April, 2016: BROTHERS/SISTERS
During the Nigerian civil war the Biafran fighters were sometimes entertained by a theatrical entertainment group. A favorite of mine among their repertoire was a skit about relatives. One man was trying to explain to another the actual relationship between him and his “brother” who was visiting from his hometown.
Mr. A: “His mother’s uncle’s wife is my sister’s mom.”
Mr. B: “Whew! I think I get the picture.
Well, if that Rube-Goldberg explanation of relationship gets you scratching your head you can understand why most African languages dispense with cousins and nephews and uncles, and just call everybody “brother” or “sister.” Apart from the fact that, if you succeed in life, everyone wants to claim kinship with you, there is the practical fact that African languages were largely unwritten until recent times, and hence the need to keep things (especially the vocabulary) simple.
There’s also the fact that, as we’ve seen under the blog post on concubinage, all children of a married woman are decreed by custom to be the children of her husband and therefore brothers and sisters regardless of whose genes (or “blood”) they actually bear. The custom is so strong that I was once assessed a fine of a bottle fine Scottish whiskey at a gathering in my home town where I mentioned my “half-brother.” Though they all knew that that brother was dear to me, the prefix of “half” was considered inappropriate, as it seemed to imply “counterfeit.”
So I envy my children and grandchildren, born and/or raised in the USA, who prattle on about their “second cousin thrice removed,” and I wonder at what remove they cease to be cousins! When do they become what Americans jokingly call “kissing cousins”? And I keep reminding myself that my grand uncle is the uncle of my father and not the father of my uncle! For me anything beyond “brother” and “sister” (well, maybe I should say anything beyond “first cousin”) is a stretch.
Post Script (04/10/2016)
Upon reflection, I realize it is not quite correct to say Igbos lack a concept of half-sibling. We have that concept, and it sometimes seems to go further than the corresponding concept in English! Today a friend of mine called and, hearing his voice, I hailed him “Nwa nnam!” It means “child of my father” and is the affectionate term by which we address each other. The other half of that term is “Nwa nnem” or “child of my mother.” (BTW the “m” at the end just turns the noun into the possessive case (so nwa nnam is ” child of MY father); likewise “nwa nnem.”) But, and here’s the complication, “Nwanna” is both male and female (so that nwa nnam is the male or female child of my father.)
However, those deep distinctions are not often employed, except when intended as a term of endearment. The practice of polygamy and concubinage made us wary of the negative distinction implied by “half brother” and “half sister.”