Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Kinship Terms and Family Politics


by

Obododimma Oha

A sister in-law once tried to help in making my children's efforts at learning the English language in a non-native context more difficult when she insisted that they address her as "Big Mama" and not as "Auntie." My children had been taught at school that one's mother's sister is one's "aunt." Their school books had also told them that. They, therefore, could not understand how their mother's elder sister could become their "Big Mama" or "Big Mother." Surely she was their aunt, and not their grandmother, or mother's mother, which, in the local Igbo cultural semiotics would simply become "Big Mama." My sister in-law obviously wanted to use kinship terms in consolidating her power and influence in the extended family relationship. But I did not want to tell the children this so that they would not begin to form negative ideas about her. I simply told them that she was their auntie but that they should address her as she wanted them to. A cultural obligation to encode respect in the choice and use of kinship term is thus sometimes hijacked for other reasons in the Outer Circle of English such as Nigeria.

This family politics in the use of kinship terms indeed connects with cultural notions of respect in the Nigerian context. In this case, what is appropriate in Standard English is considered wrong in the cultural representations of roles and power differences. One’s auntie can only be addressed by this term if she does not perceive that the same is not used in addressing another auntie who has lower status in the family. To avoid this conflict in the delineation of power differences, the speaker has to add some other tag that adequately redresses the problem of leveling. One shouldn’t level aunties and uncles: more elderly aunties and uncles, or richer ones, need a verbal reassurance of the recognition of their superiority. If I have two aunties called Monica and Martina, it is culturally considered disrespectful for me to address them by their first names.

My nieces and nephews would not want to address me as “uncle” even when they know that I am their uncle. They would rather call me “broda” as a way of inscribing the notion of closer relationship. To call me “uncle” is to recognize a twice-removed relationship which would not favour them materially or in some other ways. The underlying idea is that a “broda” has obligations to the niece or nephew, which an uncle may be unwilling to recognize. Thus, the strategy in the use of “broda” to represent “uncle” is the minimizing of distance. The same is applicable to the use of the term “sista” to replace “auntie” in some cases. A maximizing of distance is considered inimical to African extended family relationship feelings.

One’s elder sister is also addressed as “sista” (usually articulated with a stress on the final syllable – “sisTA”). As in the case of the use of “broda,” “sista” suggests respect, apart from marking the addressee’s femaleness. In the Igbo setting, one’s elder brother is addressed as “Dee” (or “deede”) and one’s elder sister as “Daada.” These could be used separately or attached to the first names of the addressees (as in “Deede John” and “Dada Monica”). Sometimes, though, “Deede” is used in addressing both male and female elderly relatives. Being addressed as “Deede” or “Daada” has an underlying appeal to affection, protection, and solidarity feelings.

Interestingly, Igbo “Deedeness” and “Daadaness” extend beyond the nuclear family. One’s uncles, aunts, cousins, and other distant relatives are also addressed as “Deede” and “Daada,” the bond of relationship thus cemented through the form of address. To delete such address tags and address the referents by their full names is an indication that something has gone wrong in the relationship. In other words, as relationships suffer, the address forms also reflect such changes. The address tag becomes a signifier, indeed the symptom of a troubled community or family relationship. One finds that the design of addressing such relatives hitherto referred to Deede and Daada without such tags is intended to suggest to the referents that the addresser no longer cares about such intimacy and relationship; in that case, to give them some emotional blows intended to sadden and annoy. Implicitly, the repair of an ailing (extended) family relationship also involves or requires a repair of the verbal machinery of intimacy that has broken down.

As a child growing up in a rural Igbo community, I realized that Deede and Daada as signs that addressed kinship were losing out to English-based kinship terms like SisTA and BroDA. These English-based terms came as signs of modernity and so they appealed to the local people more than their Deede and Daada, which were associated with backwardness. The modernity of Englishness, which, it is assumed in postcolonial Nigeria, invests one with integrity and superiority, has, however, suffered corruption in terms of the subversion of the meanings originally conveyed in English expressions.

Educated Igbo persons may sometimes find themselves in an awkward situation whereby they have to suppress their objection to wrong expressions and ideas that feature in the discourses of their poorly educated superiors in the family and social groups. To openly correct those errors would be seen as arrogant and disrespectful. It could also mean that one would have to spend all of one’s time correcting and teaching an unwilling or difficult “pupil.” The least problem one would like to have is an enemy in the household or extended family. One becomes a coward in order to retain ties, even when these ties are cleverly reconstructed with signs of power or sustained by the powers of signs. It looks, though, like a betrayal of one’s learning that one would be presented with an error, but would not have the courage to correct it for the sake of politeness! And so, ignorance keeps winning. Ignorance keeps ruling and there seems to be little one could do about it.

Family ties are meant to be strengthened by signs that encode them. Where signs that encode family ties have become slippery, why would one not trip and fall in trying to grasp the meanings of our values and pursuits?

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