection of the shrine. The diviner-to-be is himself a 'sister's son (ah2n)' or 'grandson (yaan)' of the men who come to perform the ceremony of establishing the shrine. But in addition, a member of his clan who is also an ah2n of the visitors' clan is deputed to act as intermediary. (1949a, pp. 318-9)

In general, an ah2n is seen as the appropriate person to act as an emissary in any of the intercallated links between lineages not of the same clan (op. cit.). Lastly, we may note that the extension of the mother's brother-sister's on relation to corporate groups is not merely an occasional chance, but a universal:

Every lineage and every segment of a lineage has its ah2byiri in this sense. (1949a, p. 298)


Inter-Personal Categories of Relations - Agnatic Relations - Brothers - Father and Son - Grandfather and Grandson - Ancestor and Descendant - Women in the Lineage - Cognatic Relations - Marriage - Affines - Mother's Brother and Sister's Son - Maternal Grandparents - Ancestors - Cognatic Relations - Informal Relations - Social Interaction - The Influence of Locality - The Operation of Formal Relations - The Influence of Personal Preference

Previous chapter - Return to Contents - Next chapter- Return to Ancestors Page- Go to The Virtual Institute of Mambila Studies -online