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The Extended Family

The extended family system is the most important indigenous African institution, forming the pillar on which rests the entire social organization. With some modification to the traditional system to suit modern Kenya, this family type is the most common in the country. Traditionally, the extended family system worked as a welfare system aimed at ensuring that all members were loved and cared for at all times. This type of family may be intergenerational, and it may be based on exogamous, endogamous, or polygynous unions. With modernization, the extended family has taken on different forms, which can be divided into the following categories:

  1. Stem families, which are made up of extended family, which in turn is made up of either a female-headed household with affines (relatives by marriage) and consaguines (blood relatives), or a man, children, and grandchildren, or in rare cases, a solitary person. In many cases in which the household head is a woman, the consaguines are usually grandchildren who are borne out of wedlock through their daughters' premarital or adolescent pregnancies (Kilbride and Kilbride 1997).
  2. Composite extended families, which consist of at least two nuclear families (monogamous or polygynous) that may be extended by generation. A common case of this family type is when a man dies and his brother inherits his wife or wives, thereby making his dead brother's family part of his own. Although still widely practiced in some communities in Kenya, wife inheritance is slowly disappearing following massive government, community, health, and nongovernmental organizations' campaigns to end the practice in a bid to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS.
  3. Nuclear families and consaguines, which consist of parents, children, and grandchildren (Kilbride and Kilbride 1990).

Child fostering is an integral aspect of the extended family, and until the late 1980s, it was widespread because it was a necessary welfare system that was entwined in the family structure. The most common scenarios of fostering depict poor rural peasants sending their children to be fostered by richer relatives in the urban areas, and poor urban migrants sending their children back to their kin in the village (Nelson 1987). Child fostering is known to sustain large families (Isiugo-Abanihe 1994; Anonymous 1987), and it is therefore not surprising that, with a drop in child fostering, the national total fertility rate fell from 7.7 per woman in 1984 to 4.7 in 1998. However, it is important to note that the reduction in the national total fertility rate is not the sole achievement of the reduction in child fostering but is the result of many factors, with contraception taking the leading role. Evidence suggests fostering is being weakened by social and economic changes and the availability of alternate childcare options. Kenya's constitution calls for the state provision of care and protection of abused or neglected children, and the courts choose foster parents (Umbima 1991). Although well-defined regulations are in place to govern this process, Kenya does not have the resources to put them into effect. Furthermore, with an average of four children, Kenyan families have limited economic ability to take in foster children. One result seems to be that Kenya is experiencing an upsurge in the numbers of street children in urban centers. A report by the Kenyan government and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimated the national figure of children in need of special protection (CNSP) in Kenya at 300,000 (GOK/UNICEF, 1998).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsKenya - The Concept Of Marriage And Family, The Extended Family, The Nonextended Family, Polygyny - Conclusion